The Americans in Thailand
What is really happening in Thailand and why are we expanding our military forces there? After all the talk about increased economic and social help for South Vietnam, why are we doing next to nothing for the 3 million. Vietnamese who live in the backlash of war and the squalor of slums in the capital city of Saigon? These situations have much to do with the costly and escalating American involvement in Southeast Asia, but they have been little told until now. In the following report on the American presence in Thailand, Maynard Parker combines his experience as a journalist (LIFE magazine) and his recent Army service as a public information officer in Thailand. Mr. Parker wrote this article after completing his military assignment and before rejoining LIFE as a Far Eastern correspondent based in Hong Kong.
MY MAYNARD PARKER
WHILE serving in the United States Army in Thailand, I participated in scores of top-secret briefings. However, none so clearly crystallized my year’s experience in the country as one I attended in late 1965, just before leaving Thailand. Standing back behind rows of captains and colonels, I listened to a major in crisp khaki discuss a war plan for the defense of Thailand in case of an overt Communist attack across the Mekong from Laos. Using a pointer, he referred to a giant map which covered an entire wall. The Communists’ probable axes of attack were neatly laid out in red, the U.S. and Thai deployments in blue. At the close of the briefing, the major asked if there were any questions.
Hands popped into the air. An engineer lieutenant colonel wanted to know how much barbed wire was needed for fortifications, a quartermaster major how much gasoline would be required to fuel the tanks and trucks. Finally, the major delivering the briefing reached me, the lone lieutenant in the room. I asked him how the war plan would be adapted in the event that the Communists began a war of liberation within Thailand’s borders. His answer was short: “We do not expect a guerrilla war in Thailand.”
Yet little more than a year before the major’s briefing, there were news reports in the West of a clandestine Communist radio station in southern China which announced in Thai that a people’s war “to rid Thailand of the American imperialists and to overthrow the corrupt government of Premier Thanom Kittikachorn” had been launched in Thailand. Similarly, it had been reported that the Chinese Communist Foreign Minister, Chen Yi, had told a diplomatic reception in Peking, “We will have a guerrilla war going in Thailand before the year is out.” Communist terrorism was responsible for an increasing number of political assassinations in the impoverished northeastern provinces of the country. Government police had discovered hidden arms caches and abandoned camps.
Given these facts and given Thailand’s proximity to Laos and North Vietnam, I had expected to find the U.S. mission in Bangkok busily turning Thailand into an armed camp when I arrived there in late 1964. Instead, I quickly discovered that few Americans, civilian or military, were particularly concerned. I was to leave a year later having seen this lack of concern over the Communist threat transformed into frantic anxiety — but with the U.S. military response almost as clumsily misdirected as in Vietnam in 1960.
American officials in Bangkok had long been in the calm eye of the Asian hurricane. Foreign service officers and military advisers alike looked forward to their tours in Thailand as peaceful times for buying star sapphires, bathing in the blue waters of the Gulf of Siam, and doing a minimum of work. It was in those days that the chief political officer of the U.S. embassy in Bangkok told a reporter that the insurgency was not growing at a rapid rate, but “I suppose something should be done about it.”When I first met one of the local directors of the Agency for International Development, I was reminded of a Bob Hope “Road” movie. He and his wife floated into view on a rebuilt junk with a crew of black-pajamaed sailors manning the sails. The Joint U.S. Military Assistance Group, under the command of Major General Ernest Easterbrook, seemed to feel that the situation was well in hand: despite a rising Communist tide, the mission was already proceeding to phase out American military advisers according to the doctrine of building up an allied country’s military force and then sending home the advisers. General Easterbrook had visited his advisory team in the northeast only twice in the year before he was rotated back to the United States. Newly arrived officers assigned to the largest Army unit in Thailand, the Ninth Logistical Command in Korat, were proudly told by the colonel in command, “I do only an hour’s work a day.” At night in one of Korat’s bars, the commander amused the local natives by playing “dead bug,” a game begun when someone yells “dead bug,” at which everyone drops to the floor on his back with his hands and feet wiggling in the air. The last one down, of course, buys drinks. It was rarely the colonel. (He has since been replaced by a competent West Pointer.)
