Dith Pran Humanitarian and NY Times Photojournalist has died of Pancreatic Cancer

Posted by AC Team on Saturday, 29 March 2008.

Dith Pran, Humanitarian and Photojournalist for the New York Times has died of Pancreatic Cancer. A survivor of the Cambodian holocaust, he was the subject of the Oscar winning movie "The Killing Fields."

New York Times photojournalist Dith Pran, a Humanitarian, Cambodian Genocide survivor, and the subject of the Oscar winning 1984 movie "The Killing Fields" has died of pancreatic cancer this morning March 30, 2008 in New Brunswick, New Jersey.

Last week, surrounded by family and friends in the hospital, Pran, 65, known for his upbeat personality quipped to Star-Ledger staff reporter Judy Peet that he intends to win his battle with cancer, "Food, medicine and meditation are good soldiers, and I am ready to fight."

But ultimately "this is my path and I must go where it takes me." He said he wanted to use his condition to encourage people to do early cancer screening.

Pran had spent his life since his survival from the brutality by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979, to raise awareness of the Cambodian holocaust and to campaign against genocide everywhere. He said in an interview in recent weeks, hoping that others will be able to carry on his work, "If they can do that for me, my spirit will be happy."

Pran was an assistant and translator in war-torn Cambodia from 1973 to 1975 to Sydney Schanberg, a New York Times correspondent. On April 17, 1975, while most Americans and other foreigners had already evacuated Cambodia, Schanberg had decided to stay to witness the fall of its capital city Phnom Penh to the communist Khmer Rouge forces led by Pol Pot. This would be just two weeks before the fall of another city, Saigon, Vietnam to North Vietnamese forces which immediately renamed Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City.

At Schanberg's urging Pran did not evacuate Cambodia but stayed behind to continue assisting and translating for his friend and colleague, a decision out of friendship and loyalty that put Pran in harms way and nearly cost him his life.

In a 1980 account first published in the New York Times Magazine, "The Death and Life of Dith Pran," a story that would become a book and the basis for the movie "The Killing Fields," Schanberg credits Pran for saving his life by helping him and several other journalists to gain safe passage out of the country after they were arrested by the Khmer Rouge. (Cambodian Actor Dr. Haing S. Ngor won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor for his role as Dith Pran.)

But Pran's fate would not be as lucky, a guilt that would haunt Schanberg long after he was back in the U.S. receiving awards for his coverage of the Cambodian war, and not knowing if his friend Pran was alive or dead.

Schanberg insisted on sharing with Pran his 1976 Pulitzer Prize for covering the war in Cambodia and accepted it on behalf of Pran as well.

Schanberg, now 74 and a frequent guest in Pran's hospital room, told The Star-Ledger, "You or I could never have survived what Pran has. And he is still one of the nicest people I ever met." "Pran saved my life, nearly at the cost of his." "There are no words to say what Pran means to me."

Pran was not allowed by the Khmer Rouge to leave Cambodia. Instead, eight days after the evacuation, the Khmer Rouge seeking a return to an agrarian society, rounded up Pran along with hundreds of thousands of others and forced them to march from the cities to the country to work in slave labor camps which would become "Kiling Fields" of horrific "death camps" and mass burial sites.

Khmer Rouge soldiers executed, tortured and starved citizens for little or no reason, particularly targeting the educated and wealthy, and closed all institutions including banks, stores, hospitals and schools.

For four years Pran suffered from brutal beatings, torture, starvation and malaria.

After Vietnamese troops liberated Cambodians from the Khmer Rouge more than 600,000 Cambodians escaped to the Thai border camps.

On October 3, 1979 Pran staggered out of a jungle and was able to cross the Thai border where he was reunited with Schanberg.

During the Khmer Rouge's murderous regime under its leader Pol Pot, an estimated 2 million people died, approximately one third of the country's population.

Many members of Pran's family perished. His father died of starvation, and three brothers and one sister were killed by the Khmer Rouge.

On October 19, 1979 Pran arrived to the U.S. and was reunited in San Francisco with his wife Ser Moeun Dith and four children, who were evacuated before the fall of Phnom Penh by U.S. helicopter to Thailand through Schanberg's efforts.

In 1980, Pran joined the New York Times as a photojournalist.

Pran founded the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project to educate American students about the Cambodian genocide which documents the period from April 17, 1975 to January 17, 1979.

In addition to his tireless campaigning on behalf of Cambodian genocide victims and refugees, Pran has received many awards and honors including the Award of Excellence from The International Center in New York.

In 1985 he was appointed as goodwill ambassador to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

In 1989 Pran was presented the Ellis Island Medal of Honor.

On August 17, 1989 Dith Pran and seven other members of the Cambodia Documentation Commission, a human rights organization which was working to put the Khmer Rouge on trial for genocide, returned to the Killing Fields in Cambodia. Pran and other members of the Commission met with Cambodian officials and inspected "death camp" sites including one located where his family and friends perished.

Fellow Commission member, Cambodian actor Dr. Haing S. Ngor who also suffered under the Khmer Rouge regime, joined Pran to hold a memorial service and lay a wreath in front of a monument for the unknown victims of the Pol Pot regime in Cheung Ek, a village nine miles from the outskirts of Phnom Penh known for its "Killing Fields" where prisoners were marched there to be murdered and buried in shallow pits.

In 2000, the Asian American Journalist Association (AAJA) named the championship trophy for its annual photo competition after Pran.

In 2004, AAJA honored Pran with the "Pioneers in Journalism" award.

On February 8, 2008, three decades after the Cambodian genocide, a United Nations-backed Tribunal is trying Cambodia's former Khmer Rouge leaders. For the first time the top surviving Khmer Rouge leader Nuon Chea appeared in court, charged with crimes against humanity.

Pran's family and close friends were at his bedside at the hospital. Though she was divorced from Pran, his first wife Ser Moeun Dith brought him rice noodles and stayed at his bedside during the final weeks. Pran's second wife, Kim DePaul, now separated or divorced is running the Dith Pran holocaust Awareness Project.

Pran is survived by his companion Bette Parslow, his former wife, Meoun Ser Dith, his sons Titony, Titonel, and Titonath; his daughter Hemkarey; a sister, Samproeuth; six grandchildren; and two stepgrandchildren.

- Written and compiled by AsianConnections team