Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.
I won’t be joining the social justice warriors in boycotting the 2016 Oscars, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be watching the show, either. Every year when Hollywood’s Academy Awards are presented, I seem to find something else to do that night. The program is always too long and often celebrates movies I didn’t like, while ignoring some of the ones I did. Wherever I am and whatever I’m doing while the show is on, however, my thoughts turn to a friend who won an Oscar more than 30 years ago.
On the night of the 57th Oscars in 1985, Amadeus claimed best picture; F. Murray Abraham won best actor; Sally Field, best actress. Then came the announcement for best supporting actor. To the stage, bearing the widest grin of his life, bounced a man few Americans had heard of, a man who had only ever acted in one motion picture. A physician in his native Cambodia, Dr. Haing S. Ngor witnessed unspeakable cruelty and endured torture before escaping and finding his way to America barely five years earlier. His Oscar-winning performance in The Killing Fields gave him the platform to tell the world about the mass murder that occurred between 1975 and 1979 in Cambodia at the hands of the Khmer Rouge communists.
Ngor’s Oscar-winning performance told the world about the mass murder by Cambodia communists.
When I met Ngor at a conference in Dallas a few months after he won, I was struck by the intensity of his passion. Perhaps no one loves liberty more than one who has been denied it at gunpoint. We became instant friends and stayed in frequent contact.
When he decided to visit Cambodia in August 1989 for the first time since his escape 10 years before, he asked me to go with him. Dith Pran, the photographer Ngor portrayed in the movie, was among the small number in our entourage. So were Diane Sawyer and a crew from ABC’s Prime Time Live. Experiencing Cambodia with Ngor and Pran so soon after the genocide left me with vivid impressions and lasting memories.
But Cambodia in 1989 was still a universe away from the Cambodia of 1979. In spite of the country’s continued suffering on a grand scale, I knew it was a playground compared to the three and a half years that Ngor and Pran miraculously survived.
During that time, crazed but battle-hardened and jungle-toughened revolutionaries who had seized power in 1975 set about to remake Cambodian society. Their leader, Pol Pot, embraced the most radical versions of class warfare, egalitarianism, and state control. His model was the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Mao and Stalin were his heroes.
The “evils” the Khmer Rouge aspired to destroy included all vestiges of the former governments of Cambodia, city life, private enterprise, the family unit, religion, money, modern medicine and industry, private property, and anything that smacked of foreign influence. They savaged an essentially defenseless population already weary of war. Pol Pot’s killing machine produced the “killing fields” for which the film was later named.
To the regime, 1975 was no longer 1975 in Cambodia. It was declared “Year Zero,” and the numbering of succeeding years would follow accordingly. To break with Cambodia's past, the Khmer Rouge changed the country’s name to Kampuchea. Racial pogroms, political executions, and random homicides were instituted as public policy to discipline, frighten, and reorganize society. Any individual’s life meant nothing in the grand scheme of the new order.
One day after taking power, the Khmer Rouge forcibly evacuated the populations of all urban areas, including the capital, Phnom Penh, a city swollen by refugees to at least two million inhabitants. Many thousands of men and women, including the sick, the elderly, and the handicapped, died on the way to their “political rehabilitation” in the countryside. Survivors found themselves slaving away in the rice fields, often separated from their families, routinely beaten and tortured for trifling offenses or for no reason at all, kept hungry by meager rations, and facing certain death for the slightest challenge to authority.
Thon Hin, a top official in the Cambodian foreign ministry at the time of our 1989 visit, told me of the propaganda blasted daily from speakers as citizens labored in the fields: “They said that everything belonged to the state, that we had no duty to anything but the state, that the state would always make the right decisions for the good of everyone. I remember so many times they would say, ‘It is always better to kill by mistake than to not kill at all.’”
Churches and pagodas were demolished, and thousands of Buddhist monks and worshippers were murdered. Schools were closed down and modern medicine was forbidden in favor of quack remedies and sinister experimentation. By 1979, only 45 doctors remained in the whole country; more than 4,000 had perished or fled. Eating in private and scavenging for food were considered crimes against the state. So was wearing eyeglasses, which was seen as evidence that one had read too much.
Pol Pot embraced the most radical versions of class warfare, egalitarianism, and state control.
