On the morning of April 12, 1975, Dith Pran bundled his wife, daughter and three sons onto a US Army truck that took them out the back gate of the US Embassy in Phnom Penh to a waiting Marine Corps helicopter. They flew to the USS Okinawa in the Gulf of Thailand and sailed away as Cambodia tottered on the brink of collapse to Khmer Rouge communist forces.
Later that day, as rockets rained down on the besieged capital, Dith Pran, who worked with The New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg and other foreign reporters remaining in Phnom Penh, ran into Major Khieu San, a familiar contact at the G2 intelligence office at the Lon Nol military’s high command.
“I asked him [Dith Pran], ‘Why didn’t you go?’” Khieu San, now a Funcinpec member of Parliament for Kandal province, recounted Monday.
But Dith Pran’s fateful decision to stay behind on that day, and the story of his four-year enslavement by the Khmer Rouge, would ultimately propel him to global fame as a symbol of Cambodia’s descent into hell during the Pol Pot years. The suffering Dith Pran endured working in Siem Reap province rice paddies, and his eventual escape to Thailand in 1979 harrowed audiences around the world in the 1984 Academy Award-winning film “The Killing Fields.”
According to Khieu San, Dith Pran stayed behind because he hoped the surrender of the Lon Nol government would bring relief and that the return of Prince Norodom Sihanouk, ousted five years earlier in a coup, would mean the defeated population was safe.
“He had confidence in Preah Sihanouk,” said Khieu San, who learned Monday that Dith Pran, 65, had succumbed to cancer in the US over the weekend.
“I pray to God for my feelings for him,” Khieu San said.
Dith Pran’s story was “instrumental to the recognition of the Cambodian tragedy by the world,” Chhang Song, minister of information for the Khmer Republic, said Monday by telephone from Long Beach, California.
In 1973, Dith Pran helped Schanberg expose the US Air Force’s mistaken attack on the Prey Veng province town of Neak Leung, a third of which was destroyed when a B-52 dropped its 20-ton payload, killing at least 137 people and wounding 268.
Schanberg also wrote an article in 1974 highly critical of the Lon Nol regime, which Chhang Song said was quoted at length in a bid to strip the military government in Phnom Penh of its seat at the UN, infuriating Prime Minister Long Boret, who wanted the reporter expelled.
“I was ordered by the prime minister to kick [Schanberg] out of the country and I did not,” Chhang Song said.
“I think the country was in great difficulty, and if the Khmer Rouge came in, there wouldn’t be anybody to tell the story,” Chhang Song said of his decision to allow Schanberg to remain in the country.
“Sydney put a lot of pressure on [Pran] because he was a very aggressive reporter. He wanted the story, and Pran always got it for him,” Chhang Song added.
Schanberg would later insist on sharing his 1976 Pulitzer Prize for his reporting on the fall of Phnom Penh with Dith Pran.
However, the film of their relationship achieved even greater renown, making the term “Killing Fields” inseparable from the Khmer Rouge regime and helping Cambodia to emerge from its international isolation.
“It was very helpful,” said Entero Chey, a jurist at the Council of Ministers who played a taxi driver in the film and whose wife, Katherine Krapum Chey, played Dith Pran’s wife.
“Without ‘The Killing Fields,’ the world might not have known about Cambodia’s suffering…. That’s why I was very lucky to be part of that film,” he said.
In 1985, Dith Pran was named a goodwill ambassador for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and met US President Ronald Reagan, who he said seemed “very sympathetic” to the problems of Cambodian refugees on the Thai border.
Khieu Seng Kim, who edited the newspaper Koh Santepheap Daily from 1960 until Phnom Penh fell in 1975 and whose elder brother, former Khmer Rouge head of state Khieu Samphan, is under investigation for war crimes and crimes against humanity, said Monday that he had not known Dith Pran, but appreciated the film for accurately portraying the regime.
Khieu San said he first met Dith Pran in April 1970, when the latter interviewed him as he was leading a demonstration at the Independence Monument against the republican coup of a month earlier.
When Khieu San later went to work for the Khmer Republic, Dith Pran became a frequent visitor after the regular Thursday news conferences at military high command.
He pressed Khieu San for information about both enemy and republic troop movements and about the military’s hapless Chenla offensives.
“I told him the truth. He contacted me all the time,” Khieu San said. “The last time I met him was in 1991 at a celebration for Khmer New Year at the Cambodian Embassy in Washington DC,” he said.
In a statement Monday, the Club of Cambodian Journalists noted Dith Pran’s passing.
“I am sorry to lose him. The loss of Dith Pran is a loss for the community of journalists,” Pen Samithi, the club’s president and editor of Rasmei Kampuchea Daily, said Monday.