Firsthand Observations on Countering Insurgencies: Lessons for Today?
by Dick Virden
We Americans tend to forget that our struggles with insurgencies did not begin (and won’t end) with Iraq and Afghanistan. More than a century ago, when we first became a colonial power, we fought such a war in the Philippines. Counterinsurgency was also the name of the game in the 1960s, and not only in Vietnam. Among the other places where we rallied to this banner was Thailand, where I was sent on my first Foreign Service assignment.
With the thought that an examination of what took place in Thailand back then might yield some useful insights to those contending with the insurgencies of today and tomorrow, I offer below some ground-level observations from that late ‘60s tour, seasoned by decades of subsequent study and experience with American engagements abroad.
I landed in Bangkok January of 1967 to begin work for the United States Information Service, the field organization of USIA, an agency that has since been absorbed by the State Department. Our program in Thailand then was both unconventional and large, with a sprawling headquarters in a leafy compound in Bangkok and as many as 13 branch posts. We even briefly had one in the tiny northeastern town of Surin, which had fewer than 10,000 residents and was known mainly for its annual elephant roundup. Today we’ve gone to the opposite extreme, leaving mega cities in Brazil, India and elsewhere around the globe with no U.S. government representative on the scene.
We were engaged so intensively in Thailand in the ‘60s because we feared the communist insurgency in Vietnam would spread there. Thailand was a key ally, one of only a half dozen countries with troops on the ground in South Vietnam, about a thousand soldiers at the peak. Thailand also opened its doors to us, permitting the Pentagon to set up a string of air bases in the northeast region to help prosecute the wars in nearby Vietnam and Laos. We felt we needed to keep Thailand stable and on our side.
Thailand was governed then by the same political dynamic that had prevailed since the absolute monarchy was overthrown in 1932. Power was shared between the King and Army generals. The trappings of democracy were in place, but this was no Jeffersonian state. Those who pushed from within for greater democracy and deeper reforms made little headway.
I spent my first eight or nine months in country working in the various sections of USIS in the capital. In those days, new USIA officers rotated around different parts of the operation press, radio and television, library, cultural center, executive office, field operations -- to learn the business. Such systematic on-the-job training is rare today, considered a luxury given State’s perennial staffing shortages (The Department of Defense sets the gold standard, maintaining a 15 percent “float” of more people than jobs, so officers can be spared for training).
My final three months of training/orientation was in the northern city of Chiang Mai, a wonderfully exotic place then. W.A. R. Wood, a British diplomat who arrived there as a young man and never left, wrote a book about his experience called Consul in Paradise. His charming descriptions and folk stories suggest some of the allure of the region and the diverse peoples who live in the north’s mountains and valleys.
After an all-too-short time in this Shangri La, I was appointed as Branch Public Affairs Officer in the north central river town of Phitsanuloke, about half way between Chiang Mai and Bangkok. The ruined temples of Sukhothai, which had been the capital of a Thai kingdom in the early Middle Ages, lay about 20 miles to the west. I was to be the lone USIS officer with a staff of a half dozen Thai employees responsible for a five-province region bordering on both Laos and Burma.
Our job was counterinsurgency, then the focus for most of the U.S. Mission in Thailand. Already intensely engaged in Vietnam, the United States worried that a disaffected population could turn against the government here, too, as in Vietnam. There was legitimate cause for concern, since the Thai government writ rarely extended into the countryside, even in the lowland plains. That many villages still lacked electricity, passable roads and even schools was a telling indicator of long neglect.
The U.S. aim was to help bring the government and people closer together. In short, this was a battle for “hearts and minds,” in the language of the day; whatever that struggle is called, winning the allegiance of the people remains the core of any counter-insurgency program.
For our part, USIS pursued this cause in the field mainly through what we called “mobile information teams,” or MITs. The basic idea was to get Thai government representatives out of their offices and out among the rice paddies to show villagers that their government was there for them and deserved their support. The concept seemed simple enough, but getting city dwelling officials to leave their comfortable offices in town to court rural citizens went against the grain. Traditionally, state officials stayed put; if the peasants wanted something, they should come to them. The notion of reversing the flow, of reaching out to earn the respect of the governed, was radical change, a value Americans added to the equation.
The suggestion that loyalty had to be earned -- not granted automatically as their due -- was a novel notion for distant and aloof rulers steeped in a centuries-old authoritarian system. Think of the august (if lovable) King of Siam (the ancient name for Thailand) in the play/movie, “The King and I.”
