Courtesy Reuters

Northeast Thailand: Tomorrow's Viet Nam?

TOMORROW'S VIET NAM?

Insurgencies spring from local conditions. Though a truism, this statement is still valuable in helping to determine the probable seriousness of present or threatened communist guerrilla activities. Conditions in Northeast Thailand make it in many ways an obvious seat of insurgency, and the Thai and United States Governments are increasingly concerned.

The area is large, impoverished and, until recently, neglected. Comprising about one-third of all Thailand, it is roughly the same size as neighboring Cambodia and has nearly twice the population. Geographically, the Northeast is a dry flat plateau, with sandy infertile soil, still largely under forest or scrub, and with insufficient water for effective agriculture or even for domestic needs. In consequence, the region is poor and its villages are largely isolated from the more prosperous central region of Thailand, and even-for lack of roads-from one another. The people of the Northeast, like most Thai farmers, own their own land; for example, in the Northeast (population 11 million, over 90 percent rural) some 95 percent of the farmers own their land. Thus there is virtually no problem of tenancy or of absentee landlordism as in Viet Nam, the Philippines or prewar China. But for all that, the Northeasterners have a per capita income only just over half the Thai national average.

The physical problems of the Northeast are enormous. Toward the end of the dry season-particularly from March to May-many of the shallow wells in the villages dry up completely. Then the villagers have to walk from one to three or four kilometers to the nearest deep well, carrying back all the water they need for washing, cooking and drinking. And the onset of the monsoon rains in May or June-lasting until October-is not an unmixed blessing. While at least in the dry half of the year the rough cart tracks between villages can be used by jeeps or motorcycles, during the rains the tracks deteriorate, fill with water and become impassable. As a result, provincial officials are restricted for a large part of the year-unless they care to walk-to the district towns and to those villages which are on or near the main roads. For example, some 40 to 50 percent of the villages in the "insecure" province of Sakon Nakorn are cut off in this way. This enforced isolation helps to explain some of the difficulties met in countering the spread of subversion or insurgency.

Seasonal conditions govern the farmers' existence. They are actively at work for only about 120 days in the year, largely engaged in ploughing the rice fields and transplanting the seedlings after the rains have started, and again at harvest time toward the end of the year. In the dry season there is little or nothing to do. With the increase in population, the rice crop nowadays is barely enough for local subsistence, whereas the Central Plain has an ample surplus which provides Thailand's main export. When the rains are poor in the Northeast-and the weather is notoriously unreliable- even this subsistence crop is exhausted long before the next harvest. Then the poorer villagers have to buy rice from merchants at a high price, mortgaging part of next year's crop to do so and becoming trapped in the vicious circle of debt.

The problem of security in the Northeast is an aspect of the economic problem. The area is so large, poor and remote that it would tax even the resources of a modern industrial state to raise its level of development to that of the rest of the country. Until water, roads and better crops are provided, the North-easterner will remain at the mercy of seasonal conditions, unable to rise above a mere subsistence level. Even worse, he will actually sink deeper into poverty, because of the large and at present practically uncontrolled increase in population, growing in the Northeast at the rate of 3.5 percent a year. Although the Government's long-standing opposition to birth control has just been reversed, many years will pass before there can be any significant effect. Meanwhile, families of six children are considered quite normal and up to ten children not unusual. The land suitable for rice is almost all being cultivated, and the villagers complain that there is not enough for all their children to inherit. One consequence is a great deal of migration from overcrowded villages: to Bangkok and the Southeast to work as laborers or servants; to Northern Thailand to settle on uncultivated land; and especially to other parts of the Northeast which have been opened up by new or improved roads. With the normal seasonal migration to seek extra work at the end of the harvest, all this adds up, in the words of a Thai official, to a "tremendous number of missing people."

The "forest fighters," as the guerrillas call themselves, are not ideologically committed, but they have been persuaded by the few who are- the communist cadres who have been working among the villagers for years- that under present conditions they face only hardship and suffering. They hear that the Government is corrupt, oppresses the people and is only interested in Bangkok. Communist agents tell the villagers that they themselves must take the initiative to change the situation, and that if they join the forest army they will get money, training for a good job, land and tractors, schools and hospitals.

In addition to the economic problems, there are historic and strategic reasons for insurgency in the Northeast. The area has long been a center of opposition movements, not necessarily communist, but all suspect in the eyes of a military régime. The Northeast was one of the strongholds of the wartime Free Thai Movement, directed against both the Japanese and the Prime Minister at that time, Field Marshal Phibun Songkram. For a brief period after the war the Northeasterners came into their own, but following the overthrow of the civilian leader, Pridi Phanomyong, by the armed forces in 1947, they were once more thrust into opposition. The years of official neglect of the area, aggravated by local politicians' resentment at their continued exclusion from power, fostered separatist tendencies. The military consequently suspected a plot to reunite the Lao-speaking population of Northeast Thailand with the Pathet Lao-controlled areas of Laos, all under the domination of North Viet Nam.

