Television Reviews : ’20/20' Examines On-Going Horrors of Cambodia

There is no more dispiriting and brutal fact about the Indochina War than this: The deepest horror of what we call Vietnam was not in Vietnam at all, but in Cambodia, its neighbor to the west. From a flourishing civilization of centuries-old culture and benign monarchy, Cambodia descended in 15 years into a kind of Stone Age.

In 1975, after massive American bombing inside Cambodia drove North Vietnamese troops far into the country and thus transformed what had been skirmishes into another all-out war, the victorious Khmer Rouge army fully evacuated the capital of Phnom Penh and turned Cambodia into a labor camp. Nearly half of the country’s 7 million people died in the next four years.

The best record to date of this genocide was Roland Joffe’s film “The Killing Fields,” based on the experiences of New York Times correspondent Sydney Schanberg and his Cambodian assistant, Dith Pran. Now an expanded segment of ABC’s “20/20" (tonight at 10 on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42) carries on where “The Killing Fields” left off. Reported by Tom Jarriel, it is jarring, sometimes jaw-dropping TV journalism.

Schanberg and Pran, with his wife, Dith Meoun Ser, recall the key episodes from the Khmer Rouge takeover and Pran’s separation from his family, to the rude parting with Schanberg and his spectacular survival in what Jarriel calls “the Asian Auschwitz.”


Besides the skillful intercutting of scenes from the movie with Pran, these scenes also show images recalling Alain Resnais’ stark Nazi death camp documentary, “Night and Fog.”

Masses are forced from the cities. Row on row of people work and die in open fields. The walls of the death camp record rooms are filled with the photos of victims. Vietnamese footage shows rooms of torture victims in the Tuol Sleng extermination center. A painter, who survived by being dictator Pol Pot’s official portriatist, displays rich-colored oils of Khmer Rouge torture methods.

And Pran, buttressed by witnesses and new film evidence, insists that this bloody army has a good chance of reasserting itself over Cambodia once Vietnam withdraws after its 10-year occupation.

In a daring scene that should go immediately into the hall of fame of gung-ho reporting, Jarriel, undeterred by mine-filled trails and reluctant Thai guides, follows a Cambodian peasant woman across a bamboo foot bridge into a Khmer Rouge camp. The camera shoots these young warriors, then Pran painfully watches this footage on a “20/20" editing machine.

One can look past the segment’s lack of historical background, its reluctance to name Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger as the planners of the fateful bombing and their reasons behind their actions, and its simplification of the knotty Cambodian resistance, which weds the Khmer Rouge with anti-authoritarians. This film sounds too urgent an alert to be ignored.