Category Archives: Thailand

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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What the River Kwai Meant to Thais

From In Buddha’s Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War, by Richard A. Ruth (U. Hawaii Press, 2011), pp. 42-44:

Behind the confident statements issued by Thai and US leaders throughout the first half of 1967, the battle readiness of the regiment was uncertain. American military personnel who had come to train the Thai [Queen’s Cobra] regiment were unimpressed by the volunteers’ level of preparedness. From early June, in the ten weeks that remained before embarkation, the American advisers guided the Thai unit through field exercises and training missions in Lopburi, Chonburi, and Kanchanaburi. The Americans had designed “an intense training” program that “drilled the Thai [troops] in the exact tactics and methods of operation employed by the Viet Cong.” They hoped that this crash course would help the Thais counter the guerrilla warfare methods being used by the Vietnamese guerrillas. All of the American instructors came from experienced combat units in South Vietnam and were eager to impart the lessons they had acquired. They attempted to simulate the conditions that the Thais would face in South Vietnam, but despite the physical similarities between Thailand’s and South Vietnam’s landscapes, the Americans found it difficult to impose a sense of urgency or even realism on the regiment that had hitherto been regarded as a domestic symbol. In Kanchanaburi the Americans led the Thai troops in field training exercises that crisscrossed the jungles along the Khwae (or Kwai) River, not far from the site of the bridge built by forced labor for the Japanese Imperial Army’s “Death Railway” during World War II. The fictionalized retelling of the bridge’s construction, as presented in Pierre Boulle’s 1954 novel and its 1957 film adaptation, was on the minds of the Americans as they trained the Thai troops. The hint of cinematic make-believe suggested by the Khwae River location may have contributed to the growing unease among the American instructors. It was as if their appreciation of the book and film undermined their own attempts at simulating realism in the jungles there. The Americans’ effort to impose realistic conditions on the exercises were compromised by the feeling that they had been dropped into a movie set on which a familiar, unrealistic film had been made. While the Thai troops were certainly aware of the cinematic resonance that the Khwae River setting elicited, the region offered them another set of specifically Thai symbols born from a different semifictional source: Thailand’s nationalist history.

The area used in the training exercises was not far from several sites important to the historical imagination shared by most Thai soldiers in this era. Kanchanaburi’s location below the Three Pagoda Pass put it on a major route traditionally used by the Burmese and Siamese armies while invading and raiding each other’s kingdoms. In the nationalist version of Thailand’s history prevalent in 1967, a retelling of events that was particularly popular with members of the Thai military, the Burmese of old were always portrayed as the Thai people’s archenemy. The natural corridor created by the mountains to the west and the Chaophraya floodplain to the east was the site of several celebrated (and historically embellished) clashes between these occasionally bitter rival kingdoms.

The battle of Nong Sarai was certainly on the minds of the Thai volunteer soldiers as they trained for their South Vietnam mission. It had occurred during a phase of Ayutthaya‘s history when the kingdom’s Thai rulers were struggling to retain their sovereignty after several decades of Burmese military occupation. At this site in January 1593, King Naresuan the Great, the most revered figure in this nationalist history, won Siam’s greatest military victory. With his forces pressed to the breaking point, Naresuan was said to have called out the Burmese crown prince to challenge him to a duel on war elephants. After a few minutes of fierce combat, Naresuan got the better of his Burmese rival and killed him with a well-aimed slash of his sword. The Burmese forces panicked and fled south-southwest toward Burma. Naresuan’s army pursued them through Kanchanaburi, decimating their scattered lines.

The Thai soldiers preparing to fight in South Vietnam relished their proximity to the site of Naresuan’s victory. Joseph Callaway described his Thai trainees talking about a centuries-old victory over the Burmese “as though it took place only a few years before.” They cherished the historical memory of the warrior king and asked his spirit to bless their upcoming adventure. The men prayed in an ubosot (Buddhist ordination hall) said to have been visited by Naresuan while he was fighting in the area. Many recalled dreaming of Naresuan while training in Kanchanaburi and fighting in South Vietnam….

