We Are All Dith Pran
"After years of civil war that was exacerbated by America’s bombing of the Ho Chi Minh Trail in eastern Cambodia, the Khmer government of Lon Nol fell to Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge forces in April 1975…Within forty-eight hours, Khmer Rouge forces had evacuated the city’s [Phnom Penh] two million residents, who, because of the civil war, had been crammed into a city built for 400,000."
–George V. Smith, "Remembering Angkor: Meeting the Khmer"
The odes to Dith Pran appearing in The New York Times and the Boston Globe relate a story that is vaguely his, but overwhelmingly, they present a story that is uniquely an American version of truth. Namely, the articles are a continuation of a censored history. Neither recount the conditions that led to the Khmer Rouge regime gaining a stronghold in Cambodia, circa 1970s. And both heavily rely on the movie version of Dith Pran’s journey as a way to reacquaint minds with The Killing Fields.
It seems a proper memorial would be an examination of genocide as it is happening now. Surely, viewing the truth of genocide includes a panoramic vision beyond the actors of genocide itself, and would include those who create the conditions, perpetuate the conditions, turn their backs on the conditions that formulaically transforms any country into a fertile ground for indiscriminate killing.
Pol Pot emerged from a vacuum created by U.S. bombs falling on Cambodia despite the country’s declared neutrality. It was a short-cut.
The short-cut touched off a spiral of conditions that caused time to be reversed to Year O. Under the Angar Padewat Kampuchea, all shackles of imperialism–as the organization interpreted them, were forcibly removed. The people were violently shepherded into the countryside. Those who could not keep up with the movement were killed on the spot; slow death awaited everyone else. Infrastructure was destroyed, no turning back.
In 1970, a group of people at Kent State had tried to stop the illegal bombing of Cambodia; the National Guard opened fire on them; four people were killed and nine injured. Ultimately, the Vietnamese would intervene in the country known as Kampuchea in 1978 and save those suffering from the agrarian experiment gone mad.
To honor Dith Pran is to awaken to the genocide that is now; to view the cycle in real time; and to do what is in our power to intervene on behalf of those who are suffering the horrors of genocide anywhere.
LARAY POLK is an artist and activist who lives in Dallas, Texas. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.