With total control of information and communication, Pol Pot’s gang of killers kept the Cambodian people unaware of the full extent of the state’s atrocities. Most had little idea that the horror they were witnessing was a nationwide event. The rest of the world knew even less. Mass graves unearthed in later years provided belated and grisly evidence of the violence.
During our 1989 tour, Ngor and I visited Tuol Sleng. It was a former high school in Phnom Penh, converted by the Khmer Rouge into a torture center. Of 20,000 men, women, and children taken there, only 7 survived. Hideous devices and blood-soaked floors remained for visitors to see. The walls were lined with snapshots of the hapless victims — pictures taken by their captors.
Fifteen kilometers away we visited a place called Choeung Ek, where a memorial houses more than 8,000 human skulls found in an adjacent field. Cambodians say that nearby streams once ran so red with blood that cattle would not drink from the water.
Early estimates of the death toll from starvation, disease, and execution during Pol Pot’s tyranny range as high as 3 million — in a nation of only 8 million inhabitants when he took power. Most now put the figure in the neighborhood of 2 million deaths. Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge caused far more deaths than the last decade of the Vietnam War, when 1.2 million perished on both the American and Vietnamese sides.
Haing Ngor didn’t just see these things; he endured them. He had to get rid of his eyeglasses and disappear as a doctor. He reappeared as a cab driver, hoping he and his wife would not draw the regime’s attention. Nonetheless, he fell prey to their brutality more than once. Thugs sliced his finger off in one torturous episode. In another, his wife died in his arms from complications during childbirth. Ngor’s skills as a physician might have saved her, but had he revealed he was a doctor, they both would have been executed on the spot.
In his riveting 1987 autobiography, Survival in the Killing Fields, he sketched his anguish in print: “The wind brought me her last words again and again: ‘Take care of yourself, sweet.’ She had taken care of me when I was sick. She had saved my life. But when it was my turn to save her, I failed.”
Ngor eventually escaped Cambodia through Thailand, landing in America in 1980, a year and a half after a Vietnamese invasion ended the Khmer Rouge regime. He believed the world needed to know about the Khmer Rouge’s atrocities, fully and graphically. When fate gave him the chance to act in a movie about the period, he grabbed it and performed brilliantly. He deserved the Oscar it earned him, even though he often said that he really didn’t have to “act.” He had personally suffered through calamities much worse than those depicted in the film. He was driven to do well so that the rest of us would remember what happened and to whom.
After The Killing Fields, Haing earned a little money here and there in film from cameo appearances and bit parts. He lived in a modest apartment on Beaudry Avenue in Los Angeles. He was too busy helping others and educating audiences about the catastrophe in his homeland to pursue a career in Hollywood. He frequently volunteered for weeks at a time to provide free medical assistance to refugees along the Thai border.
I remained in frequent communication with him in the years after our 1989 visit to Cambodia. He always had time for his friends. If he wasn’t home when I called, he never failed to ring me back.
Wearing eyeglasses was seen as evidence that one had read too much — a crime against the state.
One cold morning in February 1996, a reporter friend from the local newspaper called my office. He had just seen a wire report and wanted my comment. My 55-year-old friend, Dr. Haing S. Ngor, had been shot and killed the day before — not somewhere in southeast Asia, but in downtown Los Angeles. The perpetrators, it turned out, were ordinary gang thugs trying to rob him as he got out of his car. They took a locket, which held the only picture he still had of his deceased wife.
It’s impossible to make sense out of such a senseless tragedy. I do know this, however: for Haing Ngor, rediscovering his freedom after experiencing hell on earth wasn’t enough. He couldn’t relax, sigh with relief, and resume living a quiet and anonymous life. He felt compelled to tell his story so others would know the awful things totalitarian government can do. He forced us to ponder and appreciate life more fundamentally than ever before.
We can be grateful to live in a country where we can celebrate our creative achievements in film, but we should be even more thankful for people like Haing Ngor, who did more to educate for liberty in a few short years than most of us will do in our lifetimes.
Lawrence W. (“Larry”) Reed became president of FEE in 2008 after serving as chairman of its board of trustees in the 1990s and both writing and speaking for FEE since the late 1970s. Follow on Twitter and Like on Facebook.