Communist Insurgeny in Thailand 1959-Present

[ 1959 - 2014 ]

By the late 1980s, armed insurgency--a national problem that had plagued a series of Thai governments and dominated police and army activities for more than twenty years--had been virtually eliminated. From a peak strength of about 12,000 armed insurgents in the late 1970s, the number of armed guerrillas and separatists had declined to fewer than 2,000. Careful and coordinated government efforts combining military and police actions with social and economic policies had succeeded in reducing the level of insurgency. In addition, in the 1950s the United States had provided extensive military aid and technical assistance to the counterinsurgency program.

A number of insurgent elements had enjoyed fair success in the 1970s. They included the armed Communist Party of Thailand (CPT)... Their ranks had been increased by an influx of youthful, idealistic supporters who turned to the insurgents as a result of the 1976 military coup and the conservative policies of the Thanin Kraivichien government that followed it. By the mid-1980s, however, the government's coordinated counterinsurgency program had succeeded in eliminating all but a few small pockets of rebels.

Foreign observers disagree on the importance of communist ideology to the insurgency. Neglect by past governments, whose primary interests and attention were centered on the capital city of Bangkok, had alienated many rural inhabitants and particularly many ethnic minorities in peripheral areas of the country. Communist militants were able to exploit the discontent that grew steadily during the 1960s and 1970s in those remote regions.

The Thai communist movement had begun in the late 1920s. Dominated by ethnic Chinese, the movement also appealed to other neglected minorities, including the various hill tribes, the Malay, and the Vietnamese. Despite their long residence in the country, these groups had not been accepted by the Thai, who regarded them with suspicion and distrust. In December 1942, a number of small ethnic communist groups merged to form the CPT under predominantly Chinese leadership.

Outlawed by the Anti-Communist Act of 1933, the party began a clandestine existence, surfacing briefly when the act was rescinded in late 1946 but going underground again in 1952, when legislation prohibiting communist political action was adopted. The 1952 law also banned the communist-controlled Central Labor Union, the majority of whose 50,000 members were of mixed Chinese-Thai ancestry. When Sarit Thanarat took control of the government in October 1958, he abolished the Constitution, declared martial law, and intensified the government's anticommunist drives. Nonetheless, the CPT continued its clandestine activities in schools and associations that had large Chinese-Thai memberships and among villagers in border regions. In 1959 the party began to recruit and train limited numbers of Hmong hill people in the North geographical region for use as cadres in anti-government activities.

The CPT also sought support in the Northeast, appealing to both Thai-Lao and non-Tai minorities, and among the Malay in southern Thailand. Promising a better future to rural peasants in the historically neglected Northeast, the CPT tried to exploit anti-government sentiments in the area, which for decades had been the center of political dissidence. As a result, the Thai media accused the international communist world of conspiring to break off fifteen northeastern Thai provinces and integrate them into a Greater Laos. In the peninsular provinces adjoining the Malaysian border in the South the CPT sought to capitalize on Malay minority sentiments for a separate state or a union with Malaysia. This effort was enhanced by popular perceptions of Bangkok's long history of neglect of the socioeconomic development of the Muslim minority.

Despite these countrywide efforts, the CPT failed to gain widespread popular support and sympathy. For one thing, the country's long history of national independence made it difficult for the CPT to present itself as an anti-colonial, nationalist movement--a tactic that had been successful in other Asian countries. The large influx in the 1980s of refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam, with their stories of hardship and repression under communist rule, cooled potential popular support for communism. For many Thai citizens a sense of shared language, customs, and traditions, together with an ingrained attachment to the king and the Buddhist religion, also presented a psychological barrier to adopting communist goals.

Consequently, the principal energy for the CPT came from external Asian sources. As early as 1959, and particularly after the early 1960s, China and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (North Vietnam) began providing Thai cadres with training, money, and materiel for insurgency, subversion, and terrorism. Training camps were set up in Vietnam, in the Pathet Lao-controlled areas of neighboring Laos, and in Yunnan Province in China. In early 1962, a clandestine radio station--the Voice of the People of Thailand (VOPT)--began broadcasting from Kunming in Yunnan, transmitting Thai-language propaganda opposing the Bangkok government, as did Radio Hanoi and Radio Beijing.

In the 1960s, because of growing evidence that the CPT was building support structures among villagers in the Northeast, the government began to institute limited countermeasures designed to improve both the defense and the living conditions in villages in threatened areas. Information teams sought to identify villagers' problems and needs and to establish better communication with local authorities. Mobile development units dispatched to vulnerable areas attempted to establish the government's presence and improve its image among isolated villagers. The units were designed to stimulate village self-help and to meet immediate local health, educational, and economic needs by furnishing guidance, materials, and tools. Failure to complete many of the projects, however, limited the effectiveness of the program.

In 1964 Thai authorities further increased their counter- measures. As a follow-up to the mobile development unit scheme, they initiated an accelerated rural development program in security-sensitive areas, constructing roads, wells, market- places, health clinics, and schools. Despite these initial government steps, insurgent activity increased steadily after 1965...

