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The War Nerd October 7, 2005
Southern Thailand: the Long Grind
By Gary Brecher Browse author Email

Southeast Asia is the new hot vacation spot for the ball-bearing backpack crowd. Not only did JI manage to hit Bali a second time, but the war in Southern Thailand is heating up enough to deserve a column. The Southern Thailand death toll just went into four figures -- 1,037 KIA last time I checked.

UPDATE: Whoops, better make that 1,042. Just now the rebels just killed five Thai Rangers in a classic drive-by shooting at a checkpoint on the Thai-Malaysian border.

A four-figure death toll is big-time these days. It's a sad commentary on the way the world is sliding into wimpery when a puny death toll like that rates a mention.

Sixty years ago, they were killing that many men every few seconds on the Eastern Front. These days we kill the way you piss when you've got kidney stones -- a dribble, a lot of moaning and groaning, then another dribble. But hey, what can I do about it? I don't make the wars, I just try to enjoy them.

To enjoy a war like this, you have to lower your expectations. There ain't gonna be any Gettysburgs in this one. Like most of our pissant contemporary wars, it's not about military strategy or hardware, just tribal grudges rubbing against each other like those continental plates, grinding away and flaring up into a massacre now and then.

Southern Thailand is one of those places where ethnic plates are squeezing like the San Andreas Fault. Look at Thailand on a map and you'll see it's like an apple with a worm dangling down from it. The big apple is the Thai heartland, the river valley where the ethnic Thais grow their rice. The worm dangling down from it is the Malay Peninsula. This insurgency is happening at the very bottom, at the Malay border. The insurgents are Malays, not Thais. Different culture, different religion -- Muslims, not Buddhists like the Thais.

To understand SE Asian military history, you have to understand that in this part of the world, the key is controlling the fertile river valleys. That's where you can do intensive rice planting, so you can feed more people, meaning you end up with more soldiers.

The losing tribes get pushed away from the river, up into the dry hills. I talked about this in my column on Burma ("Burma: They Ain't Like Us," eXile #166), which has exactly the same pattern.

The longer the Thai kings were able to hold onto the river plains, the more armies they accumulated -- just like holding Australia in Risk. They had to spend some of those armies defending Thailand against their traditional enemies, the Burmese, but the rest were used to push the Thai empire outward, into the northern mountains and south down the Malay Peninsula.

Thailand has been gobbling up little bits of borderland for centuries, like the French kings did in the Middle Ages. The Thais love stories about their kings fighting on the borders against those dirty Burmese.

I just rented a Thai war movie, "The Legend of Su-" (wait, I forget how to spell her damn name, better look it up) -- OK, it's The Legend of Suriyothai, and it was about a 17th-century Princess who fought off the Burmese invaders. The movie made no sense to me at all, but the big battle scene at the end was great, with the Princess on an elephant having a halberd duel against the Burmese King.

If I had to fight a duel, I'd pick that style. A fat man has the advantage when it's halberds on elephant-back. Maybe I'll challenge Victor Davis Hanson to a game of elephant hackey sack, and he gets to be the hack-ee. All proceeds from the ticket sales donated to promoting war and trouble throughout the world.

In the big battle scene, the Burmese elephants had red war paint in the shape of flames coming from their eyes, which was about the coolest thing I've seen this year. I recommend you rent it. Just keep pressing Fast Forward for the first two and a half hours or so until you see those red elephants charging through the jungle.

(By the way, if you want a GREAT Asian war movie get this Korean one, Brotherhood of War. Stands to reason that the Koreans could do the Korean War better than anybody, and they do. Best battles I've seen since Gettysburg, and better yet it doesn't have that sawed-off stump Martin Sheen trying to fill Robert E. Lee's size-12 shoes, or Jeff Daniels in a walrus mustache trying to do a Cliff Claven accent.)

As they pushed their borders south, down the Malay Peninsula, the Thai kings ran up against the Muslim kingdom of Pattani, and they've been trying to hang on against local rebels ever since. That's what we're seeing now: another flare-up of a war that's been going on for centuries.

It's hard not to take sides on this one. I'm a Thai food fan, a Pad Thai hog from way back. So even though I've never been to Thailand (never been east of the Rockies in fact), I like Thais. I'll just declare my prejudices here: those Malays should take off their headscarves and try to be better Thais. It'd be a step up for them.

Of course that's not how they see it. To the Malays in Pattani, the Thais are "Buddhist Imperialists," trying to make Allah's faithful bow down to fat-man statues. (And what's wrong with that?)

These Southern Muslims were the biggest of all the Thai rebellions in the 1960s. People forget that during the Vietnam era, it seemed likely that Thailand would be one of the first dominoes to fall. If you look at a military map from that period, the only "green zones" (under government control) were the central river valley and the cities.

In Isaan, the dirt-poor northeast province, Communist cadres were working the pissed-off villagers with help from the VC, Chinese and Pathet Lao. Hill tribesmen funded by the drug barons of the Golden Triangle were sitting in ambush on every scraggy mountain in the north.

But the Muslim rebels of the far south were always the toughest, biggest and hardest to crush. By the mid-80s the Thais had killed all the other insurgencies. There were a lot of factors at work here: the Chinese feud with Vietnam left the rebels with no superpower support, the US poured at least a billion dollars into CI work, and the Thai king -- a smart guy, definitely the best king around -- pushed the military to kill the rebellions off with kindness: development projects, counter-propaganda, and a Royal amnesty for anybody who came in from the jungle.

