Jim Weitz, Contributing Editor

Literary Tourism: 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: A mass murder of millions, that perhaps feels all the more real because it happened 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 eyes of the few survivors you pass in the streets middle-aged or older. We focus on it in order to understand it, and in understanding it, 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 subject to forced regulation. 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: 50% 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 itself had 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.

The Soccer Field, site of the US evacuation of Camboodia

Five years later, after having won a 1976 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting in Cambodia, Schanberg wrote a remarkable long-form journalism piece 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. 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.

Cambodia, 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:
James Weitz is a travel writer and author of Gonzo Global Inc., a satire of globalization in which Mexican tap water is exported to the United States and sold as a laxative. His writings have appeared in several journals including the Mekong Review, Pennyshorts and Red Savina Review. He has a Juris Doctor from the University of Minnesota and an MA in Applied Linguistics from Nottingham University. He has spent the last fifteen years living in Latin America and Asia but is originally from the United States. James Weitz is a Contributing Editor at O:JA&L specializing in literary tourism in Southeast Asia. Weitz also edits prose discourse (1,001-10,000 words) at this journal.

Image: The Death and life of Dith Pran, cover to the digital edition by Rosetta Books, available through Kindle on Amazon.

Image: The Killing Fields, 1984 motion picture poster with fact sheet on IMDb.

Images of Cambodia: Courtesy of Jim Weitz.