The alarm shown by the Thai Government, and shared by the United States, was understandable when Laos was the center of international attention and intrigue-during the years of crisis from 1957 to the Geneva settlement of 1962. Now, however, Laos has shaken down into two fairly well-defined areas: the cultivated lowlands by the Mekong, settled by Lao farmers and controlled by Prince Souvanna Phouma's right-wing neutralist coalition; and the mountainous regions inhabited by a variety of tribespeople, adjoining North (and part of South) Viet Nam, occupied by the Pathet Lao forces and strengthened by North Vietnamese. The vital interest of North Viet Nam is to preserve its entry routes into South Viet Nam, while that of Vientiane is to control the Mekong Valley, protecting Thailand. So long as these vital interests are not endangered a precarious status quo can be, and is being, observed.

This, of course, is hardly satisfactory for Saigon-though little can be done about it without a "wider war"-but it is not unfavorable to Thailand. Unfortunately, whatever advantages the Thais may have gained from the added security of a buffer in Laos have been more than offset by fear of the consequences of a collapse in South Viet Nam. This fear is not restricted to Thailand. Indeed the domino theory convinces global strategists who ignore the differences in local conditions that what happened in Laos (the downfall of former right-wing régimes) has happened in South Viet Nam and will happen in Thailand. This is reflected in the recent statement of a senior American official in Thailand: "I've served in both Viet Nam and Thailand and I'll tell you that things look far worse here today than they did in Saigon in 1960."[i]

II

Examination of conditions in Thailand does not bear out this prognosis. For in Northeast Thailand there is in fact a very limited state of insurgency. Despite unfavorable economic circumstances and years of official neglect, the transformation of discontent into open rebellion has been checked by the evidence of intensified government development activity in recent years and by the communists' failure to achieve immediate results. Only a small minority of the villagers in the Northeast have taken to the hills. For the Thais are practical people. Better living conditions are what they want and they do not care how they get them. What they do not want is to go on living in dreary poverty in backward villages; in fact the excitement of taking up arms in the forest is recognized to be one of the reasons for village youth joining the guerrillas. Conversely, disillusionment with the communists' ability to produce quick results breeds disaffection. Far from leading a heroic or a better life, the guerrillas find themselves separated from their families, forced to remain on the move in the forests, short of rice and other supplies; and when they go to the villages to seek food or information, they are in danger of being shot by soldiers, armed police or local volunteers. Many of the guerrillas, harassed and facing continual hardships, have given themselves up to the authorities; many more would do so if they could be assured of amnesty and a better future. The great majority of Northeasterners, far from seeking the armed over-throw of the Government, as claimed by communist propaganda, instead want the Government to do more for them.[ii]

This is the crucial difference between the situation of Thailand and that of South Viet Nam, where the Viet Minh-still known as such to the villagers, though labeled "Viet Cong" by Saigon-has to all intents and purposes been the effective government of large rural areas for more than twenty years. Three other features of the insurgency in Northeast Thailand reveal the same striking dissimilarity: the virtual absence of sabotage; the paucity of communist attacks on civil officials; and the lack of a rugged terrain.

Official statements emphasize the contrast between the two countries in answer to the pessimistic comparison with Viet Nam quoted above. According to the U.S. State Department's 1961 publication on Viet Nam, "A Threat to the Peace," the Government of South Viet Nam in 1960 stated that about 1,400 local officials and civilians were assassinated by the Viet Cong and approximately 700 persons were kidnapped. In Thailand, however, only 112 villagers and 24 officials were killed by the communists in the 16 months after the "Communist Suppression Operations Command" was formed in December 1965. As for the armed forces, including local militia, it was estimated in 1960 that the South Vietnamese lost 6,500 killed, wounded and captured, and the Viet Cong almost as many. The Thai figure for "officials killed in clashes" (presumably soldiers and police) in the 16 months was 63, with 105 wounded. In fact, military and Viet Cong casualties in South Viet Nam in 1960 amounted to more than the total number of police, military, officials and local volunteers-11,000 men-said to be "actively engaged in communist suppression work" in Northeast Thailand at present.

Again, Secretary of State Dean Rusk revealed on May 4, 1961, that the number of armed communist guerrillas in South Viet Nam in the preceding 18 months had grown from about 3,000 to over 12,000. This should be compared with the 1,700 to 2,000 armed terrorists estimated by the Thai authorities to be operating now in the Northeast. Mr. Rusk also pointed out that Viet Cong activities in 1960-61 "took the form of armed attacks against isolated garrisons; attacks on newly established townships, ambushes on roads and canals, destruction of bridges and well-planned sabotage against public works and communications lines." Little of this has occurred in Northeast Thailand.