Some Thai officials – particularly those trained at the USAID-created district academy – were willing enough to venture out but lacked the means. We had our own Jeeps and paid for our gas and often theirs. Our supplying the wherewithal and impetus helped overcome inertia. We sometimes got governors and their staffs to venture out as well. That was a higher hill to climb but also promised bigger payback. A governor was called a “Phuwarachakarn,” a title imposing enough to make almost anyone bow; governors were appointed as the exalted personal representatives of the King, so villagers took note when they appeared.
Even more than prestige, we wanted officials on the trips who brought meaningful help: veterinarians, doctors or other health practitioners, agricultural specialists, educators, along with line district and provincial officials. We encouraged them to bring things to give away as well: medicine, for example, or new, miracle seeds. We handed out USIS-produced posters and leaflets about basic health matters and the virtues of freedom versus communism.
At night we showed movies in the open air. We’d crank up our portable generator; tie a sheet between a couple of bamboo stakes, and show whatever we had: cartoons, Walt Disney type entertainments, public service advertisements. We also had some USIS-made feature films as well as documentaries about activities by the Thai government and the royal family. King Phumiphon, who’d been on the throne since the late 40s and had god-like status, was our strongest asset, the revered embodiment of the nation.
Buddhism was also a unifying force in most of the country, except for the far south, where the ethnic makeup is mainly Malay and the religion Islam. To this day separatism is a concern there.
For our field trips, we traveled by Jeeps, often via ox-cart trails, since there were few decent roads. Many villages were cut off and very poor in those days. On one village trip, in Uttaradit province near the border with Laos, we found our way blocked where a huge teak log had fallen across the trail. The solution produced the favorite petty cash voucher I ever submitted: 10 baht (50 cents), hire of elephant to remove log from trail.
Our field officers were often the first farang or, white foreigner, in Thai to show up in a village, a real curiosity. Watching a large, pale creature take a shower was a source of great mirth for village kids; you had to maneuver a couple of pakimas a sort of large towel while pouring water from buckets. It was a risky business.
We brought along sleeping bags and tossed them on the floor of the school or wat (a Buddhist temple). We brought our own food and drink. Village food, which it would have been rude to decline when offered, was nothing like the fare served in fashionable Thai restaurants today in America. It could be literally gut-wrenching.
Thailand had an estimated 50,000 villages in the late ‘60s and the living conditions in most of them were still primitive. The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) was helping build village to market roads as well as major thoroughfares like the “Thanom Mitrapharp,” or “Friendship Highway,” from Bangkok through the northeast to the Lao border. Some major dams were in the works, financed by the World Bank among other organizations. USAID also organized “mobile development units” to try to jump start progress in the hinterland.
In the late ‘60s this vital development work was just getting started, and there was not yet much to show for it. Many areas had yet to be reached at all. Rice farmers lived out there among the paddies as they had since time immemorial, and they were not used to having government officials around, much less foreigners. USIS field officers had all been given enough Thai training to get by in the language, but we tried to minimize our own presence, to stay in the background and allow Thai officials to take the lead. We weren’t out to make the village people pro-American, but rather pro-Bangkok. It wasn’t about us.
Security was always a consideration, and in fact in early 1970, a few months after I left, three of my Thai colleagues from Chiang Mai were killed, ambushed by terrorists in Nan province, near the border with Laos. The heavy lifting against the “communist terrorists” (CTs) was done by Army units and the Border Patrol Police, who benefitted from equipment and training provided by the United States. Except for areas considered particularly dangerous, however, the security presence on our MITs was minimal. The “armed propaganda teams” that were reportedly part of our effort in Vietnam at the same time would not have fit with our approach, which relied on soft power the ability to attract rather than to compel adherence through force or intimidation. But then, for a country in an all-out war as Vietnam then was, it was too late for preventive medicine.
In the Phitsanuloke area and its north central region, there was spillover from the mountainous borders with Laos and Burma. The borders were porous and violence endemic. Most of the trouble, even petty theft, was attributed to CTs. (Neither the term nor the phenomenon of terrorism was invented by Al Qaeda). There indeed was a militant communist party of Thailand and armed anti-government elements in the countryside. So the threat was real enough, if perhaps greatly exaggerated.
In the mountainous north and on the fringe of that region, hill tribes or “Montagnards,” as similar groups were known in Vietnam were seen as the major threat. There were a wide variety of tribal groups, including Hmong,Yao, Karen and even remnants of Chiang Kai Shek’s losing forces, the KMT, who now made a living in the Golden Triangle (Thailand-Burma-Laos) region riding shotgun for opium caravans.
