"I don't like it any more than you do, but there is nothing we can do about it. The Vietnamese can take this country any time they want to. If they march across the border, they'll be in Bangkok in two weeks. But they won't have to do that—they'll do it the easy way. They'll step up the insurgency and wait until the country falls like a ripe mango."
It was 1977 and a colleague and I were arguing over the future of Thailand, a country where we had both spent a fair portion of our Foreign Service careers. We both spoke the language, and we both had reputations as bright, albeit somewhat eccentric, Thai country experts. We were in total disagreement.
"You're selling the country short," I argued back. "There is no way that 45 million Thai are going to let themselves be put in the same bag with the tragedies that have happened next door."
"You're being naive," he told me. "Look what the insurgents have going for them. They have hundreds of miles of shared border with Laos and Cambodia. They have a dedicated cadre that's been in place for 15 years and a new group of intellectuals and student leaders that the '76 coup drove into the jungles. Worse yet, they will have all those M-16s we left behind in Vietnam. It will be the best-armed insurgency in the world."
He wasn't the only one making predictions of doom back then. Just about all of the international experts on insurgency were convinced that things looked grim for Thailand. The Communist Party of Thailand had everything that Mao said it would need for victory. Besides the arms and the cross-border sanctuaries, there were masses of rural poor with good reason to distrust and hate government officials. The insurgents faced a national army that was more a political party than a fighting force. The Thai government seemed to be in a state of constant chaos, bouncing back and forth between attempts at elected parliamentary government and sudden coups followed by military dictators.
Even so, I was convinced that the other experts were wrong, for they were ignoring the impact that a free-enterprise system was making on the country, especially the rural populations that were supposed to be the primary recruiting ground for the insurgency.
Back in those days, about the only people I could find who agreed with my assessments were a few Thai officials and businessmen. One of those was Khomson, a jeweler in Bangkok.
"Too many people believe what they read in the paper," he told me one evening over a Peking duck. "Thailand's the place to invest your money these days."
"Then why are so many people moving their capital out?" I asked.
"I've got some friends that are getting their money out of the country," he answered as he carefully used his chopsticks to wrap a bit of duck skin in the rice-flour tortilla. "They're crazy. You don't make interest off a Swiss bank account."
"You mean, you think that this country is going to survive?"
"Absolutely," he told me. "Ninety percent of the people in this country don't want anything to do with communism. Sure, a lot of them are scared because of what happened in Vietnam, but that doesn't mean they will roll over and play dead."
"I hope you aren't counting on the Americans moving in and saving you," I said. "We tried that in Vietnam and it didn't work."
"We won't need you," he answered. "We can do it ourselves."
My chubby friend with years of good living wasn't volunteering to go out in the jungle to fight for his country. He was convinced he wouldn't have to do that. He knew something about his countrymen that the outside experts were ignoring.
The jeweler who bet on his own country is a rich man today. A lot of other Thai citizens who took similar risks and invested their money in local enterprises aren't doing that badly either. Despite all the apparent advantages, the Communist Party of Thailand lost. By 1983, the Thai government was legitimately proclaiming victory over the Communist insurrection. Today, everyone agrees that the insurgency is over, that Thailand will survive.
The Communists lost because massive quantities of weapons, cross-border sanctuaries, and a dedicated cadre are not enough if ordinary citizens refuse to participate. Power may come out of the barrel of a gun, but it requires people willing to hold and aim guns to exercise power. In Thailand, the Communists never succeeded in recruiting the masses of the rural population to the side of the revolution. They had the guns—they didn't have the people to pull the triggers.
Now that it is all over, the experts are arguing about why it didn't happen the way they predicted. Some credit enlightened Thai government policies, including extensive investment in economic development and an open-arms treatment of insurgents who surrendered. Others credit the China-Soviet competition, which forced China to drop its support for the insurgents in return for good relations with the Thai government. Some even claim that the US intervention in Vietnam saved Thailand, by giving the Thai the breathing space they needed to solve critical national problems while massive US spending in the country during the Vietnam War years added an economic boost.
