Category Archives: Thailand

Siam Enters World War I

From 1917: War, Peace, and Revolution, by David Stevenson (OUP Oxford, 2017), Kindle pp. 285-286:

Siam declared war on Germany on 22 July 1917. The 1855 Bowring Treaty had limited its tariffs to 3 per cent and secured extraterritorial jurisdiction for British citizens, soon to be followed by those of other Powers. By 1914 Siam had ceded more than one-third of its territory to French Indochina and to the British Malay states. That its core remained independent owed something to it suiting Britain and France to keep Siam as a buffer, and something to King Rama V (reigned 1868–1910) and his advisors. Rama appointed Prince Dewrawangse as foreign minister, who served for thirty-eight years, and by 1914 was vastly experienced and temperamentally cautious. When Rama VI acceded to the throne in 1910, he kept Dewrawangse on.

Siam was less developed than Greece or Brazil. Its population in 1910 was about 8 million, and Bangkok the one substantial city. Its principal export was rice and most of its foreign trade was managed by the British from Singapore and Hong Kong. Its government was an absolute monarchy, untrammelled by representative institutions, in which members of the royal family held key ministerial portfolios and several hundred foreign advisers worked in royal service. Insofar as public opinion existed, it might have been expected to be hostile to France and Britain; but Europe was distant and Germany and Austria-Hungary could not have aided the country. In fact such considerations were outweighed by the personal outlook of King Rama, who had attended Sandhurst and Oxford and undergone officer training with the Durham Light Infantry. In 1915–16 he made donations to widows and orphans of his former regiment, and he and George V exchanged the titles of ‘General’ in each other’s armies, despite German protests that such behaviour was un-neutral.

Unrestricted submarine warfare and America’s appeal to other neutrals to break off relations with Germany started a similar debate in Siam to those in Brazil and China. The initial response to Wilson was that Siam was very remote from the war, and preferred to see how the situation developed. This holding position was primarily due to Dewrawangse, who worked closely with the British minister in Bangkok, Herbert Dering, who in turn advised London that it was best to apply no pressure but let the situation mature, and this recommendation the Foreign Office heeded. Although it might be advantageous to control the nine German steamers in Bangkok harbour and expel the 300 Germans working for the Siamese government, the country had already cooperated in, for example, deporting Indian seditionists, and the advantages from its belligerency were marginal. Dering also feared the Siamese might seek concessions over the unequal treaties. The situation remained unchanged until Rama returned from a visit to the provinces, during which time Dewrawangse (with reluctant acquiescence from an impatient ruler) sounded out Siam’s overseas emissaries. In a Cabinet meeting on 28 May Rama intervened decisively. Dewrawangse reported that the diplomats were divided: the representatives in France and Russia recommended breaking off relations (as did the French and Russian governments), but the London envoy considered it unnecessary. The king, however, said Siam should join the Allies. Previously the Central Powers had seemed to be winning, but American entry altered the equation and delaying meant Britain would end the war with greater leverage than it had now. Rama hoped the unequal treaties could be revised or even abrogated, although he forbade his ministers from saying so. Instead Dewrawangse, who was uneasy but went along, drafted a note that blamed Germany’s persistence in an illegal method of warfare despite Siam’s protests. The government took over the German vessels before their crews could damage them, rounded up the German nationals, and asked the Allies how Siam could help them. When the communications minister voiced concern about running the railways without German experts, Rama replaced him. The kingdom had an army of 12,000–15,000 men, and initially it was not intended to send troops, but in 1918 a contingent of 1,254 volunteers went to France, where nineteen were killed. Siam attended the peace conference and urged amendments to the unequal treaties and recovery of full sovereignty, which America conceded in 1920 and Britain and France in 1925. In relation to the objectives set for it, Siam’s was the most successful of the 1917 interventions, despite the war being followed by a financial crisis. The story underlines how the new conditions forged opportunities for dissatisfied nations to press claims.

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They Shot Horses, Didn’t They?

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 200-202:

One of the more unpleasant jobs I had to undertake at Ubon was to condemn and destroy the Japanese army horses. They had already marched over 1,500 miles from China and were in a terrible condition, both from starvation and ill-treatment. I had Tom Phillips to help me, who had been a racehorse trainer in Norfolk before the war, and out of 1,200 horses we inspected, we condemned 700 to be shot; they were dying at the rate of about ten a day from starvation and had only their droppings to eat. Some of the saddle sores were so big and deep that I could put my fist in them; I had never in my life seen such ill-treated horses.

