"Part of my life is saving life. I don't consider myself a politician or a hero. I'm a messenger. If Cambodia is to survive, she needs many voices."
Dith Pran was born Sept. 27, 1942 in Angkor Wath
. Angkor Wath is famous for its ancient temples
, and Pran worked in the tourist
industry for a number of years. Political unrest
in Cambodia was growing, however, and in 1970 the government of Prince Sihanouk
was overthrown by General Lon Nol
in a coup d'état
. The unstable
political situation was further complicated by the ongoing conflict
between North Vietnam
and the United States
, which eventually spilled across the borders into Cambodia. Soon, the fighting between rival factions
had become open civil war
, and spread throughout the country.
Given the fact that tourism seldom flourishes in war-torn countries, it is not surprising that Dith Pran needed to find a new occupation. He found work as a war correspondent, and began working with American journalist Sydney Schanberg in 1972. The two worked together until 1975, covering the civil war from Phnom Penh. In April of that year, when it became obvious that the Communist forces of the Khmer Rouge would take Phnom Penh, all foreigners and their Cambodian dependents were evacuated from the country. Pran's wife and children were evacuated with the foreigners, but he and Schanberg decided to stay and cover the fall of the capital. This decision proved to be the turning point in Dith Pran's life.
Shortly after the Khmer Rouge forces marched into Phnom Penh, Pran, Schanberg, and two other journalists, American Al Rockoff and Englishman Jon Swain, were arrested. Westerners (especially Americans) not being terribly popular to the Communist Khmer Rouge, Schanberg, Rockoff, and Swain were on the point of being summarily executed when Pran fast-talked the troops out of it by claiming that the three were French journalists who were in Phnom Penh to cover the Khmer Rouge's glorious victory. The troops released all four journalists, who promptly took refuge in the French embassy. Schanberg, Rockoff, and Swain were expelled from Cambodia shortly afterward, along with all other foreigners who had not already evacuated. Pran, as a Cambodian, was forced to leave the protection of the French embassy and stay in Cambodia.
Under the new Khmer Rouge regime, all Cambodians were to participate in a rural, ideal communist lifestyle. All civil servants, police, and military officers were executed, and all city-dwellers were forcibly relocated to the forced-labor camps in the country. Because of their rural location and extreme brutality, these camps became known as "the killing fields". Dith Pran was interred in one of these camps, where he spent the next four years suffering starvation and a torturous political "re-education".
Although Schanberg had been working frantically from the United States to locate and free his friend, it was Pran himself who escaped from the camp in 1979 and fled across the border to Thailand. Schanberg immediately flew to Thailand to meet with Pran. In 1980, Schanberg published memoirs entitled The Death and Life of Dith Pran: A Story of Cambodia, which was later turned into the Academy Award-winning movie The Killing Fields.
After his escape from Cambodia, Pran emigrated to the United States where he was reunited with his wife and children. He became a photojournalist for the New York Times in 1980, and was appointed Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in 1985. He has testified several times before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and has been tireless in advocating awareness of the Cambodian genocide under the Khmer Rouge.
In addition to speaking at university and organization meetings across the world, Pran founded The Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project. This not-for-profit organization strives to spread awareness about the Cambodian genocide as well as educating people on the horrors of genocide in general. In 1997, Pran published Children of Cambodia's Killing Fields: Memoirs by Survivors, a compilation of the accounts of survivors who were children at the time of the genocide. Dith Pran's efforts have contributed to the passage of the Cambodian Genocide Justice Act by the U.S. Senate, and the simultaneous provision of $500,000 by the State Department to Yale University to fund the Cambodian Genocide Project.
"I'm a one-person crusade. I must speak for those who did not survive and for those who still suffer. Since coming to America, I have visited Cambodia three times to evaluate the ongoing Cambodian crisis. The problems Cambodia faces are not only political but also economical and social. The Khmer Rouge have brought Cambodia back to year zero and that's why I'm trying to bring the Khmer Rouge leaders to the World Court. Like one of my heroes, Elie Wiesel, who alerts the world to the horrors of the Jewish holocaust, I try to awaken the world to the holocaust of Cambodia, for all tragedies have universal implications."