Sunday, April 6, 2008

Dith Pran - RIP

Dith Pran (left) with Sydney Schanberg
I've been away so didn't get a chance to acknowledge the sad passing of a brave man, Dith Pran. Someone who knew him very well is reporter Jon Swain, who wrote the following article in today's Sunday Times in the UK. The world will miss a man of Dith Pran's calibre.

Jon Swain
was about to be shot by the Khmer Rouge when Dith Pran intervened. The Sunday Times war reporter pays tribute to the courage of his friend, who died last week

Four years after his enslavement by the Khmer Rouge, an intrepid Cambodian stumbled out of the thickly wooded jungle to freedom. His legs were wobbly. He was weak with malaria. His front teeth were broken. His face was gaunt. He was incredibly thin – but he still retained his lopsided grin. That grin was still in place – although fading – in the weeks before Dith Pran died last Sunday in a hospital in America, his adopted home, from pancreatic cancer. He was 65. Although wan and thin, he moved on gracefully, loved and mourned by all whose lives he had touched. “This is my path and I must go where it takes me,” he said shortly before the end.

Pran’s harrowing personal tale of enslavement and escape from the Khmer Rouge in 1979 had eventually become the subject of the Oscar-winning film The Killing Fields, directed by Roland Joffé, which focused global attention on one of history’s worst genocides. Pran was justly famous. Were it not for this former tourist guide to the fabled Angkor temples, who later became interpreter and assistant to Sydney Schanberg, a reporter for The New York Times, in Cambodia, the world’s eyes would probably not have been opened to the monstrous atrocities committed by the Khmer Rouge in his native land. In its rush to forge a new society, 2m people died in executions or from starvation, disease and overwork – nearly a third of the population. However, Pran did more. After his escape he moved to America, where he worked as a photographer for The New York Times and spent the rest of his life speaking out about what his countrymen had been through. He also pushed for war crimes trials for the Khmer Rouge leaders – trials that are finally due to begin this year in Phnom Penh, the Cambodian capital. Pran, alas, will never see them. “I am a one-person crusade,” he once said. “I must speak for those who did not survive and those who still suffer.”

I owe this honourable Cambodian a debt of gratitude that I can never erase. He saved my life when I was captured by the Khmer Rouge. At the time the Cambodian war was a sideshow to the war raging next door in Vietnam and some aspects of it seemed comic. Before sallying forth every morning into the countryside to witness the fighting, we reporters would meet at the Groaning Table – an open-air cafe – for a military briefing from a charming colonel called Am Rong, whose unfortunate name was a butt of endless jokes. His military communiqués, I remember, were invariably nonsense. The seductive wartime capital, with its brothels and opium parlours, encouraged all kinds of indiscretions and we conducted our lives as though we were characters in a Graham Greene novel; or we liked to imagine that we did.

However, the war was deadly serious. So we also took insane risks and witnessed and reported on some of the most appalling human suffering that I have seen. In the process more than 20 of the tiny foreign press corps of about 60 were killed in a matter of months by the Khmer Rouge, who never took prisoners. And many more Cambodian journalists also died. We loved the Cambodians, who had a disarming insouciance in the face of danger. The difference between us and the band of local journalists we hired to interpret the language, politics and culture was that they were seeing and reporting on their own country being destroyed. We, on the other hand, were reporting from the privileged position of visitors who could always bail out. For them, there could be nowhere else to go: they and their loved ones were trapped by the war and their survival was dependent on the outcome.

It was Pran who was the unacknowledged dean of this Cambodian press corps, not because of the status that his job with the venerable New York Times gave him, but because he was so unusually acute and resourceful and had unassailable integrity. The horrors of the war had made morality a luxury that many of his fellow countrymen had long since discarded. Yet, unlike so many of the politicians and generals for whom survival and money were the ultimate objectives, Pran remained faithful to his principles. He believed passionately that the story of the destruction of his beautiful homeland needed to be told. And to that end he risked his life time after time.

I first met Pran in 1972. Although his loyalty was always to Schanberg, he was ready to give help and advice to me and all the other journalists. Never more so than on April 17, 1975 – the day of the fall of Phnom Penh. On that same day Schanberg, Al Rockoff, an American photographer, and I were captured by the Khmer Rouge. A squad of teenage soldiers with hate-filled eyes forced us into a captured armoured personnel carrier (APC). Pran, realising we were going to be executed, selflessly argued to be allowed to join us inside, knowing full well that without his communication skills we were doomed. It is this story that is told in The Killing Fields. And it was Dith Pran himself, by the way, who coined the phrase “killing fields” after seeing the grim piles of corpses and skeletal remains on his desperate trek to freedom. That was in the future. Back when Pran volunteered himself as a prisoner, there seemed little hope of escape for any of us. First we were taken to the banks of the Mekong river; then the rear door of the APC opened and a pair of Khmer Rouge soldiers, pointing rifles, beckoned us out. We knew they were going to shoot us. Pran got out first and began to talk softly and firmly, as he always did. He told the Khmer Rouge that we were neutral journalists who had come to report on their historic “liberation”; and, after a while, our would-be killers began to calm down. The tension suddenly evaporated and we were freed.

