- The Washington Times - Monday, March 31, 2008

NEW YORK (AP) — Dith Pran, the Cambodian-born journalist whose harrowing tale of enslavement and eventual escape from that country’s murderous Khmer Rouge revolutionaries in 1979 became the subject of the award-winning film “The Killing Fields,” died yesterday. He was 65.

Mr. Dith died at a New Jersey hospital yesterday morning of pancreatic cancer, according to Sydney Schanberg, his former colleague at the New York Times. Mr. Dith was diagnosed almost three months ago.

“Pran was a true reporter, a fighter for the truth and for his people,” Mr. Schanberg said. “When cancer struck, he fought for his life again. And he did it with the same Buddhist calm and courage and positive spirit that made my brother so special.”

Mr. Dith was as an interpreter and assistant for Mr. Schanberg in Cambodia, when the Vietnam War ended in April 1975 and both countries were taken over by communist forces.

Mr. Schanberg helped Mr. Dith’s family get out but was forced to leave his friend behind. They were not reunited until Mr. Dith escaped to Thailand 4½ years later. Eventually, Mr. Dith went to work as a photographer for the Times.

He was “a journalist and hero,” New York Times executive editor Bill Keller said in a letter to the staff yesterday. He added: “that last word is not one I use lightly.” He was “the most patriotic American photographer I’ve ever met, always talking about how he loves America,” said Associated Press photographer Paul Sakuma.

It was Mr. Dith who coined the term “killing fields” for the horrifying clusters of corpses and skeletal remains of victims he encountered on his desperate journey to freedom.

“That was the phrase he used from the very first day, during our wondrous reunion in the refugee camp,” Mr. Schanberg said later.

The regime of Pol Pot, bent on turning Cambodia into an agrarian society, were blamed for the deaths of nearly 2 million of Cambodia’s 7 million people. With thousands being executed for manifesting signs of intellect or Western influence — even wearing glasses or wristwatches — Mr. Dith survived by masquerading as an uneducated peasant, subsisting on as little as a mouthful of rice a day, and whatever small animals he could catch.

A 1980 Schanberg magazine article titled “The Death and Life of Dith Pran” became the basis for “The Killing Fields,” the successful 1984 British film starring Haing S. Ngor, another Cambodian escapee from the Khmer Rouge, as Mr. Dith. The film won three Oscars, including the best supporting actor award to Mr. Ngor.

Mr. Dith spoke of his illness in a March interview with the Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J.

“I want to save lives, including my own, but Cambodians believe we just rent this body,” he said. “It is just a house for the spirit, and if the house is full of termites, it is time to leave.”

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