Dith Pran was a Cambodian photojournalist known for exposing the horrors of life under Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. He survived four and a half years of forced labor and beatings, vowing that if he ever escaped, he would tell the world about the violence.

In 1979, he journeyed 40 miles to safety and did just that. He moved to the United States, where he became a citizen in 1986. Pran’s life and work were the subject of the movie “The Killing Fields,” which won three Oscars, including best supporting actor for Haing S. Ngor, who portrayed Pran.

Dith Pran's Early Life

Dith Pran was born in Siem Reap, Cambodia on September 27, 1942, not far from the ruins of Angkor Wat. After learning French at school and teaching himself English, the U.S. Army hired him as a translator.

In the 1960s, Cambodia was ruled by a royal family, with Norodom Sihanouk as head of state. The Khmer Rouge was a relatively small group of armed members of the Communist Party operating near the mountainous border with Vietnam. With the neighboring Vietnam War escalating, Cambodia cut ties with the United States in 1965—putting Pran out of a job. He found work with British filmmakers and as a hotel receptionist.

In March 1969, U.S. President Richard Nixon began approving secret bombings of suspected communist base camps and supply zones in Cambodia as part of “Operation Menu.” A year later, Nixon ordered U.S. ground troops to enter Cambodia. The Khmer Rouge used anger over the unpopular incursion and bombings to recruit new members. In 1970, Prince Sihanouk was ousted in a coup by the military.

From 1972 to 1975, Pran worked as a fixer for Sydney Schanberg, a New York Times correspondent. He took notes, photographs, and provided critical translation services. Little did he know his own name would soon make headlines around the world.

The Cambodian Civil War

The Cambodian Civil War pitted the Khmer Rouge, backed by North Vietnam and the Viet Cong, against the U.S. and South Vietnam-backed Khmer Republic. After five years of fighting, communist forces entered the capital. With the fall of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh imminent, the U.S. Embassy was evacuated on April 3, 1975.

Pran secured a place for his wife and children on helicopters bound for the United States. He opted to stay behind with Schanberg to cover the developing changes. “I decide[d] to stay first because I didn't believe…one side [would] come up [and] kill their own civilians, and also because the people I used to visit to cover the story didn't get panicked, so why should I get panicked? . . . I didn't know there was going to be a bloodbath,” Pran told The Washington Post.

Pran and Schanberg were captured by guerillas, but Pran’s quick-thinking saved the American journalist and his colleagues from execution by claiming they were neutral French journalists. The two took refuge in the French embassy as the city descended into chaos.

Pol Pot’s Reign of Terror

When Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot took power, foreign journalists like Schanberg were ordered to leave. Pran was captured and became part of the hundreds of thousands of city dwellers forced to move to the country as part of Pol Pot’s vision to remake Cambodia as Kampuchea, an agrarian communist utopia.

Thousands of Cambodians were executed for being perceived as intellectuals. Wearing glasses or speaking a foreign language could be a death sentence. Hundreds of thousands more died during forced labor and starvation. Pran survived by pretending to be an uneducated taxi driver, carefully concealing his past and American ties. For more than two years, he worked long hours as an agricultural laborer, some days surviving on a diet of rats, snails and insects.

“The photojournalist Dith Pran was instrumental in conveying to the world the reality of the Cambodian experience under Pol Pot’s genocidal Khmer Rouge regime from 1975 to 1979,” says Ben Kiernan, author of The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975-79. “He managed to survive those years [and] told his story to his former colleague Sydney H. Schanberg of the New York Times,” says Kiernan. The resulting book, The Death and Life of Dith Pran, inspired the 1984 film “The Killing Fields,” which brought international attention to Khmer Rouge crimes.

“The movie made it possible for younger generations—Cambodian and non-Cambodian—to access this history that is often not shared in families nor taught in schools,” says Dr. Khatharya Um, professor of Asian American and Diaspora Studies at UC Berkeley, who fled the killings with her family as a child. “The war and the genocidal aftermath are very important parts of U.S. and world histories, and the movie made visible that missing history.”  

In total, close to two million Cambodians died under the Khmer Rouge.

Did you know? Schanberg won the 1976 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his coverage of the communist takeover of Cambodia. He dedicated the award to Pran.

The Killing Fields

Killing Fields
Warner Brothers/Getty Images
Actor Haing S Ngor, as Dith Pran, labors with others in a scene from the film 'The Killing Fields,' 1984.

Following the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1979, Pran returned to his village, where he learned that four of his siblings had been executed, his father had died of starvation, and only his mother and a sister remained. Horror awaited him in the surrounding forests and clogged wells of the village: The bodies of as many as 5,000 Cambodians.

Dith Pran coined the term “killing fields” to describe the horrific volume of bodies left behind by Khmer Rouge killing sprees. “The term captures the magnitude and intentionality of Khmer Rouge brutality,” says Dr. Um. Pran was forced to cross over the bones of his countrymen and women during his 40-mile trek to the Thai border and freedom. “The grass grew taller and greener where the bodies were buried,” Dith said.

Dith Pran’s Legacy

When Pran was reunited with Schanberg at a refugee camp in Thailand in 1979, he told him: “I am reborn, this is my second life.” He devoted it to helping those who could no longer speak for themselves. “After escaping Cambodia, Dith Pran spent the rest of his life fighting for the prosecution of Khmer Rouge senior leaders for their role in deaths of almost two million Cambodians,” says P. Mike Rattanasengchanh, professor of Asian and U.S. History at Midwestern State University.

In 1985, Pran was named a United Nations Goodwill Ambassador by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. He didn’t stop there. “While a member of the Cambodia Documentation Commission, he collected evidence and first-hand accounts of survivors…to use for an international tribunal against the Khmer Rouge,” says Rattanasengchanh. “On several occasions, he went before the U.S. Subcommittee of East Asian and Pacific Affairs of the Senate and House of Representatives to speak about Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge.”

In 1994, Pran founded the Dith Pran Holocaust Awareness Project. In 1997, he co-edited and published a book, Children of Cambodia’s Killing Fields, sharing the first-person accounts of 29 survivors who were captured as children. In his introduction, he wrote:

"It is important for me that the new generation of Cambodians and Cambodian Americans become active and tell the world what happened to them and their families ... I want them never to forget the faces of their relatives and friends who were killed during that time. The dead are crying out for justice."

Dith Pran died from pancreatic cancer on March 30, 2008, at the age of 65. His longtime collaborator Sydney Schanberg told the Associated Press: "Pran was a true reporter, a fighter for the truth and for his people.”