Tom Phillips and I shot a great many, and I was often sick afterwards. The first day a deputation of Thais formed up and asked me not to kill the horses because it was against their Buddhist principles. I replied that it was a duty I very much regretted. I noticed plenty of Thais around afterwards removing their horses’ tails, before they were buried in huge pits dug by Japanese working parties.

Word reached me after the first day that the Japanese were saying that I had shot the horses for motives of revenge, because we had won the war. I therefore had them all paraded and through Sergeant Thomas told them that I was not shooting the horses because we had won the war, but to put them out of their misery after the ill-treatment to which they had been subjected.

I did not understand the Japanese mentality, for when leading their horses up to be shot, many of the men were in tears, and after they were shot they would take off their caps and bow at the graves, and even put flowers on them. A signal came from Bangkok suggesting that I was killing these animals unnecessarily, and that a veterinary officer would be coming to Ubon to inspect those that remained. A few days later a very fine-looking Indian colonel arrived and the Japanese paraded the remaining 500 that we had not shot for his inspection. He promptly condemned a further 400 to death.

Tom Phillips had left when I still had to shoot these 400 horses, and so I gave some of the Japanese vets back their pistols and told them to help me. After I discovered that they were taking up to three shots per horse, and found that some of the horses were being buried still alive, I stopped them and had to deal with the rest myself. Out of the 700 horses that I shot personally with an American .30 carbine with a folding butt which I used like a pistol, I had to give only one horse a second bullet. This was a horse that I shot in the correct place — at the centre of the X drawn from the ears to the eyes — but it trotted off apparently uninjured. When it was caught and brought back again, it was found to have a neat bullet hole in exactly the right place. It did not appear to be either frightened or in pain, or upset in any way. I fired the next shot downwards into its skull from above its ears and it dropped dead — I can only think it had a freak skull. I was very thankful when this distressing job was over.

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Thailand’s Ambiguous Status in WW2

From Irregular Regular: Recollections of Conflict Across the Globe (The Extraordinary Life of Colonel David Smiley Book 3, Sapere Books, 2020), Kindle pp. 153-154:

My briefing gave me the first indication of the extraordinary political set-up in Thailand. Technically, my briefing officer told me, Thailand was at war with the Allies, against whom she declared war when she was occupied by the Japanese. ‘Didn’t she fight against the Japanese when they invaded Thailand?’ I asked. ‘And why did she have to declare war on us?’ She only offered ‘token resistance’ against the Japanese, I was told, and declared war on us ‘under strong Japanese pressure’. She was, however, a most unwilling ally of the Japanese. ‘How do you know that?’ I said. One had only to look, he replied, at the size of the underground movement. It included not only a number of high-level politicians, service chiefs and government officials, but was led by the Regent himself. He went on: ‘You’ll hear a great deal of the Regent from now on. His real name and title is Luang Pradit Pridi Panomyong but he is known to all of us as “Ruth”, which is his codename.’

At the end of April 1944 the first British officer from Force 136 to visit Siam was Brigadier Jacques, codenamed ‘Hector’. He and Chin had been landed off the coast of Siam by Catalina flying boat and had then transferred to a fishing boat that took them to Bangkok. Hector had been a prominent lawyer in Bangkok before the war and had many friends and contacts there; he also spoke the language fluently. In Bangkok they had meetings with Ruth and some of Ruth’s friends, then returned the way they had come.

After Hector had reported to Mountbatten he returned to Bangkok by the same means, taking with him a radio and radio operator. He came out once more, when I met him, then stayed until the end of the war. As a soldier he insisted on wearing uniform, which caused Ruth a security problem. However, Ruth found him a safe house either in his own palace or the University of Moral and Political Science, where he was in daily communication with Force 136 HQ. As he was in close contact with Ruth, who had frequent meetings with the Japanese, he was able to pass on much vital information which would be on Mountbatten’s desk in Kandy within twenty-four hours. Hector remained the senior BLO [British Liaison Officer] throughout his time in Thailand.