“There’s not going to be any war here—the Thais are our friends,” I was told by countless Americans. They had apparently forgotten that Thailand for centuries has quickly shed allies for new friends to maintain its independence while neighboring countries fell under colonial domination. During World War II, the Thais had helped the Americans and British for three days before arranging a surrender to the Japanese. “But the Thais are happy,” other Americans insisted. “They have rice to eat and fish in the klongs. There are no famines.” They argued that Thailand was no China — but forgot that Vietnam was no China either.
To be sure, the Communists once found Thailand the toughest of all Southeast Asian countries to penetrate. Under Russian tutelage the party tried for years to foment revolution in the unions and student groups, but their efforts failed to ignite a revolutionary spark in the Thai working class. In the early sixties, however, the Thai Communist Party apparatus changed from Russian to Chinese hands — and with it, the target of subversion, from the city to the countryside of Thailand’s fifteen northeastern provinces.
AS BIG and populous as the state of Illinois, the northeast sits snugly in a triangle formed by the Mekong River and the Phnom Pangrek mountain range. Flying north from Bangkok, it takes only forty-five minutes to reach Korat, the largest city of the northeast. Flying south from Hanoi, it takes a jet plane not much longer to reach the same destination. One can stand on the Mekong River bank and look across the brown water into Laos at the razorback mountain range which cradles the Ho Chi Minh Trail in its valleys. On any map, the northeast is the heartland of Southeast Asia. Its natural trails and man-made roads lead directly south to the riches of Thailand’s rice-growing central plains and Malaysia’s rubber plantations. Yet few Thais have ever seen the northeast, for to them it is as remote as the moon, and they have as little reason to venture there.
In the dry season, the northeast is a desert without sand. A fiery sun pierces through the scattered teak trees and bakes the land into a powdery red dust. In village after village it shrivels the tiny rice shoots planted in the wet season and laps up the murky water from primitive wells and shallow streams. Then comes the other extreme: in the wet season, the monsoon rains pour down upon the countryside, creating hundreds of island communities as completely cut off from food and medicine as a Pacific atoll. I arrived one day by helicopter in an isolated village to be told that a girl of eighteen had just died giving birth to twin boys. A trained midwife lived in a village an hour’s walk away, but no one had been able to bring her across the intervening floodwaters.
Dry season or wet, the northeasterner struggles with a more severe form of poverty than is known elsewhere in Thailand. While other Thais earn more than $150 a year, the northeasterner subsists on an average of barely $40. Americans complained of the northeasterners’ lethargy. They were usually unaware that whole villages had been robbed of their vitality by the internal ravages of liver flukes and tuberculosis.
Even before Peking displaced Moscow as the dominant influence over subversion in Thailand, the starving northeast was fertile ground for Communists. For many years they have patiently trod the natural trail formed by the Phumi Mountains, which jut out of Laos and slice into the center of the northeast. Within the last ten years, two waves of Communist agitators have filtered down the trail from North Vietnam and Laos. In the late fifties, it was the North Vietnamese who first brought the seeds of guerrilla war into the northeast. Now it is Laotians and the Thais themselves who travel the trail to reap the harvest.
Driven from their homes by the fighting of the French Indochina War, tens of thousands of North Vietnamese refugees crossed the Mekong with their families to begin new villages in Thailand. Bound together by language and custom, the North Vietnamese settled apart from the Thais. It is possible today to drive through village after village in the northeast and see only the conical straw hats of the Vietnamese, who look out from huts built on the ground rather than on stilts in the Thai manner.
Instead of attempting to assimilate the Vietnamese into the mainstream of Thai life, the Thais have used the harsh policies of repatriation and repression. Neither has worked to their advantage. Beginning in 1959, the Thais began to repatriate the Vietnamese to Hanoi under Red Cross auspices. The repatriation went slowly, however, and was finally choked off last year by the North Vietnamese government, which claimed that the American bombing of their country made it impossible for them to accept any more refugees. While the repatriation lasted, Communist cadres in the villages slyly turned it to their own advantage. Home to Hanoi went three main groups: the non-Communists, those who had learned useful skills in Thailand, and those who would be trained as guerrilla squad leaders and infiltrate back into Thailand.
