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The Killing Fields

Lamonte - March 31, 2008

Yesterday’s New York Times and this morning’s Washington Post (and I’m sure countless other newspapers) reported the death of Dith Pran, the Cambodian photojournalist who was the subject of the 1984 movie “The Killing Fields”. 
Just in case you might not be familiar with this movie it is the true story of one man who served as an interpreter for NYTimes journalist Sydney Schanberg while he covered the war in Cambodia.Dith Pran stayed with the American journalists while his family escaped Cambodia and then the Americans were ordered to leave and Dith Pran was not allowed to go with them.Instead he was sent to a re-education camp and suffered four years of hard labor and starvation until he finally escaped over the mountains and into Thailand. 

Yesterday I watched a video tribute to Dith Pran on the NYT website and Sydney Schanberg said that the final scene of the movie was totally accurate.  After learning that he was alive, Sydney came to Thailand to the refugee camp where Dith Pran was staying and as the two men saw each other, they embraced with a huge bear hug and Dith Pran wrapped his skinny legs around Sydney’s waist.  Sydney said something like, “I hope you can forgive me for leaving you here” to which Dith Pran answered, “Nothing to forgive.  Nothing to forgive.”  In the movie, John Lennon’s song “Imagine” is playing and it seems like it was written just for that scene.  Although it is an R-rated movie and has some disturbing scenes, not to mention harsh language, I would recommend it to anyone.  It is a sad depiction of the age old story of man’s inhumanity to man and we seem to have not learned any lesson from that tragedy.


In February of 2005 I had the chance to visit Cambodia for a brief visit.  Our young guide was too young to have lived through the nightmare of that time but he knew the stories told by his parents.  He took us to a small memorial to the killing fields which was a public park with a glass enclosed gazebo type structure.  Inside the structure there were skulls stacked high to the ceiling. Outside was a sign that said essentially, “Over a million people were murdered while the world stood by and did nothing…”   Since that tragedy there have been other such events in Rwanda and now in Darfur and most of the world doesn’t seem to care, and I wonder why.  And of course history has recorded atrocities elsewhere in the world throughout the history of man.


Dith Pran came to America in 1979 and worked most of his life as a journalist for the NYTimes until the last few years as he turned his full time efforts to educating the world about the genocide in Cambodia.  It seems there are so few voices as strong as that voice of this man who was small in stature but enormous in his dedication to truth.  We should honor and celebrate such courage whenever and wherever we can. Dith Pran died on Sunday from pancreatic cancer.  Hopefully the spirit of his dedication did not die with him.


  1. It may be in the NYT, but I hadn’t heard, so thanks for posting on it. I saw Killing Fields (and Swimming to Cambodia) in the late 1980s, and I’ve followed Dith Pran’s work.

    Comment by Johnna Cornett — March 31, 2008 @ 8:49 am

  2. Unfortunately, US influence in creating the environment under which Pol Pot could flourish is overlooked by the New York Times and most US media.

    Comment by Curtis — March 31, 2008 @ 11:30 am

  3. Thank you for this heads-up. This movie is a must-see in my opinion.

    Do you know if he left a family?

    Comment by annegb — March 31, 2008 @ 11:46 am

  4. annegb – The articles talk about at least (2) wives – married one at a time ;-) – and I think 4 or 5 children. I’m not sure he was married at the time of his death but here is the article.


    Comment by Lamonte — March 31, 2008 @ 11:49 am

  5. Thanks for this post.

    I saw that movie in my high school journalism class.

    Comment by Susan M — March 31, 2008 @ 12:13 pm

  6. I agree that it is a great movie, and a great, terrible story.

    Though I must say that (unlike you, apparently) I always thought that Imagine was a singularly poor choice for that movie, unless it was meant ironically, which I don’t think it was. Among the many failings of the Khmer Rouge regime, you cannot include a failure to imagine a utopia. They were actually quite good at that, right down to Lennon’s prescribed outlawing of religion and possessions.

    For some reason, the first thing that any Utopian visionary who gets any measure of political power does is establish killing fields. The song could practically be a Khmer Rouge anthem.

    Comment by gst — March 31, 2008 @ 5:56 pm

  7. gst – I think you are way off in your interpretation of Lennon’s song. He is not proposing an “outlawing of religion and possessions” he is asking us to imagine that we no longer need them. When we are all (hopefully all) in heaven in the next life, in the presence of God, there will be no need for religion, no need to distingish our beliefs from someone else’s because we will be with God. In my opinion you could call the atheism of the Khmer Rouge a religion. Webster’s give the traditional definition of religion (Worship of God) as their #1 definition but then includes other definitions – #2 a personal set or institutionalized system of religious attitudes, beliefs, and practices; #3 archaic : scrupulous conformity : conscientiousness #4 a cause, principle, or system of beliefs held to with ardor and faith – any of which could be used to describe the goals of the Khmer Rouge. The fact is, as we see everywhere today, “religion” (the quotations are meant for a reason) has been the cause of great suffering and turmoil throughout the history of mankind. To me, the gospel of Jesus Christ is not the same thing as the religion that distinguishes my beliefs from others. The gospel of Jesus Christ is about love and peace and service to others without regard to personal gain or the garnering of worldly possessions. I am miles from achieving that ideal but I think THAT is what John Lennon was writing about – not the evil destructive nature of political forces like the Khmer Rouge.

    Comment by Lamonte — April 1, 2008 @ 4:25 am

  8. Just want to say that Killing Fields as a movie can only portray or show the audiences just a fraction of the real starvation, sufferings and killings during the regime, but it is a great film to see. I was in the Pol Pot regime; I can still dream of the dreadful death sleepless nights of fear that the Mee Kong (Pol Pot installed leader) and his comrades come in the middle of the night to our stilt wooded sticks home that they built for the people in a remote jungle as a temporary shelters and take us away to the wooden area and slaughter us. I just want to thanks the people that helped us and god that I am here in the US today.


    Comment by sokha — April 1, 2008 @ 8:31 am

  9. I am sorry for the lost of Mr. Dith Pran and the pain that the families have to go through. Our thoughts and pray for your families. I am thankful for Mr. Dith Pran as a journalist and human rights advocate that brought attention to Cambodia Genocide.


    Comment by sokha — April 1, 2008 @ 10:04 am

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