Who was Dith Pran?
Dith Pran was a Cambodian photojournalist; he was a survivor of the Cambodian Genocide who later emerged as a crusader for justice in Cambodia. Born into a middle-class family, he had the privilege of receiving school education, unlike most of Cambodians. After learning French and English, he started working as an interpreter with the United States military forces. In the middle of the war crisis during the early 1970s, he met Sydney Schanberg, a journalist with whom he struck a lifelong friendship. The two worked together and witnessed the horrors of the Cambodian government's war with the communist regime, Khmer Rouge. But these horrors were later eclipsed by much greater ones that followed when the Khmer Rouge came to power. Majority of foreign reporters were permitted to leave the country but he was held back by the troops of the new regime. He was taken as a prisoner, tortured, and put to work as a farm laborer, in starving conditions of slavery for four years. Later, he attained freedom but returned home only to learn that most of his family had died in the Khmer ‘killing fields’. Concerned about his well-being, he escaped to a refugee camp in Thailand and contacted Schanberg, who helped him in relocating to United States. He spent the rest of his life as a photojournalist, advocating justice for fellow Cambodians. His story has been portrayed in the 1984 Academy Award winning movie ‘The Killing Fields’
Childhood & Early Life
Dith Pran was born on September 27, 1942, in Siem Reap, Cambodia. His father, Dith Proeung, was a public-works official who supervised the building of roads. Dith Pran had two sisters and three brothers.
He grew up near the ruins of the vast complex of temples called Angkor Wat in Cambodia and although most of his country was poor, he grew up in a middle-class family which could afford his school education.
He attended local schools, where he learnt French. He also became fluent in English on his own, and finished his high school in 1960.
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Dith Pran started his career as an interpreter for The United States Army where he served for five years. But after Cambodian government’s ties with the United States were severed, he lost his job as a translator.
After that, he worked as a translator with a British film crew for a brief period and later served as a receptionist in a hotel near Angkor Wat.
In 1970, a war ensued between the forces of Lon Nol, the then President of Cambodia, and the Khmer Rouge, the Cambodian communist party. According to Khmer Rouge, the answer to Cambodia's problems was a return to subsistence farming and eradication of western influence on their culture.
Later, he moved his family to Phnom Penh and started working as a journalist. In 1972, he met Sydney Schanberg, a New York Times writer who became fascinated by the war in Cambodia. Eventually, the two became close friends and, by 1973, he started working exclusively with Schanberg.
As the war progressed, the Khmer Rouge emerged as a hardened and fanatical fighting force. Sensing that the victory of the Khmer Rouge was imminent, thousands of Cambodian people scrambled for any possible means of escape.
In 1975, he and Schanberg stayed behind in Cambodia to cover the fall of the capital Phnom Penh to the Khmer Rouge. Later, Schanberg and other foreign reporters were allowed to leave the country, but Dith Pran was detained.
Fearing harassment at the hands of Khmer Rouge officials, he hid the fact that he was educated and that he knew Americans. Instead, he dressed himself like a farmer and pretended to be a taxi driver.
As a result, he along with many others was forced to work in labor camps where he suffered four years of starvation and torture. The days in labor camps consisted of exhausting labor, while nights were filled with political brainwashing.
This horrible situation continued until the Vietnamese invaded Cambodia and overthrew the Khmer Rouge in December 1978. After that, he traveled back to Siem Reap only to discover that 50 members of his family had been killed.
The Vietnamese made him the village chief but fearing that soon they would discover his foreign connections and kill him, he fled to Thailand. There, he entered a refugee camp and contacted Schanberg, who later arranged for his relocation to America.
From 1980, he worked as a photojournalist with the New York Times and later became a U.S. citizen in 1986.
He devoted all of his later life to activities dedicated to his fellow Cambodians who had suffered under the Khmer Rouge. He founded and became the president of the ‘Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project’, campaigning for recognition of the Cambodian genocide victims.
Awards & Achievements
In 1998, he was awarded an ‘Ellis Island Medal of Honor’ and later received an ‘Award of Excellence of the International Center’.
Personal Life & Legacy
Dith Pran first married Ser Moeun Dith, with whom he had four children but the couple later divorced. Later, he got married to Kim DePaul but they also divorced.
He died of pancreatic cancer on March 30, 2008, in New Brunswick, New Jersey, at the age of 65.
The 1984 Academy Award-winning film ‘The Killing Fields’ is based on his life and experiences in Cambodia.