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Kalākaua as pan-Austronesianist

From A Power in the World, by Lorenz Gonschor (Perspectives on the Global Past, U. Hawaii Press, 2019), Kindle Locs. c. 2060, 2160:

During Kalākaua’s stay in Bangkok, relations with King Chulalongkorn of Siam were similarly warm and deep, and included the mutual conferral of high decorations. Like the Meiji Emperor and Viceroy Li, Chulalongkorn was presiding over a rapidly modernizing non-Western nation attempting to reach parity by hybridizing its system of government (Wyatt 1969, 1976, 2003, 166–209; Baker and Phongpaichit 2005, 47–80). Unfortunately, documentation of what exactly might have come out of possible discussions about Siam joining the proposed pan-Asian league has not been found.

During the following visit in Johor, at the southern tip of present-day Malaysia, relations between the Hawaiian king and another non-Western ruler reached another climax. Johor’s ruler, Maharajah Abu-Bakar, was another monarch using the tools of modernity to secure a certain degree of parity for his country (Trocki 1979; Andaya and Andaya 2001, 173–174, 202; Keng 2014). Because he had traveled extensively on his own, Abu-Bakar was Kalākaua’s first non-Western host as fluent in English as himself, so they could talk without an interpreter. But this more familiar atmosphere aside, the king also found the maharajah physically quite similar to a Hawaiian ali‘i, specifically, the late Prince Leleiohōkū I. As Kalākaua remarked in a letter to his brother-in-law, “if [the maharajah] could have spoken our language I would take him to be one of our people the resemblance being so strong.” Although Abu-Bakar could not speak Kalākaua’s native language, the two monarchs compared words in Hawaiian and Malay, and within a few minutes could identify a number of them that the two Austronesian languages had in common, and they reflected on the common origins of their peoples (Armstrong 1977, 44; Requilmán 2002, 164). Back home, Gibson was delighted to see his long-time vision of pan-Austronesian relations finally become reality and used the comparison between the two realms to point out flaws in the current state of affairs in Hawai‘i:

We are very glad that our Hawaiian King visited a Malay sovereign, the Maharajah of Johore: that His Majesty recognized striking evidences of kinship between Hawaiian and Malay: that His Majesty observed that these brown cognates of Johore were healthy, prolific and an increasing people, though living under the guidance and dominion of the European race; that His Majesty recognizes that there is no natural law, or destiny, that the brown races shall pass away in the presence of the whites, as is alleged in Polynesia; and that evidently decay and decline among His Majesty’s native people must be the results of some mischievous interferences with the natural order of things, and of hurtful radical changes affecting the sanitary condition of the aborigines of Polynesia.

Kalākaua maintained close relations with the court of Johor during the rest of his reign, attested by a steady exchange of letters between the two monarchs and their government officials throughout the 1880s. It was likely similar considerations of pan-Austronesian solidarity that later motivated Kalākaua to include Queen Ranavalona III of Madagascar among the heads of state he notified via autographed letters of the death of his sister Likelike in February 1887. Like Siam and Johor, the Kingdom of Madagascar was another non-Western hybrid state using strategies of selective similitude to achieve international parity (Valette 1979; Esoavelomandroso 1979; Brown 2006). At the time of Kalākaua’s letter, however, Queen Ranavalona’s government was embattled by French imperialism, which had led to the forcing of a French protectorate on the Indian Ocean island kingdom in 1885 and would culminate in the French conquest and colonial annexation of the island in 1896 (Randrianarisoa 1997). Hence, Kalākaua’s gesture to include the Malagasy queen among the heads of state of the world should be seen as a remarkable gesture of pan-Austronesian anticolonial solidarity.

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Achieving Parity via Hybridity

From A Power in the World, by Lorenz Gonschor (Perspectives on the Global Past, U. Hawaii Press, 2019), Kindle Loc. 194ff:

