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Thai Experience in Combating Insurgency

By General Prem Tinsulanonda, Manila, March 4, 1995

The Honorable Rafael M. Aluman
The Honorable Renato S.De Villa
General Arturo Enrile,
Officers of the AFP,
Distinguished Friends,

I count myself doubly fortunate: first, to be here in the company of distinguished friends of the Philippine Armed Forces with whom we in the Royal Thai Armed Forces have traditionally enjoyed close ties of friendship and fraternity; and, secondly, to be given the opportunity to share a few thoughts with you on this happy occasion. I am thankful to His Excellency President Fidel V. Ramos for his kind invitation to visit once more your great country. I also wish to thank General Arturo Enrile, Chief of Staff of the AFP, our gracious host, for his generous hospitality his evening.

Incidentally, visiting the Philippines this time around comes with a special bonus. This morning, I was with His Excellency the President attending the graduation ceremony at the Military Academy in Baguio. I found myself sharing the pride and excitement of the new graduates, reliving vividly the “moment of birth” of my own military career. At one stroke, I felt as if fifty years had been taken off my age. That, gentlemen, was the special bonus!

Distinguished Guests,

I understand that this audience may be interested in comparing notes on our respective experiences in, combating insurgency. Where the Thai experience is concerned, I do not think you would expect me to go through the technicalities of the formal provisions, by which I mean the relevant regulations and orders, in particular, Prime Minister’s Order No. 66/23. Rather, it may be more useful if I could give an account, some of which would necessarily be from a personal angle, focusing on how we in Thailand perceived the problem of insurgency, how we set about addressing those problems as well as the underlying rationale for the policy and various measures we adopted. Of course, I would not be so presumptuous as to say that our own experience might be applicable, or even relevant, to situations and problems found elsewhere. That’s for others to say. Situations and problems do vary from place to place, both in their nature and magnitude.
Distinguished Friends,

For me, it began 22 years ago towards the end of 1973. I was assigned to the Second Army Region in the Northeast of Thailand, well known then as the hotbed of communist insurgency. Though I vaguely knew that the situation there had become critical, I had little or no true knowledge of the problem. On the second day of my arrived, I lost twenty-three of my men in one single ambush. The whole town barely had enough coffins to put them in. I was plunged into the depths of sadness—lost for an answer.

It took us quite a while to grasp the nature of the problem. Suffice it for me perhaps to point out certain salient features.

First, communist infiltration into the local populace was so deep-rooted, so widespread that we had no means of knowing foes friends. Every day, we would be fired on by those whom we mistook as friends or we ourselves would be firing on people mistaken as foes. Unless this basic question could be resolved, there was not the remotest chance that we could be resolved; there was not the remotest chance that we could even begin to grapple with the situation.

Second, this had to do with the perception each side had of the other. In my early days, my own perception of the self-styled Communist Party of Thailand or CPT and their sympathizers was one of the invading enemies from some foreign land, people who must be put down at all cost. And certainly I was not alone in harboring that kind of an attitude, which had over time been seeping into our collective mentality. Nor could I, at the same time, understand why local inhabitants were full of mistrust for the authorities in all the manifestations. As soon as we set foot in a village, their villagers would run away; at best, they would ignore our presence and instantly clamp up upon our approach. The misperception and the distrust were evidently mutual.

This leads me to my third point, that is, trying to identify the cause of this mistrust. Of course, we had heard of oppressive practices which officialdom in remote areas were prone to. But to come across it at first hand made us intensely conscious of the intimidation, the harassment and exploitation, which had become all too routine. Once we succeeded in getting the villagers to talk to us, we learned of extortions, of husbands and sons being summarily “put away” at the slightest suspicion or of daughters being abducted to satisfy the casual needs of someone or another. In short, officialdom was its own enemy, turning ordinary villagers into communist sympathizers determined to avenge the wrongs perpetrated.

Lastly, people in the rural Northeast at the time were so poor that they more or less became economic outcasts. They were living a hand to mouth existence at the very outer edge of society. For them, food was whatever could be gathered at large, day-to-day or moment-to-moment. They had no schooling, thus condemned to a similarly bleak future.

Generally, villages were inaccessible. One day, having covered some distance on foot on the way to a village, we came across coconut trees. Tired and thirsty, we asked the owner who was standing nearby if we could buy some coconuts. He happily brought over the coconuts, Asked how much we should pay for the coconuts, he said that he didn’t know because he had never sold a coconut in his life, To me, this showed the extent of the neglect, People were being abandoned to an existence beyond the pale of society.