Meanwhile, Thailand has detained 40,000 Vietnamese in its northeast while waiting to repatriate them. These Vietnamese are by no means concentration camp POW’s. They do not live behind barbed wire or under armed guard. Still, they are not free to travel, as are the Thais, and they are not allowed to hold meetings. They cannot establish Vietnamese-language schools. In Tha Bo, a typical refugee village, there can be no meeting of more than five people. Villagers may not leave Tha Bo to travel to another village without the district officer’s approval. They may not work at night. If these rules make it impossible for Communist cadres to meet in the open, they also make it impossible for the Catholic Vietnamese to attend church in the next town on Sunday or for the fishermen to fish at night on the Mekong, when much of the fishing is done.
This repression has been confining, yet in fact it has forced many neutral or non-Communist Vietnamese into the hands of the Communist cadres, street committees, assassination squads, and agitprop teams. But despite their numbers now, the Vietnamese Communists in Thailand, organizers and converts, would not themselves have been able to convert more than a handful of the Thai peasantry. Separated by physical appearance, custom, and language, the Vietnamese were distrusted as much by the Thai peasant as by the Thai policeman.
THE Vietnamese, however, were not the only Communist immigrants to Thailand. Early in the 1960s, perhaps exhilarated by early successes in Laos and Vietnam, Peking gradually began to build the foundations of an insurgency in the northeast of Thailand. From special schools in Communist-controlled portions of Laos, Laotian infiltrators came down the web of Phumi Mountain trails into the northeast. Following the pattern pioneered in China and subtly refined in Vietnam, they moved from village to village. Their main message was simple: throw out the American “neo-colonial imperialists and their corrupt Thai lackeys.” On this message they hung every local grievance which could be exploited. With their daring actions and emotional slogans they appealed to the rebellious youth; with their promise of reduced taxes, to the overtaxed peasant; with medical aid, to everyone.
The similarities between Laos and northeast Thailand only facilitated the task of subversion. For centuries the meandering Mekong River, which divides the two countries, has served as a unifying ethnic and commercial bridge between the Laotians and northeastern Thais. Both speak the same language and eat the same glutinous rice. Both areas had at one time been ruled by Laos.
The Communist agitprop teams worked in an almost complete vacuum of governmental authority. And here it is necessary to explain that vacuum. The revolutionary party in Thailand is the army; it rules by martial decree under the aegis of the old god-monarchy, which the military brought down to earth in a 1932 coup. In the intervening thirty-four years, the army, police, and air force generals have shifted the power from group to group through thirty-two coups. The present holder of power is Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn, once the commanding general of the First Army, which surrounds Bangkok.
Practically all Thai officials are xenophobic and highly nationalistic; their continuing foreign policy aim is the preservation of Thailand as a sovereign state. Skillful Thai diplomacy in pursuit of this aim has long kept foreign influence to a minimum in Thailand. Thailand’s leaders are anti-Communist on a practical rather than an ideological basis.
Although both the late Prime Minister Sarit and the present one, Thanom, have in fact run staunchly anti-Communist regimes, only Sarit managed to propel his anti-Communist fervor down through the morass of the civil service. It was Sarit who, beginning in 1962, originated most of the development and security plans in use today. Under Sarit, province chiefs could never be sure that the Premier would not drop in unannounced in his helicopter to check up on their progress. Despite the worsening threat, the Thanom government has been far more placid. Thanom rarely visits the northeast, and never unannounced. Development programs have expanded, but there is no driving force or sense of urgency behind them.
At the province and district levels the Thai official tends to be at once corrupt and, on the surface, well organized in his routine duties. He is antiCommunist because he is fold to be by the national government. But he tends to be incompetent in responding to the problems of development and security arising from Communist insurgency because he seems unable to grasp the tactics of the Communists.