They all miss the point. Thailand was never in the danger the counterinsurgency experts claim it was in.
In making their predictions of imminent disaster, the Cassandras ignored the 90 percent of the Thai population who never saw a Communist, never took a pot shot at a government official, and continued through it all to live lives dedicated, not to some political ideology, but to making themselves and their families as comfortable as possible.
I first became aware of this other part of Thailand shortly after my arrival in Bangkok in 1967. Of a class of young State Department officers just out of language training, I was the only one who was not assigned to one of the counterinsurgency jobs in our expanding diplomatic effort to ensure that Thailand didn't follow the Vietnamese example.
Disappointed by having to worry about the size of rice crops, the impact of American military spending on the local inflation rate, and the problems of Bangkok Port congestion instead of being out on the front lines of the free world like my colleagues, I worked out my frustration by taking weekend trips into the rural provinces around Bangkok. A day's travel could include a train trip behind a wood-burning steam locomotive, a run down a river in a double-decked boat, even a long-tailed speedboat dash through a canal. I talked to dozens of passengers as we bounced down rutted roads or glided along the smooth, muddy-brown waterways.
I didn't find people seething with hate and discontent over the unfairness of life, people looking for an excuse to start killing somebody. I found people who were worried about rice prices and curious about a foreigner who spoke their language. I found people who weren't content with today but who had plans to make it better; people who loved to play but worked hard when they had to.
In every village and town I visited I found small markets stocked with a surprising selection of basic consumer items and a lot of things I would have thought would be luxuries for the farm population—radios, sports equipment, toys, and watches. I had discovered a rural society that looked poor at first glance but turned out to be a demonstration of how a free-enterprise system can meet the demands of rising expectations.
By the end of my first four years in Thailand, I had visited every one of the 72 provinces. Along the way my travels introduced me to farmers, local officials, and small-town businessmen.
Somchit the medicine man was typical of many of the small businessmen I met back in those days. He lived in one of the larger rural towns of Lopburi Province, where he owned a factory located behind his house in a building that looked like it should be roosting chickens rather than a pharmaceutical operation.
Inside the old wooden building, we found a half-dozen workers mixing various white chemical powders together in washtubs. The different chemicals were being shoveled out of 50-pound bags. The chemical factory labels on the bags revealed that Somchit's special medicine was an aspirin-based headache powder. His workers were packaging individual dosages in tiny paper envelopes that carried his own special brand.
It was labor-intensive, but even with the low wages he paid his workers, Somchit couldn't compete with the provincial city pharmacies and their displays of machine-packaged pills.
So Somchit had to go out looking for customers in places that didn't have corner drugstores. He made his money by personally peddling those single-dose envelopes in villages and small towns throughout the Northeast, the very heartland of the supposed insurgency explosion. With a small magic show and a couple of large, defanged king cobras, Somchit drew crowds to listen to his sales pitch.
"What about the Communist insurgents?" I asked him. "Isn't it dangerous to go into these kinds of areas?"
"As long as I mind my own business, they don't bother with me," he shrugged. "I guess they have headaches too."
There was an army of those small merchants traveling throughout the rural areas of Thailand, selling anything that would make a profit. They offered aspirin, vitamins, toothpaste, soaps, cough remedies, and Ovaltine—anything a villager might want and a few more things the villager didn't even know about until the merchant showed up with a sales pitch.
These itinerant merchants didn't just sell things that had the approval of government planners and social engineers. The businessmen were out there for their own profit, and they sold what people wanted. If rural dwellers wanted nylon panties for their wives and cheap whiskey for themselves, that's what they got, if they had the money to pay for it.
These merchants were feeding the very thing the government was supposed to be worried about, the tide of rising expectations. With an evening's entertainment and a sales pitch, they were creating more unhappiness and unfulfilled wants than a month's worth of propaganda on the Communist radio station broadcasting out of China.