The Hmong or Meo moved freely across the Thai-Lao border, practiced slash and burn agriculture, and were seen as the most dangerous (even though Gen. Vang Pao and his Hmong army fought on the U.S. side in Laos). Incidentally, tens of thousands of Hmong refugees from the wars of this era have settled in my home state of Minnesota. One young Hmong woman was sworn into the State Department Foreign Service in early 2012, a fitting indicator of how times have changed.
Back in the ‘60s, the Thai government made special efforts to reach the hill tribe people. King Phumiphon and the royal family in particular launched many developmental initiatives. Since tribal groups were involved in growing or trafficking in opium, one major emphasis was crop substitution. It was a tough sell then no other product seemed as profitable -- and remains so today, in this region as in places like Afghanistan.
For this young officer, the work was fascinating, stimulating, sometimes intimidating, often exhausting. I’d read Bernard Fall on Vietnam, some British works about Malaya, and Mao Test Tung’s little red book on revolutionary warfare, but that was scant preparation. I was hardly well steeped in the theory or practice of counterinsurgency, but I got what we were trying to do and felt it made sense. And, of course, I had a staff of good, experienced Thai employees who were bilingual, knew their country, and kept us out of trouble.
Phitsanuloke had only a small U.S. military presence, unlike the major bases in the northeast. A U.S. Air Force detachment operated a small radar site at the town’s airport but had little contact with Thai authorities; their work was connected to the Vietnam War, tracking airplanes that were doing something in Laos or in Vietnam, not in Thailand. We also had a small U.S. military advisory group in town working with the Thais. I was the only civilian U.S. government official around.
Out in the field, the capital seemed very far away and our link to the outside world shaky. At one point a tower near Phitsanuloke was hit by lightning and power knocked out for the entire town for three weeks. Even in normal times phone service was unreliable; getting calls to and from Bangkok was problematic. That meant field officers had a pretty long leash; you did what you thought was best and reported it later.
It was exhilarating in many ways, but you could also feel a bit cut off at times. A senior colleague from that time described something he called the “foxhole mentality,” by which he meant the tendency of soldiers in exposed positions to feel that, “nobody behind the lines knows anything or cares about us out here.” It’s an understandable feeling, perhaps, but neither healthy nor accurate. There were smart, experienced officers in Bangkok who had our backs and saw to it that we got the support we needed. I tried to keep in mind the feeling of isolation out in the trenches in later year when I was on the other end, supervising officers from afar.
Field officers also did a certain amount of political reporting, noting what we saw and heard when we out and around. In addition to accounting for our own activities, we reported basic data – number of houses in the village, availability of water and electricity, the presence or absence of young men – and whatever tidbits we picked up that might interest senior officers in Bangkok.
One example that comes to mind was when the Thai government, with U.S. backing, broadcast to hill tribesmen in an area near Laos directing them to come down to the valley to get away from an ongoing military operation. However, we’d been in the makeshift camps in that area and knew they were simply not equipped to cope with a new influx of refugees. So we told Bangkok there was a potentially dangerous gap between the message and the reality that would greet anyone who heeded it. Help was soon on the way in the form of food, blankets and other supplies.
On another occasion, we raised the alarm about the lack of plans to provide for the hundreds of village families that would be displaced by the huge Sirrikit (named for the Thai Queen) Dam, then being built in Uttaradit. This seemed to be a matter of an authoritarian government decreeing what would be done without regard to the impact – or collateral damage – on the people who lived there. (A feel for local conditions is part of what is lost today when the United States confines most of its representation to capitals. Another casualty is the talent scout function: identifying future national leaders early in their careers and involving them in our exchange programs).
There was also official corruption, of course. We didn’t see it directly, but it was no doubt one reason for the skepticism we would often sense when we were out in the countryside. It wasn’t hard to detect a certain amount of distrust -- who are these strangers, why are they here, what do they want to take from us -- and a history of corruption, exploitation and neglect would help explain such attitudes.
I left Phitsanuloke in late ’69 with orders for home leave and return to a new assignment in Bangkok, as assistant radio and television officer. While I was in Minnesota on leave I got a call from Personnel and was told, “Hold on. Your assignment’s going to change. You’re going to go to Vietnam instead. We need people there.” And so I went, but that’s another story.
