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Nakhon Phanom During The Secret War 1962-1975

Communist Thai

Thailand: anatomy of a counterinsurgency victory

By Thomas A. Marks

Thomas A. Marks is Professor of Terrorism, Insurgency, and Counterinsurgency at the School for National Security Executive Education (SNSEE), National Defense University and also Chair of the Irregular Warfare Department (SNSEE). He holds a B.S. from the United States Military Academy and a Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii. He has lectured and published widely on terrorism and insurgency.

Exerts From: Military Review Jan 1, 2007 with permission of the author

As in other regional conflicts, the Thai conflict grew out of a Communist bid for power. In a challenge to the RoyalGovernment, 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 throughthe creation of a counterstate. Direct mobilization of a popular base and indirect mobilization through frontorganizations were to be the party's main lines of operation. Violence would be but one tool among many in an armedpolitical 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 governmentcontrol 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 madethem 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 promotingthe 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 theunincorporated space of what became three largely autonomous campaigns: the North, Northeast (Isaan), and South. Although Thailand is not especially large, neither is it small. Its 514,000 square kilometers (198,500 square miles) and 28 million people (in 1962) put it in the same league with a unified Vietnam (smaller in population than Vietnam, but larger in area).

Northeast Thailand was especially susceptible to such revolutionary activities, due in part to economic, cultural, and political characteristics that distinguished it from other regions. (2) It was the kingdom's largest and most populous region, yet its poorest (thanks mainly to an ecology that limited agricultural and other forms of economic development). It was politically alienated from the central government because of its population's Thai-Lao ethnicity and culture. Thai-Lao personalities had dominated radical politics immediately after World War II, and the region's delegates in Thailand's military-dominated parliamentary system had incurred the ire of the ruling elite by supporting neutralist sentiments even as Thailand moved closer to the West. (3)

Government repression allowed the CPT to tap the latent grievances already present owing to the Northeast'seconomic and social predicament. (4) To focus the resulting outburst, the CPT constructed its counterstate along standard Leninist lines. At the apex was a 7-man Politburo, below it a 25-man Central Committee. Central Committeemembers performed various staff functions, one of the most important being supervision of the military apparatus andcreation of a united front (as called for by Maoist doctrine). Committee members frequently served as heads ofCommunist Party provincial (changwat) committees, which oversaw CPT district (amphoe) committees that, in turn, guided "township" (tambol) and village (muban or ban) party structures. (5)

The resulting alternative government structure emerged as a serious clandestine challenge to state authority andlegitimacy in outlying areas. Robert F. Zimmerman, a U.S. official with long experience in Thailand, observed thefollowing about this quasi-government's basic component, the village: "The party's greatest strength ... lies in its elaborate organization at the village level in those areas where Communist insurgents are strongly entrenched. Anexcellent illustration of this organization at its best is the infrastructure that existed in Ban Nakham village, UbonRatchathani Province, in 1966. Although government Communist-suppression operations destroyed this infrastructure,there is little reason to doubt that it remains typical of communist practice in areas where the insurgents are in control.

The Ban Nakham village organization was headed by a village committee consisting of a chairman, two assistantchairmen, and four other members, with one of the assistant chairmen and the four ordinary members responsible fordirecting the activities of eight specialized committees of 15-30 members dealing with such matters as youth andmilitary affairs, political propaganda, labor and business, women's affairs, etc. This structure functioned within thevillage but was responsible to a 'zone commander' and two assistant commanders based in the jungle. "Through this apparatus operating at the local level, the Communists have been able not only to recruit and motivateactive adherents but also to mobilize sufficient popular support in the major insurgent areas to generate sources ofmanpower, food, shelter, and finances (in part through local tax levies), and to develop an effective intelligence network. They have also benefited from a certain amount of illicit 'assistance' in the form of accommodation or evenbribes offered by government officials or by private construction firms engaged in building roads into the insurgentareas." (6)

According to former CIA officer Ralph W. McGehee, this infrastructure became quite extensive: "Using all the index cards and files, I wrote a final report. I prepared name lists of all cell members, including their aliases, by village. In this district the list contained the names of more than 500 persons. Those 500 persons did not appear anywhere in the Agency reporting at the time. The CIA estimated there were 2,500 to 4,000 Communists in all of Thailand. But our surveys showed the Communists probably had that many adherents in Sakorn Nakom Province alone." (7)

It appears, however, that in some ways McGehee and his superiors might have been comparing apples and oranges. The CIA's 2,500-4,000 figure seems to have been an estimate of armed guerrillas, while the 500 individuals in  McGehee's district were part of the mass base. When a village came under control of the CPT shadow government, its mobilization included providing manpower for a militia. Only the best members of this body joined the actual guerrillas in the CPT's bases, located in inaccessible areas. In other words, by counting only the full-time guerrillas, the CIA overlooked the much larger number of individuals actually involved in the movement. It is also important to note that, in contrast to the romantic Maoist vision promulgated by CPT literature, the guerrillas' weapons and equipment did not come from raids conducted against government forces, but from other Southeast Asian Communist sources.