Japan’s late nineteenth-century developments are perfect examples of what scholars have termed the use of similitude and selective appropriation to create a hybrid system in order to achieve parity. Hawai‘i-based Swiss scholar Niklaus Schweizer describes parity as “an effort to be taken seriously by the Western powers, to be accepted as an equal and to be accorded the civilities and privileges established by international law,” adding that “the preferred option in Polynesia was to achieve at least a degree of parity with the West” (2005, 177), a statement that is true not only for Polynesia. In the nineteenth century, transforming one’s political institutions to some degree to achieve such diplomatic parity was a goal most emerging non-Western nation-states shared. One of the ways to do so was the use of what historian Jeremy Prestholdt calls the strategy of similitude—a transformation of certain forms of behavior, cultural protocols, and aesthetic standards—to make them similar to those of the West. Prestholdt defines similitude as “a conscious self-presentation in interpersonal and political relationships that stresses likeliness” (2007, 120). Superficially akin to assimilation under colonial coercion, similitude is voluntarily done by a society outside colonial control yet confronted with Western imperial hegemony. Mentioning the international relations of nineteenth-century Hawai‘i, Siam, and Madagascar as further examples, Prestholdt describes similitude “as a mode of self-representation [that] links symbols and claims to sameness in order to leverage relationships with the more powerful” (120). Rarely, however, would a country push similitude to the point of sameness with the West, but rather appropriate Western elements selectively, resulting not in cultural assimilation but rather in cultural and political hybridity, preserving aspects of traditional governance and culture while also embracing modern technology and the Western model of the nation-state as well as Western cultural protocols. In the case of Hawai‘i, geographer Kamanamaikalani Beamer uses the concept of hybridity, based on an earlier conceptualization by Homi Bhabha (1994, 159–160), “to illustrate the ways in which Hawaiian rulers used traditional structures and systems of knowledge in an attempt to construct a modern nation-state” because “they were modifying existing structures and negotiating European legal forms which created something new, neither completely Anglo American nor traditionally Hawaiian, but a combination of both” (Beamer 2008, 30, 177).

In many cases, such strategies clearly paid off. As a result of their selective use of similitude to hybridize their societies and political systems, which resulted in the achievement of at least a degree of recognition by the Western powers, Japan, Thailand, Iran, Turkey, and Ethiopia never became colonies, an enormous source of pride for their inhabitants to this day.

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Where Religion Preserves Language

From The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, by David Eimer (Bloomsbury, 2014), Kindle pp. 181-182:

‘Many young Dai can’t read our language and don’t really understand our culture or Buddhism. A lot of Dai people can speak Dai, but they don’t teach it in normal school any more so you have to become a monk to learn how to read and write it,’ said Zhang Wei. As in Tibet, the monasteries have become the only place in Banna where locals can get an education in their native language. But unlike Tibet, and in another sign of the Dai’s success in convincing the CCP of their essential affability, novices in Banna are allowed to participate in the regular school system as well.

‘You can study Dai here in the morning and go to normal school in the afternoon,’ said Zhang Wei. He believed that was behind the recent rise in the number of monks. ‘A lot of young Dai were put off becoming monks because they thought it was a hard life and what they learned wasn’t useful in the outside world,’ he told me. ‘Now it’s not as strict a life as before. When I was a young novice, the teachers would beat you if you disobeyed them. But we’re not allowed to do that any more.’

Less welcome has been the diminishing of Banna’s role as a key centre of Buddhist learning for Dai people across South-east Asia, a result of the devastation wrought on Banna’s monasteries during the Cultural Revolution. Large numbers of monks fled across the frontiers, while villagers buried scriptures and icons in the jungle so the Red Guards couldn’t destroy them. Many of the temples have since been restored, but Wat Pajay’s status as a spiritual university has been superseded by monasteries outside Banna.

‘Before the Cultural Revolution, Thai and Burmese and Lao monks came to Wat Pajay to study. Now, we go to Thailand and other places. It’s a complete change,’ said Zhang Wei. Fluid borders mean Banna’s monks can visit monasteries in Myanmar and Laos unofficially. But the Dai’s position as a model minority makes getting permission to go abroad far easier than it is for Tibetans or Uighurs. Zhang Wei had already spent a year in Yangon, as well as three in Singapore.

Wat Pajay’s links with overseas monasteries are a crucial element of the cultural and religious networks that tie the Dai of different countries to each other. Da Fosi is an irrelevance in that scheme; its imposition on Jinghong just another instance of Dai culture being appropriated by the Han for the purposes of tourism. And, inevitably, pretty Dai women act as the guides there. But out in greater Dailand, in Banna’s villages and across the borders, the Dai are quietly getting on with worshipping their way, while keeping their language and traditions alive.

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Rise and Fall of Temasek

From Singapore: Unlikely Power, by John Curtis Perry (Oxford U. Press, 2017), Kindle Loc. 507-27, 532-40:

Archaeologists give us a sense of Temasek’s physical features: a terraced hill overlooking the Singapore River with a palace, market, defenses, earthen rampart, and moat. The earthen wall represented a commitment to permanence. Not even royal palaces commanded permanent building materials. But we do have some baked brick and stone remnants from the late thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries suggesting Buddhist temples. Unfortunately, during the early British colonial era, much was destroyed in the rush for development. And therefore the legend could arise, and long lingered in the standard histories, that nothing had existed in Singapore until the British arrived in 1819.

