Andrew Mertha’s Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid To The Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979

I’ve been gone awhile, but I haven’t stopped working. Instead, I’ve been building up a backlog. I’ll be returning here, hopefully, more frequently in the coming months. I have book reviews on Ian Harris’ new book on Cambodian Buddhism under the Khmer Rouge, discussions about the progress of my own book project, coming out from Columbia University Press this year, and lots more.

Remember that I no longer share links and news here, which accounts for the sudden drop in posts. Instead, those are found at my twitter account. But since that account combines all my interests, many of which may not be yours, you can also search for Cambodia-related, Buddhism-related, or other types of material by searching twitter for those hashtag-noted subjects (e.g., #Cambodia, #Buddhism), or restricting your view of my tweets to those with those two hashtags.

But today, I want to talk briefly about Andrew Mertha’s book, Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid to the Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979.

This is an excellent book which fills a significant gap in both general and particular knowledges about the period of Democratic Kampuchea, 1975-1979, during which period DK had state-to-state relations with the People’s Republic of China, among others.  Mertha, whose previous scholarship focused on the PRC itself, brings the Chinese data to the historical void that is much of the KR period.

In filling the general gap in knowledge about the period of DK, my feeling is that Mertha’s greatest accomplishment here is to demonstrate with great clarity that the Khmer Rouge were not only not autarkic and self-isolating, but actively looking for, and needing, funding and assistance from outside of Cambodia. The stereotype of the period is of a country of Tbackwards peasant savages (<-not descriptions I would ever endorse) forced into a sort of pre-modern dark age; Mertha’s meticulous descriptions of the extensive relationships and widespread and important presence of Chinese advisors in DK Cambodia should put an end to that stereotype definitively.

In filling the particular knowledge gaps about DK, my favorite part, and the most provocative and interesting (as well as, for those terrible human beings concerned primarily with ‘policy,’ a good indication of how long the PRC has pursued its international funding and aid strategies), is about how ineffectual the PRC advisors and aid regime was in convincing the DK leadership to do things the way the PRC wanted. Amazingly, given the huge asymmetries in the relationship, DK leadership managed to continue to receive enormous amounts of aid and advice without really giving the PRC much of anything in return (this aspect of the book is also highlighted by Milton Osborne in his review of the book, linked below).

The first three chapters of the book set up the various parties involved and introduce them nicely. For those of us without expertise in historic PRC bureaucracies, Mertha’s flowcharts and graphs in Chapter Three are particularly helpful. Chapters Four through Six detail the histories of individual joint projects: the Kraing Leav Airfield, The Kompong Som Petroleum Refinery Project, and the development of markets and trade between the PRC and DK. Each of these case studies make slightly different and complementary points. The DK ability to accept aid while rebuffing PRC demands regarding the airfield was just amazing to me, despite having seen countless Cambodian perform smaller-scale feats of resistance, planned incomprehension, and foot-dragging (see James Scott’s “Weapons of the Weak,” please). The sheer bravado and confidence of the DK leadership appears stunning. The almost total failure of the Refinery Project was, in contrast, the result of a continual refusal by DK leadership to take PRC advisors’ advice seriously – real training and logistics are necessary to make a refinery. Since the DK leadership refused, the refinery failed. Finally, in Chapter Six, Mertha details how the PRC development of DK markets was actually on an upward trajectory, and potentially a success, had Vietnam not then invaded and ‘liberated’ Cambodians from the Khmer Rouge.

I do have one complaint, which I’ve made to Andrew in person, and will rehash here. Many will see it as unimportant, or even narcissistic, given that I myself do identify and organize as an anarchist. Mertha uses the term ‘anarchy’ three times in the first three paragraphs, to refer to devastation, death, and the negative space of life. Certainly he will be within the long history of Gentlemen’s Historians using this word in this poetic way, to refer to the absence of any order. However, Mertha is also aware that ‘anarchy’ is a worldwide, historic, current, and expanding set of ideologies that insist on the ability of human precisely to organize society without oppression and hierarchy.Mertha is, finally, aware, that the word for anarchy in Khmer, អនាធិបតេយ្យ (from the Pāli “anādhipateyya,” meaning “unruled) has become a government accusation against a whole range of those who protest for various forms of social justice. Most commonly, the government accuses those who are being kicked off lands a private businessman is about to grab, of living there “in anarchy.” That is, in the last fifteen years, the government’s abusive use of the word has been largely about land-grabs. But just recently, the government accused a union of acting ‘anarchically,’ indicating an expansion of this word to categorize citizens as outcasts, and then treat them accordingly. Given this set of situations, I’m disappointed that he chose the word ‘anarchy’ to refer to ‘chaos’ and ‘death.’

Regardless of my complaint, this is an excellent book which fills enormously significant gaps in knowledge about the period, advances knowledge regarding both the PRC and DK, and remains significant to those interested in the present and immediate future. Mertha should be proud of this book.

Other Reviews of the Book

Ian Storey at New Mandala

Milton Osborne at Contemporary Southeast Asia

Andy Brouwer at Andy’s Cambodia


2 thoughts on “Andrew Mertha’s Brothers in Arms: Chinese Aid To The Khmer Rouge, 1975-1979

  1. Dear Erik

    Thanks for your generous and judicious review. I appreciate also your objection to my use of “anarchy.” I am, of course, using it in its more generally-understood, “conventional” sense that can be, and often is, abused and manipulated. My use of it in that way is not an endorsement, but rather an acknowledgement of that more common type of usage. We can agree to disagree on my decision, but our worldviews are closer than they might appear.



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