It would be more than a decade before I returned to Thailand, after tours in Brazil, Washington and Poland. It was the summer of 1980 when my family and I arrived in Bangkok, where I was assigned as the information officer and press attaché.
The city and country looked and felt familiar, but the U.S. government’s interests in Thailand were different now. Rather than the rural insurgency, which was fading into the background, we were concerned about issues related to the aftermath of the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In particular, large numbers of refugees from all three of those countries were still arriving in Thailand by land or by boat, inundating camps set up to give them temporary asylum and creating a wrenching humanitarian crisis.
Thai leaders saw the newcomers as a threat to their society and economy and had agreed to house them on a short-term emergency basis only until other countries the U.S. most especially included gave them permanent refuge. Thais had little patience for what they saw as foot-dragging and “compassion fatigue” in the West that left hundreds of thousands of refugees stranded indefinitely in squalid conditions in makeshift camps along Thailand’s borders.
Despite the sour taste in American mouths over the failed wars in Southeast Asia, the United States did ultimately take in millions of refugees from the region. Allies like Canada and Australia, among others, also took in significant numbers. To this day, however, there are still refugee camps in Thailand, though now they are mainly for newer refugees, from Burma. Refugee politics was and is complex, and is not this subject of this piece.
But what of the insurgent threat that preoccupied us in the ‘60s? Why did Thailand not go the way of Vietnam?
Thailand’s own strong, cohesive culture was the decisive factor. For centuries the country had managed to stave off would-be colonial powers, in part through skilled diplomacy, in part because of the unifying force of the royal family and Buddhism. King Phumiphon remained a revered, god-like figure for most Thais throughout this period. Only in later years would his star dim as Thais fighting for greater liberalization begin to see Phumiphon as anti-democratic and hostile to their reform agenda. But in the ‘60s and ‘70s, loyalty to King Phumiphon helped hold the country together.
Another key element was that rural life measurably improved. Over the years, once poor, inaccessible villages benefitted from roads, electrical power, schools and potable water. The development work by the Thai government and outside entities, USAID included, paid off. Villagers started to share in the nation’s progress and with that to perceive a government serving them, too, not only princes and generals.
As for tamping down the insurgent threat, did the U.S. involvement make any difference? Is there a winning formula here that the United States might adopt for dicey situations elsewhere?
The short answers are: yes and no. Our insistence that more attention must be paid to rural citizens clearly did matter. We can take some satisfaction in introducing the democratic ideal that governments must earn the consent of the governed – not take it for granted. Still, much as we might preach that gospel and regard it as universal, it might not take everywhere, particularly in societies without the heft and texture that has held Thailand together for so many centuries. It was already a nation; we didn’t have to try to build it.
Developments outside the country, including an end to the wars next door and a lessening of support for revolutionary parties from Moscow and Beijing, also played a role in Thailand’s case, as did crackdowns against leading militants and olive branches to those ready to come in out of the shadows and fight for reform by more conventional means. Closing the American air bases also took away an issue that had been a rallying cry for rebels.
No doubt all nasty insurgencies are nasty in their own way, but successful counter insurgency programs are all alike in that they secure the hearts and minds of citizens. Recognition of that requirement is an essential beginning. The means will vary, depending on local conditions. The overall effort will more likely succeed if ideas spring from the local culture rather than are pushed by outsiders; that’s a principle we recognized long ago, under the Marshall Plan, for example. Allowing the Europeans to suggest what was most needed and would work best to revive their countries turned out pretty well, but too often since we’ve acted as if we had all the answers.
Others can better tell the story of what’s happened in the decades since I left Thailand in 1983. It’s clear, though, that the country has not been immune to the revolution of rising expectations. Thais have taken to the streets in recent years to demand greater freedom, better jobs, a bigger slice of the economic pie and more say in who cuts it. The King is now old and infirm; he can no longer play the decisive role he once did, and his heir apparent has a dubious reputation. The Army has worn out its welcome, even if many leading generals have yet to get the word. Thailand has long been known for its ability to bend with the wind; now its leaders need to accept that today’s prevailing wind is blowing against authoritarian rule. Odds are the Thais will figure it out.
As for the United States, the great philosopher Sun Tzu wrote of the “art” not the “science” of war. It’s a distinction we might keep in mind if we continue to see a need to involve ourselves in internal conflicts in other countries. We may sometimes be able to contribute, but on the margins. The key will always be the strength of the local society and the ability of its national leaders to gain the respect of the governed.