Being a religious center as well as a commercial one, Temasek seems to fit into a pattern of the Malay port city, its wall being an exception. Religion reflected Indic impulses, not Chinese. The hilltop held cosmological significance, representing Mount Meru, known in both Indian Buddhist and Hindu tradition as a divine abode and metaphysical center of the universe. For creating this sacred place, the builders, because they lacked labor, used a natural landscape, not a constructed one such as at the great Angkor. They then carefully allotted the downward spaces, using walls and water to define them. Divinities commanded the top; artisans lived at a respectful distance on a lower level of the hill where they fashioned such objects as pottery, glassware, and fine jewelry.

Chinese people, perhaps the first Overseas Chinese community in Southeast Asia, lived there alongside local peoples instead of in their own separate neighborhood, illustrating the diversity of this maritime town, serving as useful intermediaries in the China trade, so important in the economy. Of Temasek they reported “the soil is poor and grain scarce.”

The need to survive thus demanded trade. Coins show sophistication, and unearthed pieces of fine porcelain would indicate that people wanted high-quality ceramics not ones locally produced. Temasek thus took its place in the “ceramic route,” a southern Eurasian maritime equivalent to the continental Silk Road. Heavy and delicate porcelain could travel in volume only by sea. In return for such prized Chinese goods, the town could feed the overseas market with a luxury item, hornbill casques, so-called yellow jade, a precious bird ivory that had the advantage of being something that the Chinese highly prized and was easier to carve than other ivories.

Two poles of power, Siam and Java-Sumatra, met in the straits where these Malay city-state ports like Temasek or Palembang on Sumatra enjoyed an autonomy deriving from the ability of their rulers to generate wealth through commerce, as does today’s Singapore. Like today, the broader Asian economy largely determined what happened on Singapore Island. Local people were players in a game heavily determined by outsiders, principally Chinese and Indians, the two Eurasian super economies.

Caught between the Thai (Siamese) and the Javanese, the ruler of Temasek fled and the population followed. It had lasted only a century, yielding to the nearby port of Melaka, which benefited from cultivating a close relationship with the Chinese court. Temasek/Singapura declined as a trading state or as a political nerve center and ultimately the site was virtually abandoned. That was how the British would find it when they came early in the nineteenth century. But it continued to be important in Malayan history, figuring heavily in its mythology and remembered as the founding home of the dynasty that would flourish elsewhere in the region: successively in Melaka, Johor, and the nearby Riau Archipelago.

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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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Thai Language Speakers in South Vietnam

From In Buddha’s Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War, by Richard A. Ruth (U. Hawaii Press, 2011), pp. 168-169:

Thai language skills seem to have spread quickly to areas beyond the villages directly surrounding Bearcat Camp. Infantrymen on operations were surprised to find Vietnamese women in isolated villages who could speak some Thai. Yutthasak Monithet, who went to Vietnam with the Black Panther Division’s third phase in July 1970, recalled conducting impromptu Thai lessons for curious Vietnamese: “As for the Bien Hoa market. people in the shops could speak Thai, but they spoke it as if they had [recently] learned Thai. Sometimes they had questions [about Thai], and they would ask, ‘What is this thing called in Thai?’ We would tell them the words that Thai people used for these things.” The market that Yutthasak described is fifteen miles or so from Bearcat Camp.

The other factor that contributed to the spread of Thai was the influence of ethnic Vietnamese who had lived in Thailand and Laos. There is strong anecdotal evidence to suggest that some of the Vietnamese refugees who had lived in Thailand in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s returned to Long Thanh District and settled in areas near Bearcat Camp; others found their way to Saigon, Vung Tau, and other R & R towns frequented by Thai troops. Some of the repatriated Vietnamese opened Thai restaurants while others provided Mekhong whiskey and other goods to sell to the Thai soldiers. Many spoke the Isan-Lao dialect, “as they do in Ubon [Ratchathani] and Nong Khai, and others spoke Central Thai, also known as Standard Thai.

