Monday, April 14, 2008

Thailand's First Counter-insurgency Fight

The most striking characteristic of the Thai counter-insurgency is the time it took to finally get it right. From 1965 to 1983, the Thai government groped for the strategy that would work to effectively counter the insurgency. The early Thai counter-insurgency effort looked somewhat like the early American counter-insurgency effort in Vietnam, heavy on the conventional war with little effort to redress the economic and political grievances that motivated the Maoists. Many Thais recognized that the Maoist complaints about the political system had resonance, but instead of joining the insurgency, many disaffected Thais turned their dissatisfaction to more traditionally Thai outlets like Buddhism, Thai nationalism and love of the monarchy. These outlets were more attractive to most Thais that what the Maoist in the Communist Party of Thailand were offering. The insurgency failed to grow and thrive even though the Thai military adopted many of the heavy-handed tactics of the seen in other counter-insurgency fights that generally backfired.

The unique character of the Thai people offered the counter-insurgency additional time to find the right strategy. As we have seen in the other case studies, the key variable to counter-insurgency is having the time to allow the right strategy to work. Seventeen years is a long time to fight any kind of campaign, but that kind of time is generally what is needed to be successful. The time allowed the Thai military to put into practice a counter-insurgency strategy the broad outlines of which are now familiar. The conventional military provided real security in the villages to allow grass-roots political reform to take place. Special units hunted and destroyed the military capability of the insurgents. At the national level, general political reform addressed the systemic problems that might have compelled the ideologically inclined to side with the insurgents and tip the balance away from the government.

As Jon pointed out, CPT strategic mistakes also contributed to the Thai government victory. Most of those mistakes can be attributed to the nature of communism. Communists are atheists, anti-religious, controlled by outsiders and anti-monarchical. Thus, the CPT had a hard time swimming in the sea of the Thai people who were Buddhist and traditional monarchists. The Maoists just could not change or hide their nature, and were thus always at a disadvantage in their organizing and concealment in the countryside. There is a Zen Buddhist story that goes something like this: A Buddhist master reached into a stream to save a scorpion that was drowning while a soldier stood nearby. As the master lifted the scorpion on the bank to save it from drowning, the insect stung the master, then the soldier immediately stomped the scorpion to death. The student asked why the master would save a scorpion knowing it would sting and that the soldier would kill it. “It has its nature, I have mine, he has his.”

The extent to which the CPT insurgency was wedded to Maoist ideology probably was a lucky thing for the Thai counter-insurgency as Robert mentioned. By the time the Thai counter-insurgency was heading to victory, Maoism had been discredited everywhere, including in China. Whatever political problems existed in Thailand seemed trivial compared to the prospect of foreign domination, concentration camps and bankruptcy that communism had to offer. The Thai people could see what communism wrought for their neighbors in Laos and Vietnam. Those examples had no appeal for the average Thai and that perception contributed to the defeat of the CPT.