In this situation Communist agitprop workers soon constructed their desired bases of insurgency. A network of cells linked village to village along the Mekong. Arms caches were hidden in the countryside. Handbills were circulated from town to town complaining, often with much truth, of neglect by the government in faraway Bangkok. The interruption in the work of these Communist agents which occurred in 1962 because of Sarit’s series of anti-Communist programs in the northeast ended with Sarit’s death in 1963. His successors did not disband his programs, but neither did they encourage or expand them. Gradually, they wasted away. (An indication of renewed government concern, it should be said, is a system of civilian-police—military posts formed in the northeast in the last few months. But these have been more effective in irritating local officials than in rounding up Communists.)
Left once again to themselves, the Communists began in the spring of 1965 to push out from their river bases along the Mekong into the far reaches of the northeast. The stories of the Communist advances drifted south into Korat in official reports, travelers’ tales, and provincial newspapers. But only a small portion of the subversion was visible to the eye. At one village, a journalist reported that all of the men had taken to the hills. An American official reported an unfriendly welcome in a previously friendly village. A Thai police patrol discovered a cache of arms.
The movement was given a national identity with the announcement in Peking of the quasilegal Thai National Liberation Front. From somewhere in Laos, a Voice of the People of Thailand radio transmitter added its propaganda voice to that of the Communist agent on the ground, giving the movement an aura of tremendous geographical scope. And everywhere there were coldly calculated assassinations of both corrupt and respected officials. The newspapers hinted at the terror with brief notices of assassinations; the echoes of terror ran through the conversations of the peasants like the distant thunder before a storm. In the provincial districts, headmen and police armed themselves in fear of Communist reprisal, and justifiably, for at the military headquarters in Korat and Bangkok, reports of assassinations piled up. At Ban Renu the village headman was shot after he was seen talking to a policeman. In the Muang Nakorn Phanom district, another headman was ambushed after taking part in a government roundup of Communist suspects.
In the American military organization, officers stationed in the northeast wrote of the escalation of terrors in reports to their superiors in Bangkok. Often, it appeared, these reports went unread. “I write reports, but never get queried on them,” complained one field adviser. “The only time Bangkok called, they told us to ‘get on the team. You boys are the only ones writing pessimistic reports —things are fine down here.’ ”
IT WOULD have been interesting to see how many assassinations the Communists would have had to commit and how many reports Americans would have had to write to awaken Bangkok to the danger in the northeast. But on February 7, 1965, the question became academic. On that day, in South Vietnam, two hours after midnight, a band of Viet Cong penetrated the outer defenses of the American air base at Pleiku and launched a mortar attack, killing seven Americans and Vietnamese and destroying almost a score of American aircraft. Within hours, American fighter-bombers had headed north to bomb North Vietnam. Unknown to most of the U.S. public, a majority of the planes flew from bases in Thailand. America’s war in South Vietnam had become Thailand’s.
It was not, however, the first time that foreign planes had flown raids from Thai soil. As early as September, 1964, a weird assortment of Laotian, Thai, Chinese Nationalist, and American pilots (some of them mercenaries), flying under the auspices of the Central Intelligence Agency, had begun to bomb the Laotian portions of the Ho Chi Minh Trail from the Thai Air Force base at Udorn. a few miles south of Vientiane, Laos. The insignia of the World War II fighters and trainers heavy with bombs and rockets varied from mission to mission — mechanics would slide the different insignias into brackets on the plane’s fuselage as was required. Some planes flew with Laotian insignia, some with South Vietnamese, others with none at all.
This raffish band of pilots — all extremely well paid, accompanied by their wives, and enjoying such unusual battle amenities as a swimming pool and air-conditioned bar and restaurant — were joined to the south at Korat by a squadron of F-105 fighter-bombers shortly after the Gulf of Tonkin incidents in August, 1964, to assist in the bombing of the Laotian parts of the trail. These early Laotian raids were carried out by a small number of planes and with a minimum of ground support. But the round-the-clock bombing of North Vietnam which followed was a different matter. Now more planes, more fuel, more bombs, more roads, more people were suddenly needed in Thailand. Hundreds of planes flew into the country. There were F-4C Phantoms at Takli. F-105 Thunderchiefs at Korat, reconnaissance FR-101’s at Udorn, SAC tankers for mid-air refueling at Bangkok’s International Airport. The American military personnel in Thailand jumped from 4000 in early 1964 to 6500 by the end of that year, and 18,000 by the end of 1965.