With reliable sources of supply from abroad and recruiting made easy by repression at home, the CPT expanded steadily. By the early 1970s, a majority of the provinces in the kingdom had been classified as "infiltrated," meaning some sort of CPT activity was present. (8) Still, this activity remained confined mainly to areas outside the heartland, beyond the central plain that was the social, economic, and political center of Thailand. Penetration of urban centers ofpower on the central plain would occur later.

The State Responds

To counter the rising threat, the Thai government adopted a strategy directed against the combatants of the insurgent counterstate. (9) This was an inappropriate response to the CPT challenge because it sought to suppress the opposition by brute force rather than attempting to assuage the popular discontent fueling the insurgency. In December 1965, the highest levels of the government ordered the formation of a Communist Suppression Operations Command(CSOC), later to become the Internal Security Operations Command (ISOC). Saiyud Kerdphol, a respected officer whose background included covert operations in Laos against Communist forces, was placed in charge of this new command. What the government had in mind, though, was not counterinsurgency, but better management of the counterguerrilla campaign.Saiyud later recounted, "The RTA [Royal Thai Army] then was run by 'the old school,' the pre-World War II officers. They had tremendous difficulty understanding counterinsurgency, rebellion, and the fundamental causes which fed revolt.

Some of the younger generation of officers, though, were more attuned to reality. Among them was Prem [later Prime Minister]. "We understood immediately that what we were dealing with was a political problem. We applied CPM to the problems of the Northeast, yet we knew more was needed than simply a response. Coordination is the key to winning, but all must look at the problem through the same eyes. You need a common blueprint on which to base the plan. "Two things were obvious: there was nothing worse than to fight the wrong way, and the key is the people. We had to ask ourselves, why do the people have a problem, why are they taking up arms? We did a lot of mechanical things,such as setting up Village Defence Corps and special training centers through which we could run all regular companies. "The crucial point, though, more than numbers, is orientation. You have to keep analyzing a target area. You have to keep asking yourself, 'What are the reasons for popular discontent? What are the problems?' Figure out the solutions, then implement and coordinate." (10)

More or less disregarding his superiors, Saiyud began to organize CSOC for a genuine counterinsurgency, one that would seek to get at the roots of the conflict. To clearly define the nature of the problems, he did two things immediately. First, he set up an intelligence analysis center with branches in the field. Copies of all government reports (and any other data that could be gathered up) were then fed into the intelligence system and analyzed with the aid of borrowed computer time--a novel methodology for Thailand at the time. This weeded out typical bureaucratic misstatement and inaccuracy and expedited distribution of a definitive assessment of various problems to pertinent agencies. Second, he established an extensive research and analysis branch under the brilliant and at times controversial scholar, Somchai Rakwijit. Under Rakwijit's guidance, the branch soon produced comprehensiveassessments based on sound data. Rather than relying on suspect reports passed from outlying regions through theofficial bureaucracy, he sent researchers into the field, often alone, to study insurgent-infested areas.

Using the data generated by these systems, Saiyud developed a response that called for a mix of civil and military measures. His modus operandi constituted a textbook approach to classic counterinsurgency: identify the problem; move in with solutions, using the military to shield the effort; and send specially trained forces to seek out the guerrillas.

Although Saiyud's approach seemed logical, it encountered resistance. CSOC was at first given authority only over the small CPM task forces deployed to insurgent-affected areas. In 1967, guided by a comprehensive intelligence network set up by Saiyud, the task forces began to show promise in uncovering and dealing with the CPT infrastructure. But when CSOC asked for more units, military opponents, jealously guarding their own turfs, demurred. Before long,authority over field units was transferred back to regional army commanders.

Consequently, this first attempt at establishing a counterinsurgency program was rendered largely ineffective. Most commanders simply would not deploy their forces on what they viewed as a secondary mission. Instead, they concentrated on personal political and economic concerns. When actually called upon to move against insurgent forces, commanders did so in the traditional military fashion most resented by local peoples: search and destroy.

An Alternative to Brute Force

The root of the problem in the North was that the hill tribe people concerned, the Hmong, not being ethnically Thai, were treated as second-class citizens. The government's discriminatory racial attitudes, reflected by the average Thai soldier, frequently translated into hostile acts against members of the population. The CPT took advantage of the hostility generated.