Violence is still the exception in the Northeast. It is limited chiefly to the remote fringes of a few provinces-and divided in character between traditional forms of banditry, affecting poor and isolated regions, and politically guided insurgency. The damage done has been small in scale. Most clashes with the terrorists, according to the Communist Suppression Command, involve small numbers on either side, usually no more than 20 to 40 men. The communists are said to be reluctant to provoke any incident with the security forces; instead they hang on in the forests in the hope that the Government will eventually weary of the struggle and withdraw. The clashes that do take place-recently about sixteen a month in the Northeast, compared to an average of ten last year-are more the result of increased patrolling by the army and the police than of aggressive activities by the communists. Some wooden bridges have been burned down and sporadic attacks made on village defense volunteers and police posts. There have been few severe ambushes, the most dreaded feature of the Viet Nam campaign. Most guerrilla activities are raids in search of food.

One of the reasons for the relative restraint (at least by Vietnamese standards) shown by the Thai communists is that they are anxious not to alienate the mass of villagers by indiscriminate or widespread terrorism. A second is that they are afraid of provoking intensified military reprisals. A third is that they are thinking more in political than in military terms. Given the absence of good defensive terrain in the Northeast, the communists' only real chance of success is to build up a powerful political organization in the villages. This is far from being achieved.

III

The topography of the Northeast offers only limited advantages to the guerrillas. For the traveller approaching the Thai border town of Nakorn Phanom, the most striking impression, toward Malaya. Unlike the mountain strongholds of Southeast the northern and eastern frontiers with Burma and in the south in Northeast Thailand, nor in the entire country except along tains of Laos across the Mekong River. There is nothing like this occasional forests, is of the rugged crags and peaks of the moun-after the miles of flat rice fields interspersed with scrub land and China, where Mao first rallied his peasant forces, and the formidable ranges of North and Central Viet Nam, the few, low hills of the Northeast provide limited cover and are indefensible against sustained assault. Without adequate security, it is unlikely that the communists will be able to organize and train a "main force," which is necessary if they are ever to advance beyond the guerrilla stage. The mountainous areas inhabited by tribal minorities are potentially a much more serious problem; and, indeed, it is from these areas that many of the armed clashes are now reported.

Nor do the guerrillas seem to possess the leadership necessary for the expansion of the insurgency. In China and in Viet Nam the effective organization of party, army and administration on a territorial base was a tremendous achievement; there is no evidence that the communists have reached anything like that stage in the villages of Northeast Thailand. Phayom Chulanont, chief representative of the "Thailand Patriotic Front" in Peking, admitted late in 1965 that the Front was "still in the stage where it must strengthen its internal organization." There is reason to believe that the announcement of Chinese and North Vietnamese support for the insurgency in Thailand early in 1965 has actually proved a disservice, the Thai insurgent organization having been impelled to take action before it was ready for it. There is no sign that the Thai communist leaders possess the experience, determination, flexibility or understanding shown by either Mao Tse-tung or Ho Chi Minh. Far from achieving national reputations, Thai Communists have little more than local significance.

One figure of national importance, former Prime Minister Pridi, has been an exile in China for more than fifteen years; but he has carefully kept apart from the Thai communists in Peking. Pridi would be the natural leader of a neutralist régime, should this emerge in Thailand, and it would be reasonable to suppose that the Chinese put more faith in an eminent neutralist who has the possibility of coming to power than in a group of communists of low caliber and with dubious chances of success.

In addition to these drawbacks there are several reasons why the Thai guerrillas are unlikely to find a strong political following. The communist campaigns in China and Indochina have demonstrated the importance of a national appeal which is both "horizontal," extending over wide areas of the country, and "vertical," embracing various classes. In Indochina there is no doubt that the Viet Minh had a nationwide following by 1945, when the French administration was overthrown by the Japanese, who were soon themselves to surrender. It was then that the "mandate of heaven," according to the Confucian ideals held by the Vietnamese, passed to the government of Ho Chi Minh.

The checkered career of the Chinese Communist movement is even more revealing. So long as the Chinese Communists were limited to an appeal made largely on social and economic grounds-however necessary it was-they were able to maintain only a weak and struggling existence in a remote and backward area of Southeast China; and in 1934 they barely escaped disaster after being blockaded by the Kuomintang. It was the Japanese invasion of North and Central China three years later which transformed the situation. First, it enabled the communists to vie with the Kuomintang for a monopoly of the intense national feelings aroused among the Chinese by Japanese brutality. And second, and perhaps even more important, the Japanese invasion swept away both the Kuomintang forces and the governing administration of large areas which the Japanese could not fully control. Into this vacuum moved the communists, more resolute than the Kuomintang to protect the peasants and more skilled in guerrilla operations against the Japanese.