It was this American military escalation which caused Americans to take a new look at the growing Communist insurgency in the northeast. Reports from junior officers were dug out of the files, and Communist agitprop teams and assassinations were flagged on countless maps in Bangkok. In Washington, the Secretary of Defense, Robert S. McNamara, told Pentagon reporters at a briefing session, “You people should have been asking these questions about Vietnam five years ago. It’s too late now. Now you should be asking about Thailand. Five years ago our tactics in South Vietnam weren’t perfect. We didn’t build up the South Vietnamese fast enough. There may still be time in Thailand.”
The word was out. Overnight, it seemed, Thailand became the “in” country to worry about. U.S. officials warned that “Thailand is next on Peking’s list.” The commander of the military assistance command, Thailand (MACTHAI, which controls all of our military presence there except the Air Force), was rotated home. Major General Richard Stilwell, one of the Army’s brainier guerrilla war specialists, who once served a long tour with the CIA, was imported from General Westmoreland’s staff in Vietnam. Senators and congressmen arrived for inspection junkets. Joseph Alsop wrote a breathless column, and the newsmagazines ran cover stories. The money and the troops began to pour into Thailand.
Yet, as in Vietnam in 1958, much of the aid was misdirected and the advice to the Thais misguided. Despite all the talk of a Communist insurgency, there was little counterinsurgency practiced in the field by either the Americans or Thais. For in retrospect, the escalation in Thailand was caused not by conditions in Thailand, but by the need for a safe haven for American aircraft outside Vietnam. Also it was secret and generated the need for what intelligence men call a “cover story.”
The men and machines that poured into Thailand were concerned not with Thailand but with Vietnam. To the Air Force, Thailand was a giant landlocked aircraft carrier. (Thai bases provide about 80 percent of U.S. land-based air power hitting North Vietnam.) For the American high command, this meant the luxury of planning missions and strategy in relative calm. To the pilots, it meant complete relaxation when not in the sky.
JOR this imposition of foreign troops on its soil, Thailand exacted a price from the United States. That price was secrecy. The Thais were willing to be our allies, but they did not then want to become identified with the bombing of North Vietnam. In the struggle for Southeast Asia, they were backing the United States, but hedging their bets all the same. There was to be no mention from either Bangkok or Washington of the raids against North Vietnam from Thailand. As far as the two governments were concerned, the day and night takeoffs of fully armed planes were simply training Bights.
This was easy enough for the Thais. Their press and radio, if not directly censored, were indirectlycontrolled. Any editor unwise enough to mention the flights would have found his presses shut down within hours. None tried. American journalists, on the other hand, were theoretically free to report what they saw. In reality, they were not, for U.S. Ambassador Graham H. Martin was determined that the story should not be told and was willing to go to great lengths to keep it from being told. The man responsible for keeping the press muzzled was Bob Beecham, the graying crew-cut press attaché of the U.S. mission in Thailand. Beecham’s main duty as manager of our information apparatus was to keep the story of America’s mission in Thailand out of the press. Beecham’s and our other information officers’ easiest problem was the resident foreign press in Bangkok. Most of them were only stringers whose main business was other than journalism. Long friendship and the words “no comment” kept them from straying over the boundary lines. The United Press correspondent was a Thai, and feared the restrictions of his own government. Of all the press in Thailand, only the Associated Press bureau was independent. After watching the buildup for months and verifying it with pilot friends, the number-two man in the AP bureau filed a story on the American bombing of North Vietnam from bases in Thailand. Within hours, the correspondent’s unclassified story, which had been printed in hundreds of newspapers, came rocketing back from the State Department in Washington to the embassy in Bangkok with the classification “secret —• limited distribution.” Ambassador Martin was furious; the Thais cried that America had reneged on its bargain to keep silent. Working on personal instructions from the ambassador, Beecham acted. Sources in both the American and Thai governments were systematically sealed off. Beecham advised the correspondent not to write further stories “because it is against our national interest.” But the correspondent still continued to write about the planes. What followed thereafter is not altogether clear. There were more grumbles among Thai and American officials, and even talk of expelling the AP man. The American ambassador recommended against this. In any event, the correspondent soon was transferred to another assignment, first in Tokyo and later in Jakarta. Meanwhile, nonresident correspondents presented a more difficult problem. They were only in the country for a few days. Once they departed, they were free to write what they liked.