 Nevertheless, it is important to note that regardless of structural conditions, villager loyalty remained very much up for grabs during this period. Despite the CPT's efforts to paint itself as the people's champion, communist ideology had limited popular appeal. In fact, setting aside the ham-fisted strategy employed by their rulers, most Thai preferred to side with the government and the status quo unless traumatized by specific grievances.

Using "other war" means, Saiyud sought to exploit this Thai inclination to side with the government or to remain neutral, particularly in the Northeast, where the target population, although culturally distinct, was nonetheless regarded as within the "Thai" family. He and other like-minded officials pushed through programs to meet popular needs through regional development. Publicly, at least, Bangkok was under no illusions concerning poor conditions in the countryside. (13) During the early to mid-1950s, before the outbreak of actual violence, the government had begun a number of development programs to address the conditions. By 1958, this approach had been broadened to include the first community development pilot projects; and in 1960, a National Community Development Program was put into effect, consolidating many of the already existing programs (which had been scattered among various departments).

 According to government literature, National Community Development was designed to bring about the partnership of the Royal Thai Government (RTG) and its people at the local level. (14) It aimed "to encourage the people to exercise initiative to improve their communities and ways of living through cooperative efforts on the self-help basis" and to "bring the coordinated support of the various ministries concerned to assist the villagers in carrying out their projects." (15) By the end of 1961, at least on paper, most Northeastern villages were covered by the program, even, it should be noted, as repressive measures sent activists fleeing to the CPT for protection.

While National Community Development was directed at villages throughout the kingdom, additional measures to deal specifically with the Northeast were also implemented. The overall effort was facilitated by the United States, which had established an economic aid mission to the kingdom in 1950. Much of the $300 million in planned expenditures was provided by Washington. The principal vehicle for American assistance in this field was the Accelerated Rural Development (ARD) program. ARD created, trained, and equipped a local organization to plan, design, construct, and maintain rural roads and other small village projects. Provinces selected for ARD were those most in need of immediate developmental help. In practice, this meant those provinces threatened by Communist insurgency as designated by theThai National Security Council. Once a changwad was designated an "ARD province," the governor's staff andequipment were augmented. Simultaneously, the governor was authorized to implement village-level projects on his own.

By 1969, the governors of the 24 ARD-designated provinces--most of them in the Northeast--had progressed from having virtually no resources with which to mount any type of development program to having 250-member staffs, millions of dollars worth of equipment, and vastly increased budgets. The government had committed a cumulative total of $58,824,000 to the program, supplemented by $49,308,000 from the United States. How these funds were expended, it should be noted, reflected economic priorities. Road building and maintenance were the dominant categories. Other ARD activities included mobile medical teams, district farmer groups (cooperatives), and youth and potable water programs.

Mixed Results of "Development"

In terms of achieving politico-military objectives to end the insurgency, ARD's results in 1969 were mixed. Although physically and statistically there was a great deal of economic progress to show, the ultimate objective had been to "reduce, or even eliminate, insurgency through the development effort." (16) This had not happened. To the contrary, American and Thai evaluations consistently noted that ARD made no meaningful difference in the target population'soverall disposition toward the government even though the actual activities involved were generally appreciated. (17)

Even where the villagers' lot improved demonstrably (e.g., per capita income increased), the rosy statistical picture often did not reflect the continuing realities of the poor security situation.Hence ARD failed to achieve a great deal toward realizing its objectives. This should not have been surprising, since the government had adopted a predominantly economic response to a fundamentally political problem. What should have been one supporting element in an overall program became the main effort due to the government's onedimensional vision of "development" as panacea. The outcome was as predictable as it was ineffective.

The Communist insurgents wanted to restructure the existing systems of social stratification and to redistribute political power by seizing the reins of the state. Because there were no peaceful means to employ--they had been officially frozen out of the system--violence became their principal instrument. Noncommunist opponents of the existing order were similarly precluded from real participation. Their only choices were to sit on the sidelines or join the insurgents.

The solution to such a structural dilemma, then, should have been political reform. But this Bangkok could not see. Although political reform was mentioned as a goal, it was completely overshadowed by the program's economic aspects, such as infrastructure development. The skewing of goals was reflected in ARD's unsatisfactory results.

Role of the United States

Ironically, both the "hard" military and "soft" development sides of the Thai approach were generally attributed to U.S. direction. (18) Such a view was simplistic and misleading. Certainly U.S. influence was significant, but Thailand's collaboration with the United States during this period was a marriage of convenience for both parties. It was driven by a shared security perspective whereby both states sought to maximize their gains. In fact, when the drawbacks of partnership came to overshadow the advantages, the Thai government asserted its independence and backed away from greater collaboration.

