Rebel Resurgence in Northern Thailand


REVISITING THE HILL TRIBESMEN Rebel Resurgence in Northern Thailand BY ARNOLD ABRAMS BANGKOK AFTER FIGHTING for six years, spending millions of dollars and suffering thousands of casualties, the...

...REVISITING THE HILL TRIBESMEN Rebel Resurgence in Northern Thailand BY ARNOLD ABRAMS BANGKOK AFTER FIGHTING for six years, spending millions of dollars and suffering thousands of casualties, the Thai government remains locked in a debilitating struggle with Communist-inspired insurgents in the north Bangkok's massive efforts on projects ranging from propaganda and road building to resettlement and reconnaissance have failed to crush the rebels, whose resilience and tenacity are particularly evident in the northeast, where they began their campaign to topple the regime in the mid-'60s Seemingly stopped there just two years ago, they are now reemerging with a new strategy and increased effectiveness Abandoning the tactics of terror —intimidation, assassination, ambushes of police patrols—the enemy is focusing on the formation of an infrastructure It is avoiding major confrontation with the more mobile, numerically superior government forces, working instead to create pockets of rebellion among the 11 million villagers of the impoverished northeast Thailand's Communist Suppression Operations Command (csoc), which coordinates national counter-insurgency maneuvers, estimates that only about 1,500 rebels are active in the area Nevertheless, they may have five times as many supporters and sympathizers, and are constantly recruiting more through propaganda leaflets, clandestine meetings and hints of future reward The dreams they dangle befoie the discontented populace are agricultural aid, improved education, more medicme, lower taxes, less red tape, and no corruption That, of course, is for the future For the present, the insurgents offer weapons, money and a common cause worthy of great personal sacrifice These lures are often enough to make a man forsake the bleak existence of a peasant farmer in an and land for the furtive and perilous life of a jungle guerrilla Indeed candid Thai officials concede that the Communists' pitch has won over more than 100 villages in the northeast Military or government personnel cannot travel through these "liberated areas" without endangering their lives—a throwback to the situation of six years ago Predictably, the rebel resurgence has also brought long-simmenng official dissension into the open High-ranking military sources m Bangkok, tor example, are now lamenting the lack of effective coordination between the administration, Army, police and csoc Thai field commanders confirm those complaints "Bangkok makes plans and issues directives," remarks one top officer, "but what happens in the field is ARNOLD ABRAMS tegularly reports in these pages from Southeast Asia another matter It all depends on the man in charge " Recent actions by the Thai An Force illustrate the problem Presumably at the request of Army ground commanders, Thai pilots are again dropping napalm on suspected guerrilla positions in the northern mountains When fighting broke out there in late 1967, Thai use of the chemical against the rebel bands?mostly hill tribesmen—had disastrous effects among the civilian tribal population, creating more enemies than it killed "It is simpler and much more satisfying to blast an area," says one Thai commander critical of his colleagues "You save time and effort, and avoid taking casualties But in a guerrilla war, such tactics will backfire in the long run " Of late, however, these tactics have in fact produced visible gains m northwest and north-central Thailand—where, significantly, a familiar pattern seems to be emerging Thai officials currently are asserting that the tide there has turned —which is what they were saying about the northeast as late as a year ago—and that the estimated 1,000 guerrillas prowling the mountain heights are being pushed into narrow enclaves by government forces After a long series of embarrassing setbacks, Thai Army units and police detachments have been conducting vigorous sweeping operations over wide areas They are venturing back into districts where they were bloodied in 1968, and claiming considerable success in uncovering hidden camps and killing the enemy Some of that success is evident in Chiang Kham, a representative district of some 80,000 inhabitants in upper Chiang Rai, Thailand's northernmost province Towering mountains less than 10 miles away mark the Laotian border and shelter an estimated 500 guerrillas When I visited the district a year ago ("With the Meo Tribesmen in Thailand," ML, July 6, 1970), it was plagued by serious problems involving the resettlement of hundreds of Meo and Yao tribesmen who had fled the mountains after bemg harassed by terrorists or having their homes leveled by government troops—or, in some cases, both Thai provincial authorities had created two villages for the tribesmen a few miles outside Chiang Kham, and had promised to provide housmg materials, food, medical care, educational facilities, and protection But few promises had been kept The terrain was bad, water was low, supplies inadequate, security tenuous and the refugees—many crammed together in crowded, foul-smelling longhouses—were desper-erately unhappy YET WHEN I returned recent-ly, expecting to find ghost towns, the two refugee villages—Ban Mai Rom Yen and Ban Rong San—were firmly settled The refugees no longer have haggard, haunted looks, their once scrubby fields are filled with com and rice, their thatch homes are substantial, security has improved Approximately 90 hill tribe families m Ban Rong San have been joined by about 150 Thai families from the northeast, and the two cultures are living together quite harmoniously Ban Mai Rom Yen, about one mile away, is an all-Yao village of some 130 families in sim lar circumstances The reason b;nind these changes is basic Local officials finally fulfilled most of their original pledges They posted a total of three militia units for protection, dug eight deep wells for each village, built two schools, scheduled regular visits by mobile medical teams, and provided housing materials One of those most responsible for the villages' well-being is Boon Tom, deputy district officer of Chiang Kham He is a soft-spoken, 38-year-old former Army captain with an easy smile and sympathetic manner His genuine concern and general helpfulness have made him one of the few Thai officials tribesmen trust "It has been difficult for these people to start new lives," Boon Tom says, "but most of them have worked hard and been cooperative The government has not done everything they want, but it has been trying and I think they know this " Water remains the major problem for both resettlement villages The government-built wells provide enough for drinking, but a reservoir and irrigation system is needed for crop cultivation Although such a system is supposed to be under construction, the project has been slowed by insufficient funds, inadequate planning and bureaucratic red tape Taking matters into their own hands, a group of Ban Rong San residents recently built a primitive dam-and-ditch network to divert a small mountain stream into their fields But a nearby group of Thai residents, incensed at having their water tapped by outsiders, stormed into the resettlement area and destroyed the dam The incident provided further evidence that distrust between lowland Thais and the approximately 500,-000 hill tribesmen m this country cannot be quickly dissipated These tensions are slowly waning, however, as illustrated bv the progress made m these two villages "We have been getting along well together," says Pun Saisan, the newly elected Ban Rong San village chief "We need each other, and that knowledge has more meaning than any friendship speech a government official can give " Pun, a northeastern Thai, was elected with overwhelming backing from his hill tribe constituents While the Chiang Kham situation is certainly far better than it was a year ago, a full-scale guerrilla war continues in the area despite official optimism that the tide has turned Lessons from the northeast, where obituaries for the insurgents proved premature, remain to be learned and enemy forces may yet have the last word about the fate of Chiang Kham—and Thailand...

Vol. 54 • November 1971 • No. 21

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