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New Book Examines China’s Relationship With Khmer Rouge

“Brothers in Arms,” by author Andrew Mertha.
“Brothers in Arms,” by author Andrew Mertha.

A new book shines more light onto China’s relationship with the Khmer Rouge.

“Brothers in Arms,” by author Andrew Mertha, shows how China’s foreign policy goals shaped the Khmer Rouge in ways favorable to Beijing.

China benefited from aid in military, trade and infrastructure, in return for trade and commerce, says Mertha, who is a politics professor specializing in Chinese and Cambodian affairs at Cornell University.

Mertha says he was moved to write the book after seeing the massive military base built by China in Kampong Chhang province.

“It just struck me that China was clearly doing something, and I wanted to know more and more what it was,” he told VOA Khmer in an interview. He couldn’t find enough on the subject, he said, so “I decided I needed to do the research myself.”

The book examines China’s involvement in every aspect of the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power.

From 1970 to 1975, Beijing provided money to the government in exile of deposed prince Norodom Sihanouk, who had sided with the communists to find a way back to power. China continued to provide arms, clothing, food and even printed bank notes to the Khmer Rouge when it came to power. Its support increased as the Khmer Rouge broke from its Vietnamese partners.

John Ciorciari, a professor of public policy at the University of Michigan, said China continued to support the Khmer Rouge even after it was ousted by the Vietnamese in 1979.

However, “China doesn’t want to be associate with the killing under the Khmer Rouge regime,” he said. “I don’t think that China was particularly fond of the Khmer Rouge regime as an ally; it didn’t support the extent of radicalism in the Pol Pot regime. Nevertheless, China did continue to pour aid into the country, even after it became apparent that large-scale atrocities were taking place.”

Mertha said his research found China did not often pursue conditions to its aid, though it may have had suspicions of the atrocities occurring under the regime. “I think the Cambodians made thoroughly successful efforts to keep the Chinese in the dark as to what, specifically, was happening,” he said.

And while China may be “embarrassed” by this period of history, it was not the only supporter of the Khmer Rouge, he said.

Still, their support was thorough, says Youk Chhang, head of the Documentation Center of Cambodia, which collects evidence of Khmer Rouge atrocities.

“Chinese advisers existed from the top to the grassroots,” he said. That included Chinese officials, trainers for prison guards and direct monitoring of arrests, evidenced by photographs and thousands of witness accounts, he said.

China may not have realized the scale of the atrocities, but it still must think about its support of the regime, Youk Chhang said. Meanwhile, China continues to support Cambodia, giving it a foothold into Asean politics, he said.

James Tyner, a professor at Kent State, in Ohio, said the Khmer Rouge then and Cambodia now act as “pawns” for China’s political and economic interests.

“No doubt many Chinese officials would have been aware of the catastrophic conditions throughout the country, such as widespread starvation and disease,” he said.

But there were also Chinese doctors training medical personnel, he said. “It is arguable that these officials, perhaps, were aware of the conditions but assumed that the Khmer Rouge were attempting to address these conditions.”