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After the Killings

A survivor recounts his experience to Richmond students.

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Dith, then in his early 30s, was working with New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg when the Khmer Rouge seized power. They and two other journalists were arrested, held for execution and released after Dith convinced their captors they were French journalists. Schanberg was able to leave Cambodia, but Dith was sent to the forced labor camps of the killing fields. After four years he managed to escape to Thailand in 1979. His experience was turned into the 1984 movie “The Killing Fields.”

Piles of human bones can still be found all over Cambodia. It is estimated that the Khmer Rouge was responsible for more than 2 million deaths. Dith lost more than 50 relatives to the regime, including his father, three brothers, a sister and their families. His mother later died of malnutrition. He now lives in Woodbridge, N.J., with his only surviving relative, a sister.

Awareness and understanding of world politics is the message Dith said he planned to bring to students during a speech at Douglas S. Freeman High School on March 30. Style spoke with him by phone before the event as he prepared to deliver an address on the Cambodian genocide committed during the mid-1970s Khmer Rouge revolution.

Style: Such atrocities as were committed by the Khmer Rouge are universally denounced. Yet there seems to be a never-ending supply of dictators, and only within the past century we’ve seen attempts at genocide on nearly every continent. What conclusions do you come to when you compare human ideals with such realities?

Pran: The thing that I found out, every generation always finds this kind of evil, and believes that dictatorship is the way they can run the country. ... The way that I compare dictatorships ... they’re greedy, they want the jobs, they want to do what they want. ... Hitler wanted the same thing. Lenin, Stalin, and Pol Pot, Mao, Ho Chi Minh. I see this as the way that they want things completely different. They want their own idea, but in general, the foundation is from the same idea.

I found out that you were incensed when you arrived in the United States in the late ’70s to discover that the UN officially recognized the Khmer Rouge.

Oh yeah, I’m glad you found that. I was angry too. That’s why I protest. I do all kind of things because I don’t see any justice. But later on I found you have to respect world politics. When you know world politics you understand and you say, ‘Well it happened not only to Cambodia, it happened to the Jewish people too.’

Have you actually contemplated forgiveness of those responsible for the Cambodian genocide?

I start to get that. But I have to do something to let the world know. My mission is to make the world aware of what was going on in Cambodia.

Pol Pot ultimately escaped justice, as have many members of the Khmer Rouge. How does that make you feel?

I’m still optimistic. I don’t believe the world will ignore, that they won’t do anything. With my report, I learn that they’re going to have a trial this year in 2004.

Yeah, I read that in January.

Right, so I’m still optimistic. They have to do something. They cannot say no to justice at all. The Cambodian conflict is not for Cambodian only. It’s for all human beings. It’s for justice for all.

Former Cambodian President Khieu Samphan publicly admitted in late December that Khmer Rouge were responsible for the killings. That was a milestone for him to admit that.

That made me happy. Even though we suffered tremendously, we lost so many people. But at least to get into the record, to get to the outside world to know that what the Cambodian people told the world is true. Now here’s a guy, an icon of the Khmer Rouge, and he accept that he make a mistake, or that he did it.

Why has the trial taken so long?

Well here you have to understand world politics. If you go too fast you don’t have any rules. You don’t have any law. So I thank those people responsible for creating the tribunal and the trials. They had to shrink the case into a small case, meaning just the Cambodian leadership instead of the whole world. If you talk about who’s responsible for this genocide, you know that it’s everywhere — the East and the West.

Given the United States’ role in Cambodia during the Indochina war, what are your thoughts on the Iraq war?

Well I think we learn a lot from there, and we hope we’re going to do the right thing. And it seems to me like they copy Nixon, that Nixon tried to withdraw and tried to turn over the war into the local war. Similar to Nixon. For me, I think that the war is making America getting smarter on how to deal with this world problem. So I see Iraq as compared with what Nixon did. You remember Nixon pull out of Vietnam. ... he have a strategy to bomb hard, to fight hard, and then he force them to negotiate. It’s similar because he know that he can’t stay there forever.

The regime of Kim Jong Il in North Korea is as bad if not worse than Saddam Hussein’s in Iraq. Reports say that people are dying of starvation in the countryside by the hundreds of thousands. What role should the United States and the international community take with North Korea?

If you as leader allow people to die of starvation that means indirect genocide. I always say we must put pressure on them. We have to start doing the same thing that we did to Iraq. Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan — those people who believe in dictatorship deserve to suffer. The regime deserves to be punished. But I don’t promote war right away. You know in Cambodia they didn’t do anything — until it was too late. But at least they’ve let this story appear in the press, so that they show that the world hear it. If you balance it with this — Cambodia was completely ignored for four years, until 1979, when the victims ran away from the killing fields, including myself, and that’s when they start to care.

Have you been back?

I’ve been back three times. But with new technology, you don’t need to go back. And there’s nothing for me to go back. I suffered enough. I don’t want to re-suffer by going back and remember all the sad parts that we went through — the war and the killing fields, two stages that make you not believe it. ... It’s very hard for me to forget. S

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