A U.S. Military Aid Program (MAP) and a Joint U.S. Military Assistance Group (JUSMAG) had been in Thailand since the Korean War (during which Thailand deployed a regimental combat team and various sea and air assets), with the Military Assistance Command-Thailand (MACTHAI) added in 1962 for "operational combat assistance." The mechanisms needed by the Americans to support Thailand's counterinsurgency plan were fully realized during the tenure of Ambassador Graham Martin (1963-67). Programs, budgets, and U.S. personnel increased substantially. In mid-1966, Martin created the position of Special Assistant for Counterinsurgency to coordinate and regulate all U.S. military and civilian activities directly related to the problem of insurgency in Thailand. (22)

The number of personnel who administered such support fluctuated constantly. George Tanham has provided useful figures, all for the late 1973, early 1974 time frame (later than the period under discussion, but still illustrative): 101 embassy personnel; 179 U.S. Agency for International Development personnel in the United States Operations Mission(USOM), a plurality working with ARD; 26 personnel in the field element, United States Information Service of theUnited States Information Agency; 550 personnel in JUSMAG/MACTHAI (a portion of whom were assigned to Special Forces Thailand); and approximately 200 personnel assigned to a field unit (in Bangkok) of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, most of whom were contractors. Other units, such as the 4,000 men of U.S. Army Support Thailand, could be used as appropriate for missions within Thailand. (23)

By the end of 1966, 60 percent of American aid funds were going to the Northeast. Mobile Development Units--16 units of 120 men each that carried out civic action projects--received an initial investment of $1.5 million. The significant ARD input through Fiscal Year (FY) 1969 has already been mentioned (just over $49 million). Active as the United States was, a delicate balancing effort was required between providing support specifically to Thailand and support to the war effort elsewhere in Indochina. By the end of 1967, 33,369 U.S. Airmen and 527 aircraft were in the kingdom (by 1970 the personnel figure would reach 48,000), carrying out missions principally against North Vietnam. A Thai division of 11,000 men (14 percent of the army's total strength) was in South Vietnam, and a substantial 20,000-man "covert" force (27 light infantry and 3 artillery battalions) was in Laos. (25) In sum, "Vietnam War activities" were substantial and had a significant impact upon the economy and society of Thailand.

American contribution to the Thai campaign, for better or worse, followed much the same trajectory as the larger Indochina conflict. The gradual winding down of the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia led to diminishing resources and removal of the sense of urgency that had marked the American advisory effort. By 1976, there were only 4,000 Americans left in Thailand, most providing communications or logistics support and not connected to the Thai counterinsurgency.


(1.) For a more in-depth treatment of the events in Thailand, see Thomas A Marks, Making Revolution: The Insurgency of the Communist Party of Thailand in Structural Perspective (Bangkok: White Lotus, 1994) and Marks, Maoist Insurgency Since Vietnam (London: Frank Cass, 1996), particularly chapter 1 (19-82).

(2.) See Thomas A. Marks, "Government Policy as a Reflection of the Development Model: The Case of Accelerated Rural Development (ARD) in Northeast Thailand," Journal of East & West Studies (Seoul) 10, no.1 (1981): 59-95.

(3.) See Charles F. Keyes, Isan: Regionalism in Northeast Thailand (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1967). For attitude

surveys, see Somchai Rakwijit, Village Leadership in Northeast Thailand and Study of Youth in Northeast Thailand (Bangkok: Joint Thai-US Military Research and Development Center, 1971).

(4.) See Komsan Madukham, Dong Prachao: Land of the Dead (Bangkok: Pitakpracha, 1977) [in Thai]. This is a useful volume; one of eighteen such works that Somchai Rakwijit, research director for CSOC/ISOC, arranged for his personnel to produce using pen names. The authors thus had access to all available data, to include classified material.

(5.) Interview with Somchai Rakwijit, Bangkok, 13 May 1986. See also David Jankins, "The Hit-Run 'Governmant,'" Far Eastem Economic Review [hereafter, FEER], 23 July 1973, 26-27. The precise combination of these elements at any particular time was problematic. More often than not, the standard nomenclature for identifying a particular area of CPT activity was to designate it a "zone." A zone could embrace anything from a village to a province.

(6.) Robert F. Zimmerman, "Insurgency in Thailand," Problems of Communism (May-June 1976): 27. Additional details may be found in Justus M. van der Kroef, "Guerrilla Communism and Counterinsurgency in Thailand," Orbis 17, no. 1 (Spring 1974): 106-39 (see especially 119-22).