I for one did not subscribe to the view that the insurgency was a question of ideological struggle. It was poverty and neglect that were the fertile soil on which the CPT could easily sow the seeds of discontent.

Distinguished Guests,

As you can see, we were caught in a vicious spiral: mistrust begat mistrust, violence begat violence. The magnitude of the problem was such that we could not hope to solve it all at once, but a start had to be made somewhere. The first step was to win trust. We went in and offered to help: teaching children to read, tilling the fields, tending to the sick or doing whatever chores they would let us. I distinctly remember one village, which was especially difficult. The first time our men went in they had to pitch camp outside the village because they would not be let in. Villagers just hurled insults and abuses at them. Luckily, the man we picked to lead that squad was a man of understanding and perseverance. Thought repeatedly turned away, he would always be back the next morning offering help to villagers working in the fields. It took all of seven months before the villagers started to feel sorry for our men and agreed to join in the Self-defense Volunteers Program.

This Self-defense Volunteers Program was later to become the thrust of our counter-insurgency campaign in that it served as the organizational framework for dialogue and interaction with the villagers at grassroots level. The Program took on life from an initiative of a local District Officer whose commitment to his work was total. He went around recruiting local teachers, village leaders or just acquaintances, engaging them in discussion on how best to organize and train self-defense volunteers to resist the CPT. We simply amplified on his initiative and extended it cover all other villages.

Volunteers began to trickle in and we also started to learn who our friends were. Even if there were CPT infiltrators among the volunteers, we would at least be able to keep an eye on them, to monitor their movements. We would know where they were and what they did at various times of the day and night. Some would vanish into the jungle at night and return to the village in the morning. In truth, the villagers themselves already knew who these so-called “jungle people” were It was a question gaining their trust and confidence before they were prepared to tell us what they knew.

It was within the framework of this Program too that we made sure the villagers could also distinguish between friends and foes, between the good and the bad elements within the bureaucracy. A mechanism was put into place enabling us to effect the instant removal of the bad elements from the scene once they were identified as such, with diplomacy action taken where needed, Justice had to be seen to be done for it to have any credibility.
What I have described were essentially measures to contain the CPT. By far the more formidable task was how to tackle the widespread poverty, which we saw as the root cause of insurgency and indeed all social ills. The Second Army Region, despite being the unified command of military and civilian resources in the Northeast, had its obvious limitations. We had to do the best we could. We started by identifying three main areas in which we could be of help to the villagers: means of subsistence, schooling and health care. In all these areas, the aim was to “help them help themselves”.

We simply did not have enough budgets to give handouts, nor did we have enough manpower to carry out the work on that scale. If money was given out, it was for seeds, farming tools, poultry stocks or fish stocks for the ponds. Volunteers in each locality served as manpower; once trained, they were put to work applying and extending their newly acquired skills, be it in teaching or in rudimentary medical knowledge. The response we had from the volunteers, all of whom worked without pay or personal gain, went beyond anything I had expected or indeed had any right to expect.

Distinguished Friends,

The above account represents the separate pieces, which came together forming the policy known as “politics before military”. Experience gained in the Second Army Region was then extended to all other Army Regions when I became Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Thai Army.

Subsequently, “Politics before Military” became the underlying rationale of Prime Minister’s Order No. 66/23, which during my time as Head of Government, came to stand as the clear policy directive for all Government agencies in the country-wide effort to put an end to insurgency by peaceful means. Someone has rightly observed that it was a time when guns were replaced by words.

In retrospect, it may be asked, what made it work? In my mind, the most important thing was what we had together, call it “Shared conviction” or “common resolve” if you will, which cut across all barriers. From the Commanding General to the privates, from the Provincial Governor to the Village Heads, from the District Officer who was behind the Self-defense Volunteers Program, the platoon leader who never gave up despite seven months of insults and abuses to the young men and women who volunteered as teachers and medical trainees, all pulled together selflessly as Thais in the fight to win back their country and fellow countrymen from the clutches of the CPT.

Together, the Thai nation found the way-our way, to end the hatred and killing between brothers and compatriots. The result, as you know, made us all very proud. I know that the Philippines also has her way; and in my heart, I know that your way will be rewarded with the success it deserves, and it too will become a source of pride for all the people of this great nation.

Prem Tinsulanonda Center for International Education, Chiang Mai, Kingdom of Thailand