From these circumstances, our official “cover story” of the American Army’s civic action program in Thailand sprang full-blown. The tale was simple. Beecham and others would admit to correspondents that American planes were taking off from Thailand, but would plead with them not to print the story because of “our national security and interest.” Instead, they would suggest, why not write about the U.S. Army and the valiant help they are giving the Thais in fighting the Communists in the northeast. They would tell the correspondents about the communications system an Army engineer battalion was building, or the American-built road which opened up hundreds of thousands of acres of virgin land for agriculture, or the Army hospital which treated the Thais. The correspondents, who lived with daily deadlines and who were often worn out from their reporting on nearby Vietnam, usually agreed.
The line which the U.S. mission was using was, of course, technically correct. The roads the United States was building could be used by the Thais. The Thai Army could send messages on the United States-built communication system. The Army doctors did treat the Thais. But the raison d’âtre for the U.S. Army in Thailand, as for the Air Force, was Vietnam. The roads were needed to carry bombs, the communications system to coordinate the air strikes between the dispersed bases, the hospitals to care for wounded pilots.
One unhappy result of this preoccupation with Vietnam was that Thailand was pushed into second place in the minds of the military and fared badly even there. The Vietnam air war, with its priorities, its emotional strictures, its contingencies and deadlines, spun its own web of reality for those among the military whose sole concern should have been Thailand, as well as for those whose primary mission was Vietnam. At worst, the military simply forgot about the guerrillas in the northeast. Even at best, the reality of suddenly having more roads, more docks, more pipelines, led the American military mission to concentrate more and more on the contingencies upon which the United States would fight a conventional war and less and less on the crucial problem: how to eliminate the Communist guerrilla movement in its nascent stages when it was still numerically small.
In the locked files at Korat and Bangkok were scores of classified war plans, including battle deployments in case the Russians, Burmese, Laotians, or Chinese attacked across the border; there were few plans that dealt with a war of liberation from inside the country. One could go to dozens of briefings and never hear any expression of worry about subversion. In the brown stucco headquarters of MACTHAI in Bangkok, hundreds of officers worked at the job of advising the Thai military, but only four were assigned full time to counterinsurgency warfare, and they were relegated to a small windowless room.
UPCOUNTRY the great neglect of a counterguerrilla strategy for Thailand stood out even more obviously. Of a Thai Army force of almost 80,000 troops (there are 125,000 in the entire Thai armed forces), the Thai Army had deployed only 5000 combat soldiers to the northeast. These were organized into three heavy, slow-moving regimental combat teams such as the U.S. Army has not used since World War II. On the training charts in the war rooms of the Thai Army, the time allotted to counterguerrilla tactics was infinitesimal.
Near the three main cities of the northeast — Korat, Udorn, and Ubon —were three giant air bases. Each bustled with the activity of dozens of planes, thousands of airmen and soldiers. A few miles away from each base was a detachment of American advisers whose job it was to advise the Thai Army regiments in their areas. In their complex role as counterparts to Thai officers, they were given a minimum of advice and encouragement. Left alone for a year, some groped their way toward a solution; others decided to have a good time. But whether they worked or played, bitterness tinged their conversations. One night after dinner a lieutenant colonel who supervised all advisory operations in the northeast told me, “I don’t have anything to teach the Thais, and if I did, they wouldn’t do it. My main function is social. I just go around to a lot of parties.”And he did. His jeep with the letters JUSMAG (Joint U.S. Military Assistance Group) was always prominently parked by one of Korat’s brothels come sundown.