In the midst of this atmosphere of competing cultural and historical symbolism, the Thai troops added one realistic detail to their training procedure that may have trumped even the Americans’ passion for realism. The Thai troops carried live ammunition along with the simulated rounds used in their training because they felt they required protection against the dangerous forces that inhabited the Thailand-Burma frontier, everything from cobras and tigers to opium smugglers. Although the American trainers felt that the Thais did not fully comprehend the danger posed by the Viet Cong guerrillas, they were flabbergasted to discover how anxious this apparently sleepy western province made the volunteers.

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Goals of Thai Volunteer Soldiers in the Vietnam War

Normally, I try not to excerpt from books hot off the press unless they offer new historical perspectives on recent events. This ground-breaking book seems long, long overdue, and the rest of the chapter from which I’ve quoted is available online. It offers a useful corrective to those who view every regional conflict through the lens of their own far-removed national partisanship, those who see every wartime ally of a hegemonic power as a bought-and-paid-for puppet, or those who imagine that Buddhists cannot be just as warlike as members of any other religion.

From In Buddha’s Company: Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War, by Richard A. Ruth (U. Hawaii Press, 2011), pp. 4-8:

The most important of the Thai national symbols constructed during the war was that of the volunteer soldier. He was an idealized man who was brave, devout, patriotic, and selfless. His image was the incarnation of modern Thainess in an age of anticommunist furor. For a while, he would be hailed—in Thailand at least—as what was intrinsically good about the Thai nation in the postcolonial age. He would restore honor to the Thai military in the wake of its ignoble adventures during World War II, and make the goals of the military appear consistent with those of the civilian population. In the years before 1973–1976, when this idealized soldier-citizen was put to sinister use by the Thai military and by the Thai paramilitary vigilante organizations that emerged from the military’s dark shadows, he was someone to be admired, envied, and supported.

As symbols, the Thai volunteer soldiers reflected the evolution of Thai society in several critical ways. They stood at the nexus of many of the important themes that defined Thailand’s history in the 1960s. In this way they can be read as the embodiment of the changes that affected the country after World War II. These trends are related principally to Thailand’s relationship with the United States. In the period now known as the American Era, these troops became Thailand’s official representatives in the biggest US-dominated event: the war against communism in South Vietnam. They were physical reminders of America’s close relationship with Thailand during the period of the conflict. They wore American uniforms, carried American weapons, and conducted military operations according to American training. They departed and returned to Thailand aboard American ships and planes. They lived in an American-built camp bearing an American name. They carried American currency with which they purchased items of American material culture. The stories they carried back were as much about things American as they were about the people and culture of South Vietnam. Their repatriated casualties received prominent American visitors—some of them international superstars—in Thai military hospitals. And some of their dead ended up buried in American soil to be mourned far from home by American strangers. In an age defined by an American idiom, they bore the marks of close contact with the Americans.

The troops were also a product of the other great theme of the day: development (kan-phatthana). The American-built roads that transformed rural Thailand’s physical landscape and social and economic systems in the 1950s and 1960s also transformed its people. The infrastructure constructed with American aid, machinery, and advice profoundly altered the relationship between the people of the countryside and those of the urban center. For the first time in Thailand’s history, the people and circumstances of the rural areas rivaled those of the capital in importance to the national state. The need for industrial labor, construction workers, and service employees brought waves of internal migrants from what had once been Siam’s hinterlands to live and work in Bangkok. The newcomers changed the face of Bangkok, a city whose dynamism had previously been understood to be almost the exclusive product of the Chinese immigrant and entrepreneurial energies. And in doing so they changed Bangkok’s self-image. These upcountry people redefined what it meant to be Thai. Their migration patterns from rural to urban were not one-way journeys. Their ties to their homes and the seasonal nature of the farms they left behind contributed to the exchange between two formerly antithetical geographic cultures. The newly mobile brought back the ambitions, ideas, and perspectives of the capital city. These men and women became a migratory population whose outlook was simultaneously rural and urban, traditional and modern, settled and restless.

