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Dith Pran; Activist Brought Attention to Cambodian Genocide

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By Adam Bernstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 31, 2008

Dith Pran, 65, a journalist and human rights advocate who became a public face of the horrors in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge and whose life was portrayed in the influential movie "The Killing Fields," died March 30 of pancreatic cancer at Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital in New Brunswick, N.J. He was a resident of Woodbridge, N.J.

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For much of the early 1970s, Mr. Dith was a resourceful guide and interpreter in Cambodia for Sydney H. Schanberg of the New York Times, whose reporting on the country's civil war and the rise of the Khmer Rouge won a Pulitzer Prize. Schanberg accepted the award on behalf of himself and Mr. Dith, whom he credited with saving his life.

Schanberg's partnership with Mr. Dith became the basis for "The Killing Fields" (1984), which conveyed in personal terms the brutality of the Khmer Rouge under the despot Pol Pot from 1975 to 1979. Nearly 2 million Cambodians died during those years.

"The Killing Fields" had a major effect on public opinion, said Ben Kiernan, who directs Yale University's Genocide Studies Program. "A mass audience saw the story of what happened in a way that had never been done before, a dramatic and accurate depiction of a horrifying experience for millions of people," he said.

"Pran was one of the major figures in the United States in bringing the issue of justice for Cambodian genocide to public attention, and in pushing the U.S. government to support the accountability of the Khmer Rouge," Kiernan said.

In speeches and lectures, Mr. Dith gave vivid and compelling accounts of the genocide, including the death of more than 50 members of his family. During a famine, he said, he was nearly beaten to death for stealing more than the daily ration of a spoonful of rice. He was told that one of his brothers, who served in the Cambodian army, was thrown to crocodiles.

The Khmer Rouge, which followed a radical communist path of social engineering, tried to remake the country by killing anyone who had political opinions or seemed educated. Mr. Dith spent four years disguising his middle-class background by dressing as a peasant and working in rice fields.

Of the killing fields, or mass graves in the countryside, he once told Schanberg: "In the water wells, the bodies were like soup bones in broth. And you could always tell the killing grounds because the grass grew taller and greener where the bodies were buried."

Peter Cleveland, a foreign affairs expert then working for Sen. Charles S. Robb (D-Va.), said Mr. Dith worked to help influence passage of the Cambodian Genocide Justice Act of 1994.

The act, which Robb sponsored, created the State Department's Office of Cambodian Genocide Investigations, which gathered evidence against Pol Pot and his deputies for crimes against humanity.

Pol Pot died in Thailand in 1998 without answering to an international tribunal. U.N.-backed trials began last year, after years of resistance from Khmer Rouge supporters in China, Thailand and the United States.

The United States had supported the Khmer Rouge because it fought the communist Vietnamese, who invaded Cambodia and occupied it in the 1980s. The Khmer Rouge held Cambodia's seat at the United Nations until the early 1990s.


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