Insurgency also became much more active in the South, where dissidents staged ambushes and held propaganda meetings in isolated villages along the Thai-Malaysian border... CPT... conducted operations against Thai security forces and area residents.

By the mid 1970s, the multifaceted insurgency had become a part of life in the kingdom. The Thai government and the United States had spent vast amounts of money to combat the various insurgencies, but success was limited at best. When the United States withdrew from the counterinsurgency effort in the mid-1970s, a stalemate set in. The infusion of substantial funds by the United States (estimates for the 1951-76 period range from a low of US$100 million to a high of US$1 billion) had failed to gain "victory." There had been too great a diffusion of responsibility among the myriad Thai and American agencies planning and carrying out counterinsurgency operations. In addition, the 1976 coup had sent as many as 5,000 students into the jungles to join the CPT. Total CPT strength was estimated at 12,000 armed fighters in the peak year of 1979.

Beginning in the mid-1970s, the Thai government tried to increase the effectiveness of its counterinsurgency operations. In 1974, in order to eliminate the customary competition for power among government agencies, a new coordinating and command agency, the Internal Security Operational Command (ISOC), was established directly under the military's Supreme Command. In 1987 Prime Minister Prem Tinsulanonda took over as director of a reorganized ISOC, signaling an increased emphasis on political rather than military counterinsurgency programs.

In the early 1980s, the operational policy of Thai counterinsurgency forces had also changed. Rather than concentrating on military actions designed to kill insurgents, the counterinsurgency focused on neutralizing CPT tactics by reclaiming remote areas and their people from control by the communists. The approach demanded increased and better use of coordinated civic action, police, and military operations.

In 1980 the government also began a new policy addressing the complex political and social aspects of the insurgency problem. A directive from the prime minister laid out the broad political strategy, which featured an offer of amnesty to all insurgents and a promise to accord them respect and security. The document also outlined measures to improve the social and political conditions that had contributed to CPT strength. A companion directive issued in 1982 called for a coordinated offensive against insurgent centers in the remote mountainous areas. King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX, 1946- ) had played a role in formulating this strategy, and his enthusiastic support for it quickly spread throughout the military and civilian agencies implementing it.

The government's new approach--referred to as communist suppression rather than counterinsurgency--resulted in the surrender of more than 2,000 insurgents during the first ten months. Many who rallied to the government side during this period were students who had fled to the remote jungles and joined the CPT forces after the repressive action of the Thai police at Bangkok's Thammasat University in early October 1976. Some had grown disillusioned with CPT goals and tactics. Others were simply tired of the hardships endured in years of fighting under spartan conditions in the remote countryside. Former student leader Thirayuth Bunmee's surrender after 5 years with the CPT gained wide publicity for the amnesty program, as did the mass defection of 250 armed insurgents and hundreds of unarmed family members and supporters at Mukdahan in December 1982.

At the same time, the Thai armed forces conducted selective but increasingly aggressive and effective operations against longtime guerrilla bases in the Northeast and North. The capture and destruction in 1981 of the Khao Khor base astride the border between Phetchabun and Phitsanulok provinces in the North was a serious blow to the insurgency. In the South, more aggressive Thai military operations, political and social strategy, and a series of combined operations with Malaysian armed forces exacted a similar toll on the.. CPT... The steady pounding by the military and the political defections also rapidly depleted CPT strength. By the end of 1982, the number of armed CPT forces had decreased from 12,000 in 1979 to fewer than 4,000 countrywide. The coordinated military, political, economic, and social strategy had proved successful.

The phaseout of materiel support from China also weakened the insurgency. The rift in Sino-Vietnamese relations in Asia benefited Thailand. Beginning by closing the clandestine guerrilla radio station (VOPT), which had broadcast for years from Yunnan Province, China eventually halted virtually all support for the CPT... At the same time the CPT, plagued for many years by factionalism and ideological differences, was paralyzed by a break between Maoists and Leninists. Faced with the loss of border sanctuaries in Laos and China and deprived of Cambodian sanctuaries by the Vietnamese invasion, CPT cadres faced ever-increasing hardship, and only the most dedicated revolutionaries remained in the field. Thai authorities expressed concern over the emergence of a small, Vietnam-oriented faction of the CPT, but that faction posed little threat to stability in the country.

In mid-1987 the government estimated that there were about 600 armed, active communist insurgents operating in Thailand. Of this number, approximately 65 to 70 were thought to be in the North, 85 to 115 in the Northeast, 260 to 350 in the South, and 55 to 60 in the Center...

Although, by the late 1980s most of the insurgencies had been defeated, dedicated revolutionaries remained, both within Thailand and abroad. The government was particularly concerned about a new CPT strategy that stressed urban operations. Moreover, there had long been a suspicion that not all the heralded defectors had indeed renounced their communist beliefs. Nonetheless, the Thai government had achieved significant success in defeating an array of insurgents during the 1980s.

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