Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Dith Pran 1942-2008 on the Cambodian Holocaust

In November of 1986 at Boston College, I heard Dith Pran relate his experiences in “the killing fields” of Cambodia under the radical communist Khmer Rouge (as if communist weren’t radical enough). Many are familiar with him as the photojournalist in the 1984 Roland Joffe film, The Killing Fields. He died Sunday in New Jersey of pancreatic cancer at age 65. This is what he told us that day.

The population of Cambodia was 7 million in 1970 when Cambodia entered the Vietnam War. The Khmer Rouge took power in 1975, and by 1978 when the Vietnamese toppled them they had killed 2-3 million Cambodians, one third of the country’s population. They did this for the good of humanity.

Dith became convinced that something was monstrously wrong when the Khmer Rouge began emptying the hospitals. They also emptied the cities, abolished all institutions, even money.

To establish a truly communist society and build a new humanity, everyone whom they did not kill had to become a peasant. Put simply, the people must work the land. To reach this goal they killed off the educated class. Wearing eye glasses was sufficient indication of one's corruption by education. If you were a high official, you and your whole family were killed. Lower officials were also killed, but not their families. People would tell the Khmer Rouges what they used to do as an occupation in the hope of getting their jobs back, but they were put to death unless they were unskilled. Teachers would admit to being so because they could not imagine a country without education. These were not killed right away, but sometimes a few years later. To save his own life, Dith pretended to be an illiterate taxi driver.

Generally, people’s imagination for evil fell far short of the plans the Khmer Rouges executed. Dith said it was as though they were from another planet. But of course they were not. They share the same human nature that we do. What restrains us? What civilizes us? Whatever it is, are we preserving it, or eroding it? This question gets scant attention in our universities. (Obviously, it is a central concern at The King’s College in New York City where I teach.)

The Khmer Rouges came in both male and female form, he said. Both were brutal. People had to pull both plough and wagon. Eighty year olds had to work. Everyone who ate had to work. There was no mercy. They killed children in front of their parents. Husbands and wives were tortured in front of each other. They separated husbands, wives and children. They buried the dead in wells (the only source of water), B-52 craters and trenches.

People played stupid. “The Khmer Rouges has many eyes.” If you said, “I miss coffee” or “I miss noodle soup,” you had an imperialist, capitalist mind. When they gave you your meager food ration and asked you, “Is that enough?,” you were sure to say, “yes.”

Dith said that The Killing Fields is a very accurate account of his experiences although the film is mild compared to what actually happened because American audiences can't stomach anything stronger. I require my Introduction to Politics students to see The Killing Fields (or one of a number of other films of that sort) in order to make them dramatically aware of the stakes that are involved in political life, the dimensions of evil that can proceed from the human heart, and thus how important it is for them to understand tyranny and liberty, wise and unwise political institutions, the importance of political culture and citizen character, the dimensions of God’s amazing common grace, and where we are and in what direction we are moving on the spectrum between the Founding and the killing fields.

Of course, this is just a glimpse at the horror. Sydney Schanberg, the New York Times journalist whose life he saved, wrote The Death and Life of Dith Pran (1980). Dith himself wrote Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs By Survivors (Yale, 1999). Haing Ngor, a Cambodian doctor with no acting experience who played Dith in The Killing Fields, wrote Survival in the Killing Fields (2003). You may also read Dith Pran's obituary in The New York Sun.

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