Monday, 5 May 2008

The Cambodian Holocaust

Independent Online
Sunday, May 04, 2008

Dith Pran, the Cambodian-born journalist whose enslavement and escape from the Khmer Rouge inspired the film The Killing Fields, died a couple of weeks ago at the age of 65.

Pran coined the term “Killing Fields” after seeing the remains of victims of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge regime.

He died at a hospital in New Jersey from pancreatic cancer, according to his former New York Times colleague, Sydney Schanberg.

They were in Cambodia in 1975 to report the fall of Phnom Penh to Khmer forces. Dith Pran was not allowed to leave, and had to endure four years of torture and starvation before escaping to Thailand.

In 1980, Mr Schanberg described his colleague’s ordeal in a magazine article, and later a book, called The Death and Life of Dith Pran.

It became the basis for the Oscar-winning Hollywood film, The Killing Fields. “Pran was a true reporter, a fighter for the truth and for his people,” Mr Schanberg told the Associated Press.

“When cancer struck, he fought for his life again. And he did it with the same Buddhist calm and courage and positive spirit that made my brother so special.”

Mr Dith himself coined the term “killing fields” to describe the horrifying scene he witnessed on his journey to freedom in Thailand.

The Khmer Rouge was the ruling party in Cambodia from 1975 to 1979, during which it was responsible for one of the worst mass killings of the 20th Century.

The regime claimed the lives of more than a million people - some estimates say up to 2.5 million perished.

Under the Marxist leader Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge tried to take Cambodia back to the Middle Ages, forcing millions of people from the cities to work on communal farms in the countryside.

But this dramatic attempt at social engineering had a terrible cost, and whole families died from execution, starvation, disease and overwork.

Pol Pot’s death in April 1998 heralded the end of the brutal career of a man responsible for overseeing one of the worst genocides of the 20th century.

Between 1975 and 1979 his regime claimed the lives of more than 1m people - through execution, starvation and disease - as the Khmer Rouge tried to turn Cambodia back to the middle ages.

For many survivors of that era, the joy of his demise will only be tempered with the regret that he was not called to account for his crimes against humanity.

The “people’s tribunal” at which his former colleagues sentenced him to life imprisonment last year was widely regarded as little more than a show trial.


Many precise details of Pol Pot’s life remain shrouded in mystery.

He is thought to have been about 72 when he died, although the exact date of his birth is not clear.

Born Saloth Sar - Pol Pot was a nom de guerre - the fledgling tyrant grew up in a relatively prosperous farming family in Kompong Thong province, the heartland of the then French protectorate.

One of his brothers, Saloth Neap, once described Pol Pot as a gentle and kind child. He added he had no idea what his sibling had become until he saw a poster of “Brother Number One” - Pol Pot’s title as leader of the Khmer Rouge - hung up at his work collective.

Having studied at a Buddhist monastery and a Roman Catholic school, he won a scholarship in 1949 to study radio electronics in Paris.

He eventually lost his scholarship and returned to Phnom Penh in 1953.

Pol Pot then scaled the ranks of the underground Cambodian Communist Party and became secretary-general in 1962.

His success was attributed to his ability to combine remarkable charm and grace with an unflinching ruthlessness.

Warped nationalism

In 1963, fearing persecution from Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s secret police, Pol Pot and several of his trusted right-hand men fled into the bush.

Based in remote northeastern Cambodia, he was influenced by the surrounding hill-tribes.

These “original Khmers” were self-sufficient in their communal living, had no use for money and were “untainted” by Buddhism.

From this base he waged war against the US-backed Cambodian government.

When he came to power in 1975, he quickly set about transforming the country into his vision of an agrarian utopia by emptying the cities, abolishing money, private property and religion and setting up rural collectives.

Pol Pot’s radical social experiment claimed the lives of countless Cambodians.

Anyone thought to be an intellectual of any sort was killed. Often people were condemned for wearing glasses or knowing a foreign language.

Back to the jungle

The Khmer Rouge government fell in 1979 when Vietnam invaded Cambodia after a series of violent border confrontations.

Pol Pot and his forces once again fled to the northern jungle as evidence of their atrocities was broadcast around the world.

But even though international audiences were horrified by the Hollywood movie about his rule, The Killing Fields, the Khmer Rouge enjoyed support from the United States and other Asian nations because of its opposition to America’s enemy Vietnam.

Pol Pot officially retired as leader of the Khmer Rouge at the end of the 1980s.

Following a bloody power struggle inside the Khmer Rouge he was arrested by his former colleagues in July 1997, and charged with treason.

After a “people’s tribunal” sentenced him to life under house arrest he gave an interview two months later in which he declared: “My conscience is clear”.

Dith worked as a photographer for The New York Times after his escape from the Khmer Rouge in 1979.

He also became a goodwill ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

Dith spoke and wrote often about his wartime experience and remained an outspoken critic of the Khmer Rouge regime.

The Killing Fields

The staggering story of the Cambodian Holocaust, and of the Pulitzer prize-winning journalist Sydney Schanberg and Dith Pran - who bear witness as the country is turned into one horrific, giant death camp.

Perhaps the most harrowing and visceral film of the 1980s, The Killing Fields is unstinting in its cinematic and, more broadly, political intelligence. Also it is an indictment of insensitive US foreign policy that contributed to one of the most terrible genocides of the 20th century.

American journalist Sydney Schanberg (Waterston) remains in Cambodia after the Communist Khmer Rough takeover, but must leave when the situation becomes too murderous. Tragically his aide and guide, Dith Pran (Ngor), is unable to escape, and is consigned to a Khmer Rouge death camp.

Schanberg desperately tries to trace Pran, while Pran knows he must escape the camp or meet the horrific end that befalls so many of his countrymen.

It’s a potent, enthralling story, always intelligently told, with a palpable sense of moral outrage permeating every frame. The horror of genocide is probably truly comprehensible only to the people who have survived it, but the images of Pran, literally up to his eyes in corpses, in his desperate bid to escape the killing fields is desperately affecting - and provides a palpable sense of real terror.

Without doubt one of the finest British films of the last 50 years.

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