A few days later we tried to doctor one of my two British passports for Pran so that he could be evacuated with us to Thailand as a foreigner – but we failed. The Khmer Rouge forced him to go into the countryside – by now becoming a giant labour camp – where he somehow survived torture, starvation and a life of unremitting hard toil. When he emerged four years later, 50 members of his family had perished. Mercifully, Schanberg had evacuated Pran’s wife, Ser Moeun, and his four beloved children before Phnom Penh fell and they were safely in America. The first I knew of his freedom was when I received a telegram from Schanberg, who had been tortured by guilt about Pran’s disappearance and had led his own one-man crusade to trace his helper and friend. The telegram included a personal message from Pran, patterned on a Cambodian proverb: “Hi Jon. The world is round. Now I meet you again. Pran was in bad shape, but the life is remained. Love Pran.” I still have it. In subsequent years I saw him several times back in Cambodia.

It is a place that takes over the soul, and those who have known it at its worst are irresistibly drawn back. We revisited old spots – including, once, the place on the riverbank where, blinking in the sunlight, we had stood facing the rifles of the Khmer Rouge peasant boys, waiting for the volley of shots that would kill us. The slight man I had known had put on weight; he had adopted American food and habits and had a New Jersey twang. Beneath all that he was still the same Pran: warm and attentive, with that peculiarly Cambodian joie de vivre and a mischievous sense of humour. His business card announced simply: “Dith Pran – photographer”. On the other side, however, it listed information about how the Khmer Rouge had ruined his beloved homeland. Using his survival as a tool against injustice and genocide, he became a good-will ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, founded a holocaust awareness project and compiled a book of children’s accounts of growing up under the Khmer Rouge.

It is given to few journalists to make a real difference to people’s lives. Once safe in America, Pran could have retreated into the background. Countless Cambodians did. But he saw it as his duty to stop the memory of what had happened to his country fading away. That and his courage and loyalty are what made Pran magnificent. Latterly, friends said, he had become disappointed with the way Cambodia was becoming rotten again with corruption and cruelty. His marriage to Ser Moeun had broken up and another marriage had failed. Despite personal setbacks, he bore his public role gracefully. Right to the end he always thought there was more that he could do, according to Schanberg, who spent many days attending to his dying friend. “Pran was a true reporter – a fighter for the truth and for his people,” Schanberg said. “When the cancer struck, he fought for his life again. And he did it with the same Buddhist calm and courage and positive spirit that made [him] so special.” Having been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer too late for much hope of survival, Pran urged others to undergo early testing. “I want to save lives, including my own,” he said. He had triumphed over the Khmer Rouge and outlived their leader, Pol Pot, who had turned Cambodia into a madhouse. But Pran knew deep down that the battle against cancer was one he could not win. “Cambodians believe we just rent this body,” he said not long before he died. “It is just a house for the spirit; and if the house is full of termites, it is time to leave.”


Anonymous Anonymous said...

We've heard from Sidney Schanberg about the US bombing of Cambodia only when the B52s hit the "wrong" village (Neak Leang). He'd been in Cambodia for a long time before this "unfortunate incident" took place, but if you review his whole reporting at the time, you won't find a single interview with any refugees from the massive and brutal bombing campaign the US had been secretly waging in the country for years up to then.
The real subject of "Killing Fields" is the sideshow... of mauvaise conscience. And the scene set at the toilette of the convention center hosting the Pulitzer Prize-awarding ceremony, when the photographer confronts Schanberg, speaks it all. - Sam Son

April 7, 2008 9:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is not quite correct, and originates from Chomsky and Herman's "Manufacturing Consent". For a different and more balanced view of the role of the press at the time - especially, the risks involving coverage of the war from the KR's dominated area - I recommend Bruce Sharp's analysis at the Mekong Net, particularly, the section "Apples, Oranges and Myopia":
-- Anders

April 7, 2008 11:34 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is an old argument, Mr. Anders, and I don't think it worth replaying. I just refer you to an article posted by the Taipei Times on Al Rockoff, on whom was based the character of the photographer magnificently played by John Malkovich in 'The Killing Fields', where you can read, among other things, these:
"(...)Rockoff remains incensed by the movie's representation of Schanberg as a concerned, sensitive individual who agonized over the fate of his Cambodian interpreter, Dith Pran.
'Schanberg is a coward who put other people's lives in danger,' Rockoff barked angrily. 'He used and abused Dith Pran and personally tried to have me thrown out of the safety of the French Embassy in April 1975.'
Rockoff is most aggrieved at one of the scenes most emotional moments: when a photograph that Malkovich as Rockoff has taken of Dith Pran for a false passport is spoiled by a chemical reaction.
According to Rockoff and others who were present, the scene is completely fictional.
'It never happened,' Rockoff said. 'That movie blames and slanders me.'
(...) 'A lot of people don't even remember what the war [in Cambodia] was all about, and specifically the role of the [1970] American invasion in what eventually happened here,' he said grimly. 'The blood debt that America owes Cambodia is a big one.'" - Sam Son

April 8, 2008 12:12 PM  

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