Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Seeking Peace for Cambodia. SURVIVOR OF `THE KILLING FIELDS'

`YOU get it?'' Dith Pran poses the question often, in three staccato syllables. Intense. To the point. No nonsense. It is vital that you get it - his message. His life is dedicated to your getting it: From 1975 to 1979 he lived through Cambodia's killing fields to bring it to you.

Dith Pran worked as an assistant to New York Times reporter Sydney Schanberg in Cambodia in the early 1970s. Mr. Schanberg left the country in 1974 when Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge began its extermination of about 3 million of Cambodia's 7 million people. Finally, in 1979, Dith Pran made his way painfully, step by step, to the Thai border and freedom. Now a staff photographer for the Times, he's also on a personal crusade to tell the story of Cambodia's holocaust.

About these ads

``Grasshoppers, rats, mice, snakes, leaves - when you're hungry, everything is very delicious,'' he says. He lost most of his family and half of his village to the Khmer Rouge. You get it?

Dith Pran's message is the same, whether it's delivered to a college crowd, to an AT&T gathering, to the United States Coast Guard: ``I want the Vietnamese to not stay and the Khmer Rouge never to return.'' He crisply punctuates the air with his left hand as he says ``Vietnamese,'' ``stay,'' ``never,'' and ``return.''

At a recent talk at Wellesley College a few hundred people - mostly students and faculty members - fill the auditorium to overflowing. His diminutive, wiry presence engulfs the stage.

He is preaching to the converted. Most of his audiences are like that. They have seen the 1984 movie ``The Killing Fields,'' or read Schanberg's book, ``The Death and Life of Dith Pran,'' which chronicles Pran's journey from Cambodia to the United States.

But it's not enough that his converts listen. He tells them to become involved, to write their members of Congress and President.

He addresses about 40 audiences a year. Increasingly, he warns them that a new, but smaller, Cambodian holocaust could occur once the Vietnamese pull out their troops at the end of September.

``Another holocaust is possible, but it can't be as big, because newspapers will follow it. America can't remain silent this time. American politicians can't remain silent. They know America has the power to stop the killings. You get it?''

About these ads

Dith Pran, in a private conversation, says he favors a Cambodian government under the leadership of Son Sann, prime minister of the coalition government of Kampuchea (Cambodia). He hopes Hanoi's ally in Phnom Penh, Prime Minister Hun Sen, and the Cambodian opposition leader, Prince Norodom Sihanouk, will one day have to publicly explain their involvement with the Khmer Rouge.

Last month, on the 14th anniversary of the Khmer Rouge capture of Phnom Penh, more than 1,000 Cambodian survivors of the Pol Pot genocide, now in exile, appealed in a letter to Cambodian political leaders to adopt human rights treaties and monitoring as part of the ongoing peace negotiations for Cambodia.

Prince Sihanouk and Hun Sen met the first week of May in Jakarta in an effort to end Cambodia's civil war and unify the country. At these meetings, the People's Republic of Kampuchea changed its name back to Cambodia, restored its precommunist flag, and changed its constitution.

Dith Pran says he views such symbolic progress ``optimistically, but with caution.'' He says he has no hatred toward the Khmer Rouge. ``You must remove the hatred of the party. I wouldn't mind recruiting new Khmer Rouge leaders, but I don't want to accept the former leaders with blood on their hands. We must eliminate the leadership of the Khmer Rouge. They have not changed, even a little. I still see them as devils.''

In meetings this week, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and Chinese counterpart Deng Xiaoping are exploring ways of bringing peace to Cambodia. Dith Pran hopes these talks can pressure China to stop supplying military aid to the Khmer Rouge - to prevent the Khmer Rouge Army from reasserting itself over Cambodia once Vietnam withdraws its 70,000 troops in September, ending a 10-year occupation.

``Everyone knows the Chinese violate human rights. That's my mission - to let people know about the Chinese,'' Dith Pran says.

But he quickly adds, ``I am not a politician, though. I am a survivor.

The Khmer Rouge ``turned Cambodia upside down and emptied the culture. They didn't allow people to wear shoes or colorful dress. They not only killed intellectuals, they killed children and senior citizens. ... They killed the blind and the crippled. Buddhist monks were killed, too. You get it?

``They seemed like from a different planet and tried to destroy all of us. They were completely crazy. I'm trying to embarrass the West to not go along with China [in aiding the Khmer Rouge]. We can't ignore the situation as the Chinese do. We [Americans] are a caring people and government. I'm talking about what I saw.

``You get it?''

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.