The Thai volunteer soldiers were products of this age of rural transformation. Changes in national politics, economics, and education were influential agents in the formation of their outlook. Their individual stories describe the profound changes under way in areas where the people had only recently begun to see themselves as belonging to the center, as being truly Thai. This process of transformation coincided with some of the earliest academic studies of Thai regionalism. The experiences of the Thai volunteers complement such studies as Charles Keyes’ Isan: Regionalism in Northeastern Thailand. The stories of their youth and young adulthood, of their time before, during, and after their tours of duty in South Vietnam, are the stories of rural Thailand in this era. The rapid expansion of government public schools, and the emphasis on national loyalties over local loyalties, encouraged rural youths of this era to consider themselves subjects of the state to an unprecedented degree.

Although they were not the first generation to be educated in Thailand’s government schools, the volunteer soldiers were the first to have been schooled at a time when secondary education was a possibility for all children of the rural poor. The expansion of upcountry secondary schools and technical colleges provided some of these people with the educational infrastructure for more advanced degrees and also the broadened ambitions and expectations that come with higher learning. Similarly, the traditional intrusions of the state, obligations such as taxes and conscription, were less odious, if not less onerous, to a young population that saw its adult fate as entwined with that of the nation. As per the requirements of the Royal Thai Army’s guidelines for the recruitment of soldiers for South Vietnam, all of the volunteers had graduated from secondary school, a newly possible feat for the rural poor. Many of them had continued their education while serving as draftees in the army. The sheer number of volunteers who qualified for service in South Vietnam was a reflection of the rise in education levels throughout the country. As young adults, many of these men had wanted to elevate their social status but had failed so far. Most of them had missed out on the opportunities available to the expanding middle class located almost exclusively in Bangkok’s urban sphere. Unwilling to join the unskilled labor force in the capital, they pinned their hopes on gaining positions as civil servants—bureaucrats, policemen, and teachers—in the upcountry provinces of their births. Lacking the advanced education to become teachers and the connections needed to secure a spot in the provincial government, these young men became soldiers. Even this avenue was only a stopgap measure. Like the civil service, the Royal Thai Army lacked the capacity to absorb all of those who sought long-term careers. With the exception of the few who had made a career in the military, most soldiers served only two years as conscripts. The opportunity to reenlist with the Queen’s Cobra Regiment and the Black Panther Division represented an unexpected second chance at an army career.

The strong desire the volunteer soldiers expressed to visit foreign lands and learn about neighboring cultures reflected a correlated elevation in ambitions as well. The largely rural population of young who volunteered for service in South Vietnam had taken the government’s mantra of kan-phatthana and applied it to themselves. A tour of duty as a member of the celebrated volunteer corps confirmed their personal worth as well as their value to the state. Going to South Vietnam became a major goal in their personal program of change. To this day, many veterans cite their time in South Vietnam as the pinnacle moment in this process of transformation. Long after they returned home, and long after they had spent the monetary rewards they had acquired as compensation, the lingering aura of exceptionality garnered them a measure of distinction, of a special social status, in the societies that had produced them. Many got jobs that were better than they would have previously expected. And, a generation later, their children enjoyed even better lives, thanks to the continued financial, educational, and health benefits and expanded horizons that Vietnam service provided.