But the biggest reason is the obvious one: money. Suddenly Thailand was the new cool destination for Northern Europeans eager to get out of Social Democratic limbo for a few weeks. Skulking in the jungle swapping malaria parasites with Pol Pot wasn't a good career choice when you could work as a diving instructor in Phuket or Pattaya and make enough to impress the girls with a motor scooter and a knockoff Rolex.

Money killed off the Commie rebels, but didn't do a thing to the Muslims. That's one of the most important lessons we have to remember: the Commies were paper tigers, a few dollars and they vanished.

But the Muslims won't be bribed. When you've got Saudi boys choosing one-way tickets to the WTC over a lifetime lying by the pool with your imported Swedish girlfriend in Riyadh, you've got a serious ideology to deal with.

The Pattani rebels have gone through the same sort of change as the Palestinians. Back in the day, the Southern Thais had a PLO-style, semi-Commie organization called PULO representing them. But as Communism burned out and Islam heated up, the torch got passed to a new generation of Jihadis.

In Palestine, the PLO lost out to Hamas. In Southern Thailand, PULO is as decrepit as the Fresno Rotary Club. The cool new clique is the Pattani Islamic Mujahedeen Movement, or GMIP.

These guys are long on theology but short on tactics. In fact, some of their operations have been just plain comic. In April 2004, Muslims from the village of Su So massed around Thai police stations in the South waving machetes and knives. The cops told them to hold that pose, got the M-16s out of the gun case, did a few stretching exercises on their trigger fingers, and blasted away. At least 100 Malays were killed. No cops were even wounded.

Getting slaughtered in a mismatch like that seems stupid to us Americans, but there's a pattern in insurgent warfare here: the first wave is suicidal, the second homicidal. There are dozens of examples, two of the most famous being the first and second Intifada in Israel.

In the first Intifada, the Pals threw rocks at Merkava tanks and got slaughtered. In the second, they went on the offensive. Same pattern in Ireland in the early 20th century: in the "Easter Rising" in 1916, a bunch of rebels in uniform occupied buildings in downtown Dublin, declared themselves a target and got blown to bits by artillery fire. In 1919, the second wave started, with ambushes and pioneering efforts in urban guerrilla warfare that succeeded in driving the Brits out of Southern Ireland, their first big defeat.

How does it work? Like all guerrilla warfare, it's about winning by losing. The first wave takes one for the team. By marching out and getting themselves killed, they get the people angry, set the pattern of thinking of the rebels as heroic martyrs, and their corpses are like fertilizer for the second wave, which consists of cooler heads, guys who are out to kill, not just die.

The grosser the mismatch, the better the propaganda. So in the first Intifada, you saw Pal kids with rocks fighting tanks. In Ireland 1916 you had rifles versus heavy artillery. That sort of things stays in people's heads for centuries, especially when the government troops' retaliation gets out of hand and wreaks havoc.

So it was actually pretty smart for the Irish rebels to occupy central Dublin, because heavy artillery isn't exactly "surgical" and ended up destroying most of the city.

So far it looks like the Thai government is doing the heavy-handed response, laying waste any Muslim village that gets uppity. A year ago, the Army jumped a crowd of Muslim demonstrators, arrested and hogtied 1,300 men and threw them into trucks like sacks of flour for the long drive to their new prison-camp home. By the time they got there, 78 men had been crushed to death.

That's not smart killing. It might be smart to kill all 1,300 -- and all their male kin, while you're at it -- but it's not smart to kill a few and make the rest into your enemies for life. The Thais are just getting frustrated, the way regular armies always do dealing with guerrillas. And from the Thai perspective, there's never been a better time to get rough with Muslims than now, while the Americans are already pissed off at the Jihadis. So they want to clean up the problem before we go soft again. And if you're a Southeast Asian American ally, you can't help fearing that the Americans will go soft again soon. We've done it before, and they're right to fear we'll do it again.

The really smart move for the Thais would be to set up a puppet Muslim autonomous regime in the South, consolidate its power, then push it into a civil war with the extremists. That's what the Israelis are doing in Gaza at the moment: leaving suddenly, creating a power vacuum in the hope that Fatah and Hamas will get too busy fighting each other to keep Intifada #2 going.

It worked for the Brits in Ireland. After losing an urban guerrilla war to the IRA in 1919-21, they signed a treaty with the moderate faction, handed over heavy weapons, and let the moderate and extremist wings duke it out until they were both exhausted. They got 50 years of quiet on the Western (Island) front out of it.

My guess is that there is no happy solution. The Muslim rebels are doing all the right things to keep the people pissed off and angry. The Thais are doing the only thing they can by killing anybody they think is in on the insurgency, because frankly, you can't kill off these Muslim rebels with kindness (and money) the way they did the other rebellions, the Commie-inspired rebellions in the North.

We're going to see a long, slow grind of the ethnic plates in Southern Thailand. Your grandkids will be reading the same headlines from there, a hundred years from now.

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Gary Brecher
Browse author
Email Gary at, but, more importantly, buy his book.

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