(7.) Ralph W. McGehee, Deadly Deceits: My 25 Years in the CIA (New York: Sheridan Square, 1983), 109.

(8.) Zimmerman (page 21) observes: "There is sometimes considerable controversy both within and between various government agencies (Thai and foreign) as to where 'Communists' are or are not 'active.'"

(9.) Portions of this section have appeared in my "Thailand's Terror Years," Soldier of Fortune, August 1990, 30-37

(10.) Interview with Saiyud Kerdphol, former Supreme Commander of the Royal Thai Armed Forces, Phayao Province, 31 August 1987.

(11.) See Arnold Abrams and Chiang Kham, "Mountains of Discontent," FEER, 2 July 1970, 20-22.

(12.) See John R. Thomson, "The Burning Mountain," FEER, 25 April 1968, 218-20.

(13.) See, for example, the assessment contained in Community Development Program, Summary of National

Community Development Programme Thailand (Bangkok: Department of Interior, 1961).

(14.) For an example of such literature, see Community Development Bureau, Thanom Kittikachorn, Trends in Community Development (Bangkok: Department of Interior, 1964); and Vichit Sukaviriya, ed. Facts about Community Development Programs (Bangkok: Ministry of Interior, 1966).

(15.) Community Development Bureau, 1.

(16.) George K. Tanham, Trial in Thailand (New York: Crane, Russak, 1974), 75.

(17.) See, for example, Ralph E. Dakin, ed., Security and Development in Northeast Thailand: Problems, Progress and the Roles of Amphoe, Tambol and Muban Government (Bangkok: USOM/Thailand, 1968); and USOM/Thailand, Impact of USOM Supported Programs in Changwad Sakorn Nakorn (Bangkok: 1967). Further analysis is contained in Peter E Bell, "Thailand's Northeast: Regional Underdevelopment, 'Insurgency', and Official Response," Pacific Affairs 42, no.1 (Spring 1969): 47-54.

(18.) This is a central theme in, for example, Chai-anan Samudavanija, Kusuma Snitwongse, and Suchit Bunbongkam, From Armed Suppression to Political Offensive: Attitudinal Transformation of Thai Military Officers since 1978 (Bangkok: Institute of Security and International Studies, Chulalongkorn University, 1990). For an alternative approachthat proceeds within a larger framework of reaction to perceived threat, sea Thomas A. Marks, "The Thai Approach toPeacemaking since World War II," Journal of East & West Studies (Seoul) 7, no.1 (April 1978): 133-55, and Marks, "An Eclectic Model of Thailand's Participation in the Vietnam War," Peace Research (Ontario) 11, no.2 (April 1979): 71-76.

(19.) Agency for International Development, Introduction to Program Presentation to the Congress/Proposed FY 1971 Program (no date).

(20.) For particulars of this development, consult Michael T. Klare, War Without End (New York: Vintage Books, 1972); Frances Fitzgerald, Fire in the Lake (Boston: Little, Brown, 1972); and David Halberstam, The Best and the Brightest (Greenwich, CT: Fawcett Publications, 1972).

(21.) For a representative selection, see United States Military Academy, Revolutionary Warfare, 6 vols. (Wast Point, NY: Department of Military Art and Engineering, 1967); Naval War College, Selected Readings for Counter-insurgency Course, 4 vols. (Newport, RI, 1968); Robert Thompson, Defeating Communist Insurgency (New York: Praeger, 1966).

(22.) Tanham, 115-50.

(23.) Ibid., 115-28.

(24.) The no-combat rule did not apply to "black ops" such as the use, during the period March 1966-January 1967, of a score of helicopters attached to the U.S. 606th Air Commando Squadron in support of Thai actions in the North and Northeast.

(25.) The battalions concerned had been formed in Thailand after being recruited by the Thai army. They were apparently trained by the CIA and detailed U.S Special Forces personnel. Udom was the site of "HQ 333" for Thai forces in Laos. Each unit was built around a core of regular Thai army personnel, all of whom "resigned" before becoming "volunteers." The initial cost to the United States had bean $26 million annually for payroll expanses, onethird the amount of all U.S. aid budgeted for Lace. At the time, the insurgent Pathet Lao, who could function only because of North Vietnamese presence, claimed that half the "Lao government forces" were in reality Thai. The balance of those forces were Hmong tribesmen of the "Secret Army" under Vang Pao.

(26.) A more detailed treatment can be found in Thomas A. Marks, "The Thai Monarchy under Siege," Asia Quarterly (Brussels) no. 2 (1978): 109-41; and Marks, "The Status of the Monarchy in Thailand," Issues & Studies (Taipei) 13, no.


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