Those who saw their roles as soldiers found the job more difficult. They arrived in Thailand bubbling with energy and willing to work around the clock, but were slowly defeated by a lack of interest from their own superiors in Bangkok which was outdone only by the lethargy of the Thai High Command. Within weeks after their arrival, many advisers would be spending half their frustrating days on the volleyball courts, counting the days to departure. One of the most articulate I knew was Major Dusty Rhoades, a tough infantry major who had earned the combat infantryman’s badge in the Korean War. His experience—and viewpoint on it—is representative of other U.S. officials’ in Thailand. When Rhoades arrived in Thailand, he was sent directly up to Korat: “I never received a military, let alone an economic or political, briefing on the northeast. I didn’t know what areas were dangerous, what areas the Thais were working in, or what was going on. It didn’t take too long, however, to discover that much of our aid is wrong. I was up in Surin on an operation when it began to rain. The Thais had forgotten to ditch the tent and began to work on it with a couple of beat-up hoes. I saw three brand-new American shovels lying outside unused and wondered why until I finally realized that to use an American shovel you have to have shoes to put between the flesh of your sole and the shovel. These troops didn’t have any shoes. You can give the village shoes, and the shovels will still sit there if no one tells the villagers how to use them.
“Of course, some of our aid is pure junk. We’ve given the Thais tanks that are so old there aren’t even any parts for them. The armor battalion commander knows that if he moves the tanks, half of them will break down before he leaves the camp. So naturally, he just lets them sit there. We’ve given the Thais single-barreled 40mm antiaircraft guns which we didn’t even use in World War II. The damn things must be thirty years old.
“Their Army is understrength because they don’t have the extra money required for field pay. So they don’t train, let alone go into the field to hunt guerrillas. The situation is serious in the northeast. With some direction and some money in the right places, we could probably roll it up. But all we do is play volleyball.”
Paradoxically, the most effective efforts to counter the insurgency in the northeast have been those of two U.S. civilian agencies, the United States Information Service and the Agency for International Development. Dropping any pretense of telling America’s story to the Thais, USIS has instead concentrated on telling the Thai story to the Thais, who have seldom heard it from their own government. Using both simple and sophisticated media, the agency has boldly sought to bridge the ancient communications gap that exists between the functionally illiterate Thai peasant and the Bangkok official.
One of the most successful of the agency’s operations has been its domination of Thai broadcasting. Operating out of cramped studios in downtown Bangkok, a handful of Thai USIS employees each week produced more than forty hours of prime time radio and television programs in Thai for broadcasting over Thai stations. Each show contained a subtle government propaganda message, but the programs were rarely recognizable as propaganda. Few programs were attributed to either the Thai or American government; most were of such quality that they were carefully camouflaged by the presence of a paying sponsor.
Perhaps the most imaginative idea spawned by the agency’s men in Thailand was the Mobile Information Team. First improvised in the field by Robert Lasher, a savvy USIS officer now servingin Vietnam, the teams were an effort to bring the services and faces of the central government directly to the isolated villages of the northeast. In the scattered provincial capitals, USIS officers persuaded provincial governors to organize and train jeep caravans of local experts to travel into the boondocks of their provinces to meet the people, learn of their problems, and tell them what plans the government had to aid them. Traveling to a different village each day, team members treated the sick, discussed livestock and agricultural problems, visited the local school, and distributed posters and pamphlets to the village headman. At night, a Thai employee of USIS showed movies telling of the progress and plans of the Thai government led by King Bhumibol.
Yet one way or another, the Mobile Information Teams often succeeded only in making more grist for the Communist propaganda mill. If the teams happened to insult the villagers, they reinforced the Communist line that the officials were the enemies of the people who came only to eat and tax. If the teams were successful, they usually promised many more improvements than the Thai government could produce. When the govvernment failed to build the promised dam or road on schedule, the Communists were able to capture the new aspirations of the villagers with little more than words.
