In the mid-to-late 1970s I had personal experience of how a national government found such a solution to a major crisis, one that threatened the very existence of their democracy.
South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia fell to the Communists within a few days of each other in 1975. The “Domino Theory” current at that time among the Western powers, predicted that Thailand would soon fall next. I was a young monk in northeast Thailand during that period. The monastery in which I mostly lived was twice as close to Hanoi as it was to Bangkok. We were told to register with our embassies and evacuation plans were prepared. Most Western governments were to be surprised that Thailand didn’t fall.
Ajahn Chah was quite famous by then and many top Thai generals and senior members of the national government would travel to his monastery for advice and inspiration. I had become fluent in Thai, and some Lao, and so gained an insider’s understanding of the seriousness of the situation. The military and the government were not as concerned with the Red armies outside their borders as they were with the Communist activists and sympathizers within their own nation.
Many brilliant Thai university students had fled to the jungles in northeast Thailand to support an internal, Thai, Communist guerrilla force. Their weaponry was supplied from beyond Thailand’s borders, as was their training. But the villages in the “pink” parts of the region gladly supplied their food and other requirements. They had local support. They were an ominous threat.
The Thai military and government found the solution in a three-part strategy.
1. Restraint. The military did not attack the Communist bases, though every soldier knew where they were. When I was living the life of a wandering monk in 1979-80, seeking out the mountains and jungles to meditate in solitude, I would run into the army patrols and they would give me advice. They would point to one mountain and tell me not to go there—that was where the Communists were. Then they would point to another mountain and tell me that was a good place to meditate, there were no Communists there. I had to heed their advice. That year the Communists had caught some wandering monks meditating in the jungle and killed them—after torturing them, I was told.
2. Forgiveness. Throughout this dangerous period, there was an unconditional amnesty in place. Whenever one of the Communist insurgents wanted to abandon his cause, he could simply give up his weapon and return to his village or university. He would probably experience surveillance, but no punishments were imposed. I reached one village in Kow Wong district a few months after the Communists had ambushed and killed a large jeep full of Thai soldiers outside their village. The young men of the village were mostly sympathetic to the Communist soldiers, but not actively fighting. They told me they were threatened and harassed, but allowed to go free.
“3. Solving the root-problem. During these years, I saw new roads being built and old roads being paved in the region. Villagers could now take their produce to town to sell. The king of Thailand personally supervised and paid for, the construction of many hundreds of small reservoirs with connected irrigation schemes, allowing the poor farmers of the northeast to grow a second crop of rice each year. Electricity reached the remotest of hamlets and with it came a school and a clinic. The poorest region in Thailand was being cared for by the government in Bangkok, and the villagers were becoming relatively prosperous.
A Thai government soldier on patrol in the jungle told me once: “We don’t need to shoot the Communists. They are fellow Thais. When I meet them coming down from the mountains or going to the village for supplies, and we all know who they are, I just show them my new wristwatch, or let them listen to a Thai song on my new radio—then they give up being a Communist.”
That was his experience, and that of his fellow soldiers.
The Thai Communists began their insurgency so angry with their government that they were ready to give their young lives. But restraint on the part of the government helped to prevent their anger being made worse. Forgiveness, through an amnesty, gave them a safe and honorable way out. Solving the problem, through development, made the poor villagers prosperous. The villagers saw no need to support the Communists anymore: they were content with the government they already had. And the Communists themselves began to doubt what they were doing, living with such hardships in the jungle-covered mountains.
One by one they gave up their guns and returned to their family, their village, or their university. By the early 1980s, there were hardly any insurgents left, so then the generals of the jungle army, the leaders of the Communists, also gave themselves up. I remember seeing a feature article in the Bangkok Post of a sharp entrepreneur who was taking Thai tourists into the jungle to visit the now abandoned caves from where the Communists once threatened their nation.
What happened to those leaders of the insurgency? Could the same unconditional offer of amnesty be applied to them? Not quite. They were not punished, nor exiled. Instead, they were offered important positions of responsibility in the Thai government service, in recognition of their leadership qualities capacity for hard work, and concern “for their people! What a brilliant gesture. Why waste the resource of such courageous and committed young men?
This is a true story as I heard it from the soldiers and villagers of northeast Thailand at the time. It is what I saw with my own eyes. Sadly, it has hardly been reported elsewhere.
At the time of writing this book, two of those former Communist leaders were serving their country as ministers in the Thai National Government.”
Excerpt From: Brahm, Ajahn. “Who Ordered This Truckload of Dung?”.
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