Trading Thai Ganja for U.S. Guns in Vietnam

From In Buddha’s Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War, by Richard A. Ruth (U. Hawaii Press, 2011), pp. 123-126:

This exchange of drugs for luxury goods brought together the Thais and the Americans to a degree greater than any official duty ever did. When asked to recall their interactions with Americans and other farang in Bearcat Camp, the Thai veterans brought up their meetings with drug-prowling GIs more often than they did any other circumstance. Even those Thai soldiers who said they did not participate in these illicit exchanges often cited conversations with drug-using farang as the only time they had a lengthy conversation with a foreign soldier in South Vietnam.

A drug user’s urge for a score was a powerful motivating factor for overcoming the reticence generated by cultural boundaries and difficulties in communicating. And the happy garrulousness that emerged in the aftermath of a successful buy turned some normally taciturn GIs into ad hoc cultural ambassadors. The relaxing effects of the marijuana on the Americans, when combined with the Thai soldiers’ self-described propensity for friendliness and tolerance, created the circumstances and environment in which the two groups could meet and learn about each other. “The ones who talked to us were the ones who [used] intoxicants, such as marijuana,” Sergeant Wad Kaeokalong remembered. “They used to come around looking for the Thai soldiers every day.”…

The drugs seemed to provide the impetus for farang soldiers to learn Southeast Asian languages. Some Thai volunteers later remembered the drug-using Americans as possessing superior language skills….

In addition to … items … available from the PX or the quartermaster’s store, there were other items more difficult to obtain that the Thais eagerly sought from the Americans. Namely, they wanted guns. It was common for Thai soldiers to bargain for a sidearm like those carried by American helicopter pilots. Possession of one of these high-powered pistols, which were not included in the arsenal issued to the Thai units, brought honor to its owner. More importantly, these unofficial weapons would not be taken from the Thai volunteers when they returned to Thailand. They could be hidden in their duffel bags and smuggled past the military police and customs officials who haphazardly searched the returning soldiers.

The most prized of these pistols was an American officer’s .45-caliber Colt automatic, what the Thais called the “US Army brand,” the “11” (for “11 millimeter,” the size of its round, or “M1911,” the US Army’s designation for the pistol). They did not come cheap, though. To obtain a weapon like that, the Thai volunteers had to trade a minimum of three kilograms of marijuana. “They brought [the pistol] back to Thailand to show it off,” Wad Kaeokalong explained. “Thai soldiers like guns.” For an American intent on scoring some marijuana from a gun-loving Thai, it was only a matter of reporting that his sidearm had been accidentally lost in flight.

The consequences of this drugs-for-guns trade affected crime patterns in Thailand. Thai authorities were alarmed by the number of personal weapons being smuggled into their country during this phase of the war. Some of the “top-grade” weapons acquired by the Thai volunteer forces began appearing in Thailand’s arms black market. Criminal investigators discovered a dramatic increase in the number of hand grenades, automatic pistols, assault rifles, and high-caliber ammunition turning up in the possession of private citizens, and in May 1970, Thai police officials gave orders for a crackdown on soldiers smuggling weapons from Vietnam and Laos….

This Thai desire for American arms had its origins in earlier episodes of modern Thai history. In bringing these weapons home, either for sale or personal use, the Thai volunteers were participating in a historical trend involving the dramatic proliferation of small arms throughout rural Thailand in the late twentieth century. This quiet arms race, a process that Thai historian Chalong Soontravanich has called the “democratization” of small arms, began during World War II, when most of the Thai volunteers interviewed for this project were young children. The influx increased during their adolescence Great quantities of lethal weaponry, including automatic pistols, hand grenades, and high explosives, flowed back and forth across the Mekong River when war between the French colonial forces and the Viet Minh flared in the late 1940s. Other wars of liberation throughout Southeast Asia fed more weaponry into these arms-trading networks throughout the 1950s and 1960s. These modern weapons, according to Chalong, became part of rural people’s “daily tools” and were used primarily for protection. The Thai government’s statements and warnings about the dangers posed by indigenous and foreign communists, subversive Vietnamese refugees, and militant Muslim separatists all helped generate a social atmosphere of imminent danger throughout rural Thailand. The acquisition of personal protection not only continued in this period but appears to have intensified with the availability of American weapons in the region. The Thai troops who acquired handguns and other weapons had a ready market at home. There was no indication of a glut in this market. As long as there were Americans around who wanted drugs, the Thais had the means to facilitate a trade….

Of all the stories about Thais who smuggled US Army weapons back to Thailand, one in particular gained legendary status among members of the Royal Thai Army for its audacity and high profile. Lieutenant General Chalad Hiranyasiri, the Thai commander entrusted by MACV to crack down on the Thai malfeasance in 1969, “embezzled” (om) a US Army helicopter as a “souvenir” of his time in South Vietnam. He kept it on the grounds of the Royal Thai Army’s First Infantry Regiment. Chalad, who was described by one Thai military writer as “bighearted,” used the helicopter to give rides to children each year on Children’s Day. Nearly three decades after Chalad was executed for his coup attempt, the helicopter was still in use.

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Filed under language, Thailand, U.S., Vietnam, war

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