The Thai volunteers saw themselves as Buddhist warriors. Theravada Buddhism—especially the layman’s expression of Buddhist culture popular in Thailand in the 1960s—played a critical role in the lives of these soldiers and in the national adventure that sent them to South Vietnam. Thailand’s sangha (Buddhist ecclesiastical order), after some deliberation, sanctioned their military mission. The Supreme Patriarch and other prominent monks blessed the departing troops and the returning casualties in public ceremonies. The military units transported Buddha icons along with their weapons and support equipment. A crowded Buddhist altar dominated by a Sukhothai-style Buddha statue was set up in the Thai contingent’s field headquarters as the backdrop to all meetings with the Thais’ “Free World” allies. Some troops put Buddha images on their military vehicles. And the most emblematic symbol of the Thai fighting man was the string of Buddhist amulets that ringed his head and filled his pockets. Some soldiers brought as many as 100 tiny Buddha statuettes—enough to field a full combat company—for their protection. These iconic symbols would impress their American GI counterparts, facilitate their illicit trading schemes, and neutralize foreign magic in the spirit-rich forests of Bien Hoa.

I blogged earlier about South Korean attitudes toward the Vietnam War.

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Three Past Outbreaks of Major Violence in Thailand

Hong Kong-based security consultant G. M. Greenwood offers some historical perspective on Thailand’s current turmoils in an article in the Asia Sentinel (19 May 2010) under the discouraging headline, Reconciliation or Retribution in Thailand: The odds are on retribution.

Thailand has experienced three major violent political upheavals in the 35 or so years before the present crisis began. All can be linked, and while each offers a differing insight into how the state has responded to being challenge, context makes them unreliable indicators of the country’s direction in the coming days and weeks.

  • On 13 October 1973, months of anti-government protests against the armed forces’ dominant role in government culminated in a huge demonstration in Bangkok. The following day troops attacked the protestors, killing at least 75 people and wounding hundreds of others. King Bhumibol directly intervened, superficial order was restored and the three politicians seen as largely responsible went into exile overseas.
  • On 5 October 1976, leftist students at Bangkok’s Thammasat University protesting against the killing of two students by rightists a few weeks earlier were attacked by well-organised militia personnel. The official death toll among the students, many of them the children of the elite, was 45 but hundreds more were widely believed to have subsequently murdered. Many fled into the bemused arms of the then revolutionary Communist Party of Thailand, whose fighting strength was drawn from the same northern rural communities that remain the hinterland of today’s reds. The subsequent anti-communist campaign by the Thai military was accompanied by a wave of extrajudicial killings that have been largely forgotten outside these communities.
  • Between 17 and 20 May 1992, at least 44 people were killed and hundreds injured when troops fired at demonstrators protesting against efforts to make a prime minister of a military leader who had seized power in a coup the previous year. In addition to acknowledged casualties, many of them drawn from the higher social classes, at least 100 people were presumed killed by the security forces after the immediate unrest. When containers were found on the seabed off the Sattahip naval base at the head of the Gulf of Thailand in 2009, there was widespread speculation that they might contain the remains of the missing of ‘Black May.’ The fact that they did not has not diminished the belief that the state is capable of killing its opponents.

These precedents, rather than vague talk of compromise and national unity, are likely to guide the actions of the Red Shirt activists and their countless thousands of supporters across the country as they prepare for the aftermath of the loss of their key redoubts in Bangkok. For them, any outcome to the crisis that erodes their present strength will be resisted.

The problem for Abhisit and his allies is as much cultural as political. While democratic institutions are developing roots across the region, the concept of ‘loyal opposition’ is still regarded as an oxymoron by many local politicians. It is within this context that an overly soft line against the Red Shirts will be interpreted by UDD activists, Abhisit’s opponents within government, the military and pro-establishment People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) Yellow Shirts as a sign of weakness rather than a display of pragmatism.

Nevertheless, an effort is likely to be made to re-emphasise the narrative that distinguishes the Red Shirt leadership from the ‘misguided misled.’ In this model, the red rank-and-file would be allowed – even helped – to return to their communities, accompanied by a chorus extolling their virtues as loyal but unwitting dupes of toppled Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra and his clique.

via RealClearWorld

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