A few weeks ago, rummaging through a broken box of browned archives, I came upon a book, written in Thai by Saisith Pornkaew, one of the best of a group of young Thai field officers with whom I had worked in the 1960s during a Thailand assignment. The book, Fighting The Communist Insurgency With Village Cooperation, covered his difficult assignment in reorganizing a district in the northeast province of Ubol and the defeat of a growing insurgency fomented by Laotian and Vietnamese provocateurs. I opened the cover to read Saisith’s hand-written dedication in English: “To the only man who knows Thailand and its people – William A. Sommers…Saisith, May 14, 1969.” An impossible exaggeration by a true friend! But like Proust’s tea- dunked Madeline in Remembrance Of Things Past, it conjured a detailed, if not totally involuntary, memory of a time I had all but forgotten. The book - happily - forced me to reconstruct the Saisith I remembered.
He was a young officer, with field experience but now working in the Thai Department of Local Administration in Bangkok and assigned as a contact person to help me better understand the critical operation of the amphur (district) in the context of strengthening Thai local government. My good luck! Saisith was born in Srisaket province in Northeastern Thailand, attended a Buddhist Wat School there and spent his formative years at the two best Thai Universities -Thammasat and Chulalongkorn. Upon graduation, he was hired by the Department and immediately assigned in rapid succession to three rather remote districts in his home province of Srisaket. He had been transferred to Bangkok not long before I was assigned as an advisor. He was short, slim with a strong face, thick lips and piercing, unflickering eyes in singular contrast to the somewhat more polite, eye turn-away of the usual Thai officer. He smoked a lot but was not a social drinker, in contrast to me and to many of my counterparts.
I realized early-on that he was devotedly focused on improving governmental service at the point of people’s needs and that he critically avoided the smooth-over posture of so much of the government’s statements of bureaucratic power. I recall that when we went in the field to visit districts and local villages, I could always find him, after dinner, crouching in the Thai manner in the near-darkness with local people, smoking banana-cigars and listening to their complaints. He had an almost mystic sense of their need and what must be done…and a clear frustration that more wasn’t achieved. I concluded that he was a “Thai tiger” ready for action to do the right thing – as he saw it – even in the face of the bureaucracy of which he was a part.
At the same time, he had an indirect, slightly cynical sense of humor. He, and his good friend, Montri, another rising young officer, also well versed in the English language, had fixed me with a touching, oft-repeated, cutting remark, when I met them in the hall. I always greeted them first in Thai – Sawat Dee Kaap – the hello greeting – followed in English with “how is everything?” To which together – or individually – they would invariably answer “So far – no good!” I knew then that another difficult workday had begun!
My relations with Saisith soon reached a forceful climax. In the first week of June 1966, the Director General of Local Administration asked me to accompany him, along with a group of ranking departmental officials, on an inspection trip to Ubol, one of the largest Northeastern provinces, which bordered Laos where the connection with Vietnam was very close. The trip’s focus was Loeng Nok Tha District in the northern part of Ubol, which had taken frequent forays of insurgents, infiltrated from Laos with Viet Cong support. These raids were beginning to raise havoc with the local government and its people. The insurgents played on the long-term unrest of many of the northeastern people – the Isaan -- who have, in one way or another, always felt disaffected from Thailand’s growing economic development where Bangkok and surrounding areas, they believed, had reaped most of the benefits. I had accompanied the Director General on a number of trips to Northeast Thailand, covering the provinces of Nakorn Panom and Sakorn Nakorn that were also having difficulties with insurgency. This was, however, the first time I had been with him to this particular district.
On our arrival we went, with the Governor and the Deputy Governor, to visit the Nai Ampur (District Officer). He had been seriously wounded in an attack – two days before - and was both fearful of taking immediate action and ashamed at his inability to protect his District. It was clear that he had to be transferred to Bangkok and a replacement appointed as soon as possible.
At dinner that night, the Director General, his staff and Ubol administrative officials, including the Governor, discussed the problem of how to reconstruct the district and put it in a more offensive mode.
Toward the end of the discussion, the Director General turned to me and asked: “Bill, you work with a lot of our young officers. Who would you recommend to come up here and take charge of Loeng Nak Tha?”
I had been thinking about this when we visited the District and again during dinner. There was no doubt in my mind about the person who could do the job.
“Sir, if you pardon my intrusion, there is no question that Saisith Pornkaew is the only Thai officer that I know who has the strength, determination, experience and focus to face this problem. He should be appointed district officer immediately and be given full support by the Province and the Department in providing whatever he needs in order to salvage and re-build the district.”
This induced much conversation and the heat of it defied my understanding, even though my translator tried hard to follow the exchanges. I could tell, however, that the discussions would be better served if I excused myself.
As I was about to switch to my near nothing pajamas in the small non-air-conditioned hotel room with the heavy heat of a Northeastern night beginning to take command, the Director General sent for me. I went to his room where he told me that after some rather heated discussion, the group agreed with me; his staff was already working on the orders to send Saisith to Loeng Nak Tha. He thanked me and asked that I visit the district often to support Saisith, as his good friend for, as the Director General noted with a winking smile, “Don’t forget, Bill, that he will hold you responsible for your recommendation…. oh, and be sure and get a good sleep tonight!”
