Academic journal article Military Review

Thailand: Anatomy of a Counterinsurgency Victory

Academic journal article Military Review

Thailand: Anatomy of a Counterinsurgency Victory

Article excerpt

FOR STUDENTS OF WAR, historical cases relevant to the present United States counterinsurgency in Iraq are plentiful, though not always immediately obvious. The Vietnam War is a case in point. That conflict provides numerous lessons regarding counterinsurgency, but many of them have been overlooked because analysts typically study the war as if it were a purely local affair, occurring amidst a regional vacuum. They forget that the fighting in Vietnam was only part of a wider regional struggle encompassing other national theaters of operation. Each of those theaters had its own unique character and distinct ways in which the United States was involved. Hence, each offers us a discrete set of lessons for today's campaigns. The counterinsurgency in Thailand (roughly 1950-1983) was one such related but distinctive struggle.

The Thai case is particularly relevant for us because it was, from start to finish, more akin to our 1955-65 advisory experience in Vietnam than to the main force employment era in the decade that followed (1965-73). Thus there is much that veterans of El Salvador, Colombia, Peru, Afghanistan, and Iraq would recognize. This is important, because the conventional side of the Vietnam War (depicted in such films as We Were Soldiers, Platoon, and Hamburger Hill) occurred only after earlier efforts to strengthen state capacity failed. By contrast, such efforts did not fail in Thailand, which makes the circumstances and nature of our involvement there such an important case study for serious students of counterinsurgency today.

That said, the usual caveat, as we shall see, is perhaps even more the case here. Every insurgency has its unique elements, none more so than Thailand's. In the end, peculiarly "Thai" factors drove events, but the ability of the counterinsurgency (with or without American input) to operate successfully within the distinctive parameters of Thai culture, even as the insurgents did not, offers particularly instructive lessons. (1)

Constructing the Counterstate

As in other regional conflicts, the Thai conflict grew out of a Communist bid for power. In a challenge to the Royal Government, the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) shed its pre-Second World War adherence to orthodox Marxist-Leninism, embraced Maoism, and adopted people's war as its strategy. From the outset, societal transformation was the CPT's goal. Its strategy was to negate the state's greater military power by mobilizing the people against it through the creation of a counterstate. Direct mobilization of a popular base and indirect mobilization through front organizations were to be the party's main lines of operation. Violence would be but one tool among many in an armed political campaign designed to march steadily towards seizure of the capital, Bangkok.

Tactically, the Communist Party used local guerrilla units (main forces were never formed) to challenge government control of certain areas. Operationally, the link between the party and the guerrillas was the clandestine infrastructure, the counterstate, rooted in CPT control of local areas that functioned as its bases for further expansion. To establish authority in such areas, the CPT employed terror. Recalcitrant villagers, or those whose community standing made them symbols of government authority (e.g., village headmen and schoolteachers), were selectively targeted.

Simultaneously, to attract and unify popular support, CPT political themes and propaganda concentrated on promoting the perception that the party was the Thai people's sole champion, its only effective means to address grievances. Hence the CPT concentrated its activity mainly in rural areas beset by poverty and politically estranged from the central government.

Following Maoist doctrine, the CPT began developing its counterstate in peripheral areas of the kingdom, in the unincorporated space of what became three largely autonomous campaigns: the North, Northeast (Isaan), and South. …

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