This is a very interesting and passionate book about lesser known internal conflicts in Southeast Asia. The author is a young Canadian journalist who has spent a lot of time in the region, learning its history and languages, and studying the conflicts which he is strongly drawn to. The book has four main chapters each covering a different sub-region and conflict. The first gives an account of Cambodia and the ‘death of the Khmer Rouge’ as it is aptly subtitled. This was the first of the conflicts covered by Rand, in 1998, when he was just 23 years old. It is one of the best parts of the book, and contains an excellent and concise (just 13 pages) history of the Cambodian conflict. The second chapter of the book stems from 2000 when the author documented the conflict between the Burmese military government and ethnic Karen guerrillas. He made several trips to the Karen-held area across the border from Thailand and accompanied the guerrilla into battle. The description is lively and highly sympathetic to the cause of the guerrillas.
The third chapter stems from 2004 and concerns with two unprivileged ethnic minorities that both sided with the Americans during the Vietnam War: the Hmong in northern Laos and the Montagnards in Vietnam. Both received ample support from CIA and played an important role as American allies against the communists. Both were later abandoned by the Americans and left to cope with the new regimes to the best of their ability—which has been an uphill struggle for both groups that have continued the war through all these years. Especially the Hmong’s fight against the Laotian army has been quite pathetic. This ‘betrayal’ by the Americans outrages Nelson Rand who rails on behalf of the wretched guerrillas.
The final chapter of the book is contemporary and describes events in 2008 in southern Thailand when the author was embedded with the Thai army battling the Islamic insurgents. Again, although this is the thinnest part of the book, the historical explanation and the description of the current situation are rather balanced, acknowledging the human rights violations by the Thai government while condemning the terrorist activities by the Islamic fundamentalists.
The fact that Nelson Rand is so excited about his topic is what makes the book very engaging. He feels strongly about the subject and the often quixotic struggles of the people. He mixes his personal exploits and feelings with the travails of the victims of the conflicts in a way that can’t leave the reader cold. He also makes an effort at putting each of the conflicts into a broader context. At the same time, one can’t sometimes help feeling a bit queasy about his enthusiasm, for the particular struggles, the heroism of the guerrillas, and the thrill of jungle warfare in general. The text flows fast and well, but tends to be somewhat breathless and contain hyperbole and occasional repetitiveness as Rand raves about the injustices he encounters. His sympathy for the downtrodden is such that he even calls the hilltribes of northern Laos and Vietnam a ‘race,’ which obviously is not accurate. Despite these gripes, Nelson Rand has done us a favour by writing the book informing us of the long-running conflicts that are seldom remembered by the outside world.