As I walked down the hall back to my room, I could hear Saisith saying to me, over and over again: so far, no good, so far, no good…so far…no-good…no good.
The trip concluded on Saturday with an overnight train ride from Ubol to Bangkok, including a wonderful dining car where we all sat and drank the prevalent, if not long matured, Mekong Whiskey flushed with soda water while eating plate after plate of a highly spiced beef salad, a glorious concoction called yum nua. For me it was a necessary immersion to be ready for Monday morning at the Department of Local Government and the undoubted onslaught of one Saisith Pornkaew.
“You, you, Bill Sommers, you who were once my friend. Now you have sent me to exile, to a place where no one wants to go…recommended by the great American advisor…and now, by order of the Director General. And so – because of you - I must go!”
His always-unflinching eyes were like powerful x- rays focused on burning a hole in my heart and his darkened visage had manufactured a deep redness that seemed to turn his whole face into a large, menacing red tomato that was ready to burst.
But I was ready for Saisith. Without a word I got out from behind my desk, grabbed him by the arm, pulled him into the hallway and down two flights of stairs to the lower level coffee shop where I ordered song cafe (two coffees) and dragged him to the farthest table. By then we were both so out of breath we couldn’t speak.
When the strong Thai coffee came, we quickly emptied our cups.
“Sai, I know you’re angry. And maybe you have a right to be. But you are the guy. You are the only officer I have ever seen squatting with the farmers and the puyibans (village chiefs), smoking those goddamn banana cigars and listening to their problems. You give them hope. This is serious stuff and you can do it. Look, I promised the DG that I would visit you and I will work my ass off to get you the things you need. You can be angry with me. OK. But you can’t turn your back on this country, bad as it is, corrupted as it is, you are one of the guys that can save it…what the hell!” Or something like that.
By now he had calmed down - and so had I. We took the morning off and had a big lunch. When I ordered Mekong, this time Saisith did not protest. The next day, he stuck his head in my office to say goodbye, reminding me of my promise to come and see him next month.
I always got his list of needs before I left the district and they were not small. But I struggled with USAID and the Department about the things he absolutely needed and, occasionally, forged a signature or two…but I did get him, by and large, what he needed. His wife, a beautiful woman, also from Srisaket, wove a whole pattern of interaction with the women of the villages. She was, I thought, his alter-ego and had even planted zinnias in front of the house, posting a frail hope against the forces of dust, lack of water and the waxing insurgency.
The battle never slackened until, at some unknown point, he had put things together, raising his district as an example of what could – and should – be done. He began to give talks about the technique and the procedures he used. A series of these talks given to the District Officers Academy were eventually published in the book, Fighting The Communist Insurgency With Village Cooperation. Sincerity distinguished Sai’s personality from all others – at least in my view. He always followed what he had written, namely that “I believe and am confident that we will win only with the cooperation of the villagers to fight…the
Saisith was eventually promoted to be Deputy Governor of Ubol charged to coordinate overall efforts to fight the insurgency and insure that the village people had their say in what they wanted and what they needed. Through his book and his talks to government officials, he articulated a plan that proved successful.
After my last visit, I wrote a poem about him that I now realize he probably never saw. I’ve attached it here:
TO A DISTRICT OFFICER
The last time I saw Saisith was in 1981 when I came to Thailand on a special assignment. He was then governor of Samut Prakan, a small, heavily populated tourist- oriented province next to Bangkok. The Vietnam War was over and while spurts of action still stung the Northeast, Thailand was rebuilding.
We had lunch together and he seemed to be himself, focused and still myopic in his determination to help those who could not help themselves. He drove me around the province, stopping, unannounced, at a fishing village and then a commercial village close to the provincial center. He talked to the people as an advocate, not as the highest government official in the province. I saw, as though in an involuntary rehearsal of memory, the Saisith I knew.
“A lot of difference here, Bill, since you visited me in Loeng Nuk Tha. “
“Maybe, but you still have that village itch. I don’t think you will ever get rid of it. At least, I hope not.”
“You know, Bill, that was a terrible thing you did, sending me to Loeng Nuk Tha. It was the worst, the very worst. It took everything I had and more just to survive. Your visits helped a lot. Then you left…like…your work was done but mine wasn’t. That really hurt. It took me a long time to get over that.”
I looked into the shadowing sky and the dying sun. I wanted to say something. Then I realized, nothing I could say would erase that memory nor justify myself before his piercing conscience.
“But now that you have come back…even for a short time…I think, maybe, I can forgive you…and think of you… as a long lost friend.”
I could feel those traces in his frequent pauses revealing how the deep immersion in his Northeastern efforts had left him mentally – if not physically – tired. It was rumored that he had been transferred to Samut Prakan to get a rest from his incessant battle to make the government understand the villagers and their needs.
We rode through the twilight, returned to his house and, between drinks, began joking and laughing about every thing we could recall that happened between us. After a quiet dinner on the veranda, watching a beautiful sunset spread itself on the small bay that led to the Gulf of Thailand, we talked in darkened, whispered phrases by which, I hoped, we were sharing a deeper and settled remembrance of ourselves.
Early the next morning we parted, united in a memory that we knew- without saying - would endure until we had no more need of the past.
Note: I am indebted to Kanchana and Bruce Hanna for their translations of portions of Saisith Pornkaew’s book.