In an attempt to make such subversion more difficult, the Agency for International Development (known in Thailand as USOM, for United States Operations Mission) has financed a variety of programs planned in Bangkok to improve permanently the villages of the northeast. One of these efforts has been the Mobile Development Unit, of which nine are scattered over the northeast. The MDU’s, as they are called, are simply the “strategic hamlets” or “new life villages” of Vietnam without the barbed wire. Remaining in selected villages for many months, the development crews helped the villagers build roads, latrines, and wells and make other simple improvements while they lived side by side with them in village huts.
In theory, the program should have brought physical improvements to the villages while simultaneously winning the peasants to the government’s banner. But like the Mobile Information Teams, the Mobile Development Units often alienated the villagers despite the amenities they added to their lives. This alienation grew out of the ineptitude of the urban Thai bureaucracy in Bangkok which drew up the plans for the MDU’s. They had little conception of the true needs or nature of the villages and drew up a standard blueprint of improvements which would have pleased a city planner, but which often was irrelevant to village life.
Thus, the MDU workers arrived in each selected village in the northeast and set about their development work much as an engineer in battle sets about building field fortifications. The villagers were not consulted about their needs and soon found their villages taken over by strangers who often didn’t speak their dialect, who took their land to build roads without explanation, and who built toilets which went unused because there was no water to operate them with.
These problems were fully evident in the MDU I visited in Ban Bak, a town situated about thirty miles from the Mekong River border with Laos. After leaving the main road, I walked for an hour over a muddy trail past high teak trees and rice paddies streaked with crevices from lack of rain. It was startling to come on a sign rising out of the midst of this jungle which read, “Welcome to the MDU.” As I walked into the village, welcomed by the usual barking of the village dogs, I passed a neatly fenced plot with a sign in Thai designating it as “Sample Farm Number One.” Inside the fence a mass of weeds strangled out any plants which might have grown there. Obviously no one had cultivated the sample farm in months. I was given a tour of the village by its aging headman, Suan Songsri. He showed me the four existing wells, Ban Bak’s only water supply. In each the water was as dark as chocolate and bugs puckered its surface. Suan had tried three times to build a dam near the village for irrigation, but each time the dam had washed out in the rainy season. A district officer had given him cement to build another dam, but since the villagers lacked sufficient engineering skill, it too had washed away.
This lack of water was painfully apparent. In the fields the rice was brown, the ground was cracked. No vegetables or fruit could be grown in the village, and so the children’s bellies were swollen with malnutrition.
Suan did not look like a leader. Barefoot, deep brown from the sun, his only garment was a purple pakoma, a Thai sarong. He had attended school for only four years and had never ventured twenty miles from his village. He had married twice and had fourteen living children. Yet as we walked down the streets, the villagers greeted him respectfully, bowing their heads very low and raising their palms pressed together to their faces —• the traditional Thai greeting. By Bangkok’s standards he was a simple peasant, yet he knew far better than Bangkok officials what his village needed, and he was far more respected than they by his villagers. He was a valuable man for the government, but Bangkok chose to ignore him, and in so doing, negated much of the good work they had labored so furiously to build.
Within the last few months, the United States has increased its military garrison in Thailand to more than 32,000 men - twice our commitment in Vietnam at the end of 1963. With permanent facilities such as air bases, roads, and even swimming pools under construction, it is logical to assume that the United States intends to stay there for an extended period of time. Only the size of the escalation depends on Vietnam. If the United States remains in Vietnam, Thailand will continue to remain vitally important as the sanctuary for America’s war against North Vietnam. If the United States should pull out of South Vietnam for any of a variety of reasons, Thailand would become even more strategically important as America’s last defense foothold on continental Southeast Asia. In short, no matter what the course of events in Asia, it seems likely that the United States is in Thailand to stay.
The Defense Department, which has engineered this escalation in Thailand, also publishes a widely circulated bulletin entitled “Lessons Learned in Vietnam.” One may agree or disagree with the Department’s interpretation of those lessons, but obviously the lessons are not being applied in Thailand.