The Communist Insurgency and Military-Initiated Liberalisation

The military’s failure to suppress the communist insurgency is one of several important factors which contributed to the military-initiated liberalisation which brought a relatively long period of parliamentary rule in the 1980s. Thai military leaders were concerned with the communist insurgency from the early 1960s. But they believed that it was external in origin and consequently that the success of the insurgency depended in large part on the communist movement’s success in Vietnam and Laos. To counter the insurgency in Thailand, the RTA saw improvement of the people’s livelihood in the affected remote rural areas as essen-tial. Political solutions to the problem were not considered (Snitwongse 1990: 93-94).

Marshal Sarit’s action reflected the military elite’s perception of that period. Communist suspects were severely punished. The military launched rural development projects in peripheral areas where the state was not in evidence. The military believed that the communist insurgents were merely bandits, without an organisation, and could be easily dealt with by the police force. In 1965 when overt armed insurgency broke out in the northeast, armed suppression was carried out on the assumption that military means were the only way to wipe out the communist movement. This response only fuelled the insurgency which expanded rapidly in other parts of the country in the late 1960s. Military campaigns against the communists intensified in the 1970s, but further encouraged the spread of the armed struggle. Civic actions were carried out against poverty and hardship in peripheral areas, but these did not stop the expansion of the insurgency.

After 1977, when General Kriangsak staged a coup which overthrew the rightist regime of Thanin Kraivixien, a new strategy of counter-insurgency was initiated to replace military campaigns. Intensification of the insurgency in response to the sweeping suppression of liberal and leftist movements during the twelve months of Thanin’s rule became a major concern to the military. In addition, an exodus of more than a thousand students, intellectuals and laborers to join the Communist Party of Thailand, following the ruthless suppression of the student protest on 6 October 1976, expanded its support base and convinced the military that a new counter-insurgency policy was needed.

The military-initiated liberalisation began in 1978 when Kriangsak’s government lifted the suppression order on the CPT and its sympathisers and enacted an amnesty law for those who joined the CPT after the 1976 coup. As a result, defectors, many former student leaders and intellectuals, left the Communist Party and resumed their normal lives. The political offensive strategy became official when the government of General Prem Tinasulanond issued Prime Ministerial Order No. 66/2523. This detailed a counter-insurgency policy which stressed the priority of political means over military actions to suppress the CPT. It laid down operational guidelines, such as the elimination of social and economic injustices, promotion of political participation, promotion of democratic institutions and movements, and assurance of political freedom. In short, the order made it clear that building full democracy was the only means to defeat communism.

Attempts were made to implement the order. Several mass organisations were established in rural areas to mobilise the people in support of the government’s insurgency suppression program. The military claimed that these organisations were evidence of democratic development at the grassroots level since the people were encouraged to participate in the administration and the development of their villages. The Thai National Defense Volunteers, Volunteer Development and Self-Defense villages, and the Military Reservist for National Security organisation were set up as centres for mobilisation and training of villagers for democratic participation (Bunbongkarn 1987b:53-58).

It is difficult, however, to see these projects as catalysts to democratisation in Thailand when the administrative structure at the village and tambol (sub-district) levels remained unchanged. Although the village headman and tambol officer (kamnan) were elected by the people, they came under the authority of the provincial administration, and the village and tambol administrations were parts of the provincial administration and received their budgets from the central government. The people were not given the authority to decide the future of their community and the local administrative structure and the principle of development from above remained unaffected.