There are no signs of a broad base developing in Thailand in the immediate future. There is no internal "feudal" oppression to speak of, and the impact of military control at the top is blurred both by civilian administration and by the indifference to politics of the bulk of the population. As for the external enemy, which served to rally large numbers of Chinese and Vietnamese to the communist cause, there is more awareness in Thailand of the traditional threat from Viet Nam and Cambodia-with China now replacing the old enemy, Burma-than of an American "occupation." Indeed the presence of the Americans, however irksome in some ways, can still be considered "benevolent." The breakdown of the existing régime, almost a sine qua non of a successful insurgency, has not occurred in Thailand, nor does it seem likely in the near future.[iii]

IV

Now there is no doubt that communist activities have increased or at any rate have come more out into the open since 1961, when the first large- scale roundup of communist suspects took place in the Northeast. Two or three larger and more militant bands are reported to be operating in parts of Sakon Nakorn Province, trying aggressively to spread fear and insecurity among the villagers by publicly executing government supporters and boasting of the government's inability to protect them. In some defenseless areas this has led to a "Viet Nam-type" situation in which police and local officials have reached an accommodation with the communists: they are spared provided they do nothing about the communist propaganda meetings and party organizational activities taking place under their noses. The advantage lies, of course, with the communists, who are effectively usurping the authority of the Government; and the villagers know it. The critical question-on which both Thai and foreign opinion, official and lay, is divided-is whether this system is spreading or not. Meanwhile, the North Vietnamese are training Thai guerrilla and political cadres-the number increased from 68 in 1962 to 130 in 1965-in seven to eight month courses of weapons training, demolition, jungle survival, ambush drill and so on. Twenty of these cadres have surrendered to the Thai authorities.

But the authorities have also been more active. General Prapart claimed in May 1967 that over 2,000 communists had been captured and 1,800 had surrendered to the authorities since the start of the insurgency late in 1965. (These were almost certainly "sympathizers" or "suspects" rather than active, armed communists.) Yet, to reiterate, the number of communists reported killed is only 184 (compared to 199 villagers, soldiers and officials). In the month of June 1967, which is fairly typical, 11 communists were killed, 77 captured and 10 surrendered. Three officials and 12 villagers were killed and 7 villagers were wounded.

Activities at this level hardly constitute a threat to national security. And if the potential for increased effectiveness exists for the communists, this is also true of the Government. Until recently only two army battalions were operating in the Northeast (now there is one more). So far few government patrols stay for any length of time in the forest, where their operations would most damage the guerrillas. They tend to stick to their posts and wait for an incident to occur. Also, what is still very much needed is for the Government to send able, active, honest, properly coordinated and sympathetic administrators into the area.

Yet a number of factors favor the growing effectiveness of the Government vis-à-vis the guerrillas. First, and perhaps most important, the concentration of development effort on the Northeast cannot fail in due course to open up the isolated villages and inaccessible forest regions which allowed an unimpeded growth of subversion. Secondly, the Government is recruiting, training and equipping local defense forces which, with appropriate army and police backing, should in time be able to take over the main responsibility for village protection. Thirdly, radio communication with the bigger villages, better transport facilities and more helicopters will provide government forces with mobility needed to deal with the elusive guerrillas.

The combination of the Government's technical superiority and the insurgents' inability to develop beyond guerrilla warfare would appear to be decisive, at least in the military field. But the problems of the Northeast reside as much in economics and politics as in security. And if the Thai Government fails to deal constructively with the conditions that gave rise to insurgency-poverty, isolation and lack of participation in local and national affairs-it may still, in the end, be the loser.

[i] Reported by Edgar Klein, "Tightrope in Thailand," Newsweek, June 19, 1967.

[ii] Economic programs in the Northeast, in addition to the normal activities of the Agriculture, Rice, Livestock, Irrigation and other Ministerial Departments, include: Accelerated Rural Development, from 1964, mainly road construction (in 1967 the Thai Government contributed the equivalent of $20 million, the U.S. Government $12.6 million, chiefly in construction equipment); Community Development, under the Ministry of the Interior, with limited funds to help villagers build small dams and bridges, repair schools, organize village development committees, etc.; and Mobile Development Units, under the Government's National Security Command, now established in seventeen "insecure" provinces (ten in the Northeast). However, a statistical survey made in September-October 1965 showed that only one village in thirty had been affected by the A.R.D. program in the six most insecure provinces in the Northeast.

[iii] Given Thai history over the past 35 years, the possibility of a coup cannot be ruled out. It is partly to prevent one that so much army strength is deployed around Bangkok-to the irritation of American officials-rather than sent into action in the Northeast. Moreover, divisions within the army as well as continuing military-police rivalry are indicated by the recent army takeover of counter-insurgency operations in the Northeast from the former civil-police-military joint command.

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