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The British Contribution to Thailand's War on Communism

The first part of this article, published last month, covered the official opening ceremony for a British-built airfield in the northeast of Thailand at a place called Leong Nok Tha in Ubon Ratchathani province. The British had been asked by the United States, under the terms of the 1954 South East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO) alliance to provide some help to fight the advance of Communism in Thailand. Britain agreed to send a force of unarmed engineers in 1964 to construct an airfield. After this was completed and opened in June 1965, some 300 officers and men were set to work on constructing a 32-kilometre long road leading from the airfield and stretching into the province of Roi Et.

This road would eventually link up with another being constructed by Thai engineers, under American supervision. Five teak bridges were thrown across streams and rivers, with laterite, a brick-coloured rock quarried from the region used as the main ingredient for the tarmac. The British soldiers brought in topsoil to replace the laterite, thereby providing new rice paddies for villagers. The British engineers also sank a number of new wells 'in many villages where the people…formerly had to rely on bore water during the dry season.'

The Illustrated News article claimed the road was 'being built in a Communist-infested area, where the lack of communication has long left the villages and hamlets at the mercy of a terrorist movement directed by about 100 hard-core guerrillas. Village headmen, teachers, police and government officials have been attacked or killed. It is estimated that 40 percent of the people in the district are Communist sympathisers.' A nearby village, Ban Dan, located 13 kilometres from the main British camp had been quarantined by Thai troops and police because it was considered completely Communist.

Although the London Illustrated News article claimed there were only 100 hard-core guerrillas, stories in other publications referred to much higher numbers, whether for propaganda purposes or simple misunderstanding is hard to gauge.

During all the time the British operated in the region, the guerrillas never subjected them to an attack. Lieutenant-Colonel H. Browne, the commander of the British road-builders, attributed this to his squadron's strictly non-military role. "We have absolutely no military motive here whatsoever, and we could just as well be building a road in another province where there are no terrorists," he was quoted as saying. "But I suppose you could say that by building this road and providing communication between the villages and hamlets we are giving the area a means of developing itself, and in the long run helping defeat a Communist takeover of the district.

he British engineers spent four years in the northeast, finally departing in mid-1968. Unfortunately, their legacy was mixed. On a positive note, the airfield and road construction definitely improved communications over a wide area. On the negative side, despite the British and American efforts at winning hearts and minds, the communist insurgency escalated. Indeed, even as the Loeng Nok Tha airfield was being readied for handover in 1965, the Chinese foreign minister Chen Yi was predicting the northeast would soon erupt in revolt against the government in Bangkok. Certainly the numbers of insurgents grew.

When Thailand agreed to send troops to fight in South Vietnam in 1968, Thanom Kittikachorn was quoted by TIME magazine as saying, "Even today the Communists are infiltrating Thailand and increasing their subversive actions against our country." The magazine claimed there were 'at least 2,000 guerrillas' roaming the northeast.

An article published in a 1970 edition of the Bangkok World magazine claimed, 'Results from the "development stops Communism" policy have been poor, and the present situation strongly suggests we may have overlooked the real issues. It has been made sufficiently clear now that we cannot buy loyalty with wells or roads, and that being richer is no guarantee against insurgency…' The fundamental underlying problem, according to analysts, was the arbitrary and unfair distribution of wealth and power, with the politicians and military based in Bangkok viewed more as enemies of the people rather than as a benevolent government.

There were rumours the airfield at Loeng Nok Tha was used by the Central Intelligence Agency's (CIA) airline Air America for its clandestine incursions during the secret war against Laos, but this has never been confirmed. The remains of the airfield are still there, while the British-built road became part of a vast network that connected the northeast with the main national road system, thereby helping develop the region and playing a small but significant role in attempting to help the central government fight its war on communism in the region.

I would particularly like to thank Hank Lawrence, who worked on Operation Crown, for his valuable input and would suggest anyone interested further in the subject contact Hank via his blog:

Pictured on the left page, a map of Thailand with Roi Et Province shown in black.

There is an excellent book and a film, titled Air America which provides some of the history of the CIAs adventures in Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Both the book and the film are well worth viewing. The film stars Mel Gibson.

Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn was born in Tak Province, on August 11, 1911, son of Khun Sopitbannaraksa (Amphan Kittikachorn) and Mrs. Linchee Kittikachorn. He later married Than Phuying Jongkol Kittikachorn.

Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn received his formal education first at Wat Koak Plu Municipal School, Tak Province, and Army Cadet Academy. Afterwards, while rendering service to the state, he furthered his study at the Cartography School, Infantry School and National Defense College (Class I), respectively.

He rendered his full service first at Infantry Regiment VIII, Regional Headquarters I, Chiangmai Province. In November 8, 1947, he joined the Coup d'Etat and was finally appointed Commander of Headquarters I.

Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn was appointed Deputy Minister of Defense, during the term of Field Marrshal Plaek Pibulsongkram, and Minister of Defense, during the term of Mr. Pote Sarasin.

On January 1, 1958, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn was appointed Prime Minister for 9 months, before Field Marshal Sarit Dhanarajata was to take office. Over the decease of Field Marshal Sarit, Field Marshal Thanom was re-appointed Prime Minister. During the terms of Field Marshal Thanom, there had been constant development in many infrastructure projects, e.g., highways, Sirikit and Ubonrat Dams. In addition, the army had been also highly upgraded.

In 1971, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn staged the Coup d'Etat of his own government and set up the Coup d'Etat Council with its own Constitution. On December 15, 1972, the Parliament granted an approval for his last term in office.

On October 14, 1973, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn resigned from the position, after the Pro- Democracy Unrest was vigorized and went into exile.

He is now enjoying the time in his residence in Bangkok.