A third factor was the role of the Thai-Vietnamese translators. Some of the Vietnamese who were hired to translate for the Thai units had lived in Bangkok before the war. Unlike the Vietnamese who settled in Isan, these Vietnamese learned Central Thai, the country’s official dialect. They lacked Thai citizenship and apparently had been repatriated along with the Vietnamese from the northeast. Their familiarity with Vietnamese and Standard Thai made them a valuable asset to the Royal Thai Army and the Royal Thai Navy as they sought translators for their units.

Repatriated Vietnamese were mediators between the Thai military and the indigenous communities. The Thai volunteers relied on them for items that the US Army would not or could not provide. In market towns such as Long Thanh and Bien Hoa, Viet Kieu (expatriate Vietnamese) restaurants were centers of Thai relaxation and recreation. Chanrit Hemathulin’s unit regularly patronized one of these restaurants near Bearcat Camp because it offered northeastern Thai staples, such as lap (minced-meat salad), som tam, and khao meo (glutinous rice). “It was as if they were Thai restaurants, he recalled….

Mixed in among the population of Vietnamese returnees were Thai women who had married Vietnamese men back in Thailand and then accompanied them to Vietnam when the Thai government had deported them. Like the returnees among whom they lived, these women served as mediators between the two cultures.

The Chinese characters for Viet Kieu must be 越僑: 越 as in 越南 Yuènán ‘Vietnam’; 僑 as in 华侨/華僑 Huáqiáo ‘Chinese Abroad‘.

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On the Foreignness of Vietnam to Thais

From In Buddha’s Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War, by Richard A. Ruth (U. Hawaii Press, 2011), pp. 188-189:

The Thai soldiers saw South Vietnam as a separate country in a conception that differed from their understanding of their immediate neighbors Laos and Cambodia. Many of these soldiers had passed through those two countries in their youth. Private First Class Aran’s childhood home in Nong Khai, for instance, was within sight of the Mekong River and the banks of Laos opposite. As he recalled, “It was like going into my sibling country. Back then Thailand and Laos weren’t that different from each other. There was no ideology [separating them] at all. We crossed over to play like normal. We could eat and sleep, and then cross back. [The Lao people] were like our relatives; we could go back and forth [between Thailand and Laos] all the time.” Those soldiers from the southern Isan subregion, many of them from districts where Khmer was spoken as a first language, enjoyed similar ease in crossing the Thai-Cambodian border in the period before the World Court awarded full ownership of Prasat Khao Phra Wihan (Preah Vihear in Khmer) to Phnom Penh in 1962. For the ethnic Khmer living in southern Isan’s Sisaket, Surin, and Buriram provinces, a jaunt into Cambodia was as unremarkable as the boat ride on the Mekong River made by their ethnic Lao counterparts in the north.

Vietnam was different. Its cultural dissimilarities more so than its geographic distance put it into a separate category. It seemed Chinese. The strong cultural similarities between the Vietnamese and the Chinese made such comparisons inevitable. The historical Vietnamese embrace of Confucian principles, Mahayana Buddhism, Chinese script (as well as Nom, the Vietnamese indigenous script that resembles Chinese to many outsiders), and the classics of Chinese literature encouraged the Thais to see Vietnam as belonging to China’s sphere. It seemed distant beyond the kilometers that separated it from Thailand.

Upon their arrival in Vietnam, the first action undertaken by many Thai volunteers was to acknowledge the presence and sovereignty of the local spiritual regime. As soon as Sergeant Khamron set foot in South Vietnam, he dropped to his knees, scooped up a handful of dirt, and sprinkled it over his head. He carried out this impromptu gesture to ensure that Mae Thorani would protect him while he was in South Vietnam…. “If you are Buddhist, they train you to do things like this,” he explained. “There is a khata [verse] that says, ‘When you go to a foreign land/Entrust your care to Mother Earth.’ It is the same thing when you return. When I got back [to Thailand], I immediately knelt down, took up some dirt, and sprinkled it on my head. I said, ‘I’m back.'” Khamron’s decision to carry out the same action on returning to his homeland underscores the degree to which many soldiers saw South Vietnam’s spiritual forces as belonging to a separate (and specifically Vietnamese) realm. Despite sharing the same physical landmass and duplicating the same flora, fauna, and weather, the two countries were seen to harbor individual and esoteric spiritual actors. The sovereignty of each area belonged to local spirits. For this reason, some Thai soldiers brought their own soil with them. They collected samples of dirt, which they addressed as “Mae Thorani,” and carried the samples with them to South Vietnam.

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