Jim Weitz, Contributing Editor
Phnom Penh and The Death and Life of Dith Pran
Cambodia is a beautiful country with friendly people, a fascinating history, and dishes full of exotic flavors. There are wonderful things to see and do here, like visit the 12th century Angkor Wat temple complex during the sunrise, bicycle through the lush green countryside, take a Mekong River boat tour, sign up for a local cooking class, or receive a blessing from a Buddhist monk.
But these attractions and delights stand in stark contrast to the chilling events that occurred in the country from 1975 to 1979 in the aftermath of the Cambodian Civil War– including the mass murder of millions– that perhaps feel all the more real because it took place in the modern age and not in the pages of some ancient war of legend or admonitory religious text. It happened in our world on our watch, and you can almost see it in the faces of the few survivors, middle-aged or older, whom you pass in the streets. We focus on it in order to understand it, and in understanding it, we hope to have the knowledge and determination to prevent its demons from visiting us yet again.
By geographic measure, the communist genocide in Cambodia probably had the highest death toll of any 20th century mass killing within the territory of a single nation, taking 25% of its population, or an estimated 1.7-3 million souls. In maniacal pursuit of communism’s quest for equality, alienated intellectuals, subscribing to blank slate ideological dogma, oversaw the forced evacuation of Cambodia’s cities and ordered the slaughter of most of its educated and professional citizenry, all in an effort to achieve a classless agrarian utopia. In rural labor camps set up around the country, expressions of individuality and possession of private property were punished with beatings and death. All aspects of social behavior, from marriage to community life, were regulated. In the mass upheaval from city to countryside, tens or perhaps hundreds of thousands simply starved to death. An overlapping cause of death was ethnic cleansing, contributing to perhaps 15-20% of the death toll: 650% of ethnic Chinese (no protest from neighboring communist China); 100% of Vietnamese-Cambodians (during an ongoing war with Vietnam); 50% of Muslim Cham; and 40% of Cambodian Lao and Thai.
As early as 1973, the American embassy became aware of Khmer Rouge atrocities and observed that they had “much in common with those of totalitarian regimes in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union.” In March of 1975, President Ford, seeking additional funding for military aid to Cambodia, warned of a “massacre” and “an unbelievable horror story” that would follow a Khmer Rouge takeover of the capital of 2 million. But after years of U.S. government lies about an increasingly unpopular military intervention in Vietnam, some of which may have inadvertently contributed to the rise of the Khmer Rouge, most people either ignored or did not believe the warning.
Sydney Schanberg was a New York Times reporter stationed in Phnom Penh who was one of those who disregarded Ford’s words, choosing not to leave the city on April 12, the day the U.S. embassy evacuated. He did arrange for his Cambodian interpreter, friend and assistant, Dith Pran, along with Dith’s family, to be included on the list of evacuees. Dith saw off his family but also decided to stay behind to help Schanberg continue his reporting.
Those were bad decisions. Soon after Phnom Penh fell, Schanberg, Dith and other reporters found themselves in the back of a Khmer Rouge armored personnel carrier, facing a serious threat of execution. Over the course of two or three hours, Dith Pran managed to convince their Khmer Rouge captors that Schanberg and the others were French journalists. Thanks to Dith’s able manipulations, all of them, including Dith, eventually made it to the safety of the French embassy. (Incredibly, though, not before paying a visit to the Information Ministry to try for some last-minute interviews with former government cabinet ministers and generals, already under KR custody.) But the Khmer Rouge soon insisted that all Cambodians leave the French embassy grounds, and, despite great efforts, those whose lives Dith had saved were unable to prevent him and their other Cambodian friends from being turned out on the street.
Five years later, after having won a 1976 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Cambodia, Schanberg wrote a remarkable long-form journalism article based on this experience called The Death and Life of Dith Pran, now a short book. It details the above events and the subsequent anxiety, shame, and guilt that he and Dith’s wife endured over the next four and a half years of searching for any word of his fate.
During that time, Schanberg often contacted international relief organizations and government agencies. What little information he was able to gather indicated that conditions inside Cambodia were quite bad. Though it was difficult to gauge the exact nature and extent of the crisis at the time, a refugee aid worker replied to one of Schanberg’s letters with the following: “Everyone who [has come] out of Cambodia has gone through a period of almost psychotic depression at what has happened.”
Dith Pran’s experience was itself, extraordinary. Without giving away much, at one point Dith became, in effect, mayor of Siem Reap, where he managed to pass himself off as a committed communist. Siem Reap is the second largest city in Cambodia and is where the world famous 12th century Angkor Wat temple complex is located. Tuk-tuk drivers can be hired for the day to take you from temple to temple, and audio guides are available for the main temple. People often take between three to five days to visit all the structures, many of which are still being restored and reclaimed from the jungle.
The Death and Life of Dith Pran was made into a 1984 movie called The Killing Fields, shot in Thailand. Schanberg’s short book is better, but the film is not bad and was nominated at the Academy Awards for seven Oscars, winning in three categories: best supporting actor; cinematography; and film editing. It is interesting to see actors like John Malkovich, Spalding Grey, and Julian Sands in some of their earliest screen roles, as well as Dr. Haing Somnang Ngor, an actual survivor of the Khmer Rouge labor camps, who won best supporting actor in a debut acting role that mirrored his actual experience.
There are a number of books, both fiction and non-fiction, that document and describe what happened. Many are authored by child survivors writing as adults. They include: In the Shadow of the Banyan; Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors; and perhaps most famously First They Killed My Father, on which the 2017 film directed and co-written by Angelina Jolie is based. While all valuable contributions, some readers find such books a bit contrived or lacking a full adult perspective. The Death and Life of Dith Pran is not hindered in this way.
When in Phnom Penh, Schanberg stayed at the Hotel le Phnom, now a very luxurious hotel called the Hotel le Royal. This is also where the Red Cross tried to establish an international protected zone. It was built in the 1920’s, and restored in the 1990’s, with French colonial and Khmer architectural styles. The building that housed the U.S. embassy is now also a luxury hotel, called the White Mansion.
There are a few places around Phnom Penh that provide information about the genocide, most notably, the S-21 Prison Complex and Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum. There is also a killing field nearby. Local agencies sell half-day tours for those who want a closer understanding.
About the writer:
Jim Weitz is a satirist and author of the novel Gonzo Global Inc., a satire of globalization in which Mexican tap water is exported to the United States and sold as a laxative. He has lived in Asia and Latin America for most of the last 15 years. During that time, he has worked as a technical editor and taught ESL, composition and law at schools and universities in Latin America, China and Taiwan. Previously, he worked on anti-corruption issues at the Organization of American States and in privatization at the World Bank. His stories have appeared in the journals Red Savina Review and Pennyshorts. Jim Weitz has an MA in Applied Linguistics with a focus on cross-cultural communication from Nottingham University and a Juris Doctor from the University of Minnesota. Weitz is an O:JA&L Fiction Editor, working with submissions from 1001-10,000 words, where he also contributes articles on Literary Tourism associated with the Western Pacific region and Mexico.
Image: The Death and Life of Dith Pran via Amazon.
Image: The Killing Fields via Amazon.
Image: “The White Palace,” courtesy Jim Weitz.