Yet the unhappy Thai farmer who wanted some of the goodies that the merchants were offering didn't go into the jungle and join the Communists. Instead, the potential customer worked to make a bit more money so he could buy the next thing on his growing list of wants.
Because there were things the rural dwellers wanted to buy, there was an incentive to make their own labor more efficient, whether by increasing yields, adding new crops, or reducing the amount of labor used on the farm, thus freeing family members to find jobs in towns and cities.
Farmers trying to increase profits so they would have cash for consumer goods discovered that pesticides, fertilizers, and herbicides were cost-effective. Their teachers were not the bureaucrats but merchants—often people at an income level not much above the farmer—who went into the villages to sell the chemicals. Those small merchants also lent the money to the farmers to buy what they were selling, taking a short-term mortgage with the crop as collateral.
They didn't do that for altruistic reasons. They charged discount or interest rates that the social engineers called usurious. But they were there with money in their hand, sometimes in areas where the government didn't go because of insurgent activity.
I wasn't the only American official who recognized that free enterprise was running rampant in the countryside. In 1972 the US Agency for International Development (AID) sent one of its young interns to Roiet Province in the Northeast. His assignment was to look into the possibilities of AID funding a project to develop the rural marketing infrastructure.
"What I found," he recently told me as we reminisced about the old days, "was a well-developed marketing system already in place. The Sino-Thai merchants were traveling all over the province, buying the crops the farmer had to sell and offering farm supplies and consumer products the farmer wanted to buy.
"I wrote a report concluding that a marketing system project wasn't needed, that an effective system already existed. My supervisors told me it was a good report, except for the conclusions. They wanted me to keep the data but to change the results so the report would justify the creation of a project proposal."
Fortunately, the man refused to change the conclusions. The idea of a project was buried in the massive bureaucratic paper pile we produced as part of our development aid to Thailand.
As farmers looked for ways to increase profits, cheap farm machinery began to replace animal and human power. Again, it was the merchant and entrepreneur who had what the farmer wanted.
In the late '60s, the United Nations development agency in Southeast Asia at the time, ECAFE, announced a contest to design a machine that would replace the water buffalo.
"We want a machine that a family can use just like they use the water buffalo," the contest's creator explained to me while we chatted over scotch and sodas at one of the endless parade of diplomatic cocktail parties. "It will have to be able to run in flooded rice paddies so it can be used to pull a plow. But it will also move along a highway carrying goods to market."
The international bureaucrats eventually judged the winner a contraption based on an unsuccessful military rice-paddy vehicle. It was a square, open personnel carrier that ran on six balloon tires, three on each side. It may have been fun to ride in, but it was useless as a plow and far too expensive for the average family to buy for a drive along the highway.
While ECAFE was using blind men to redesign the elephant, some businessmen introduced the "iron buffalo," a cheap, low-horsepower gasoline engine mounted on a hand-guided plow with steel paddle wheels. The engine can easily be removed and mounted on a water pump or a simple tractor that can pull a wagon loaded with family or produce along the highway.
In June 1978, I drove through the province of Sukhothai along with a Thai advisor on my staff. The province contains some of the richest rice land in the country and it was planting time.
"Have you noticed?" my Thai friend asked after we had been driving for a couple of hours. "We must have passed at least a hundred farmers plowing their fields and we haven't seen a single water buffalo pulling a plow."
In just five years, the entire province had moved to the iron buffalo.
The introduction of new crops was as important to increasing farm income as new machinery and chemicals. In the early '60s, Thai farmers grew rice and not much else. Between 1965 and 1968, corn production jumped from nothing to become a major export crop. Farmers started growing jute, cotton, tapioca, and sugar. Many of these new crops could be grown in the dry season when the rice paddies had always lain fallow.
The spread of these new crops was not the result of any massive government extension program. It was directly tied to the world market and to the small merchants who went into rural areas to buy the crops when the farmers grew them.
When extension work was done, it was often done by the private sector. The international tobacco industry showed the way. The world market demanded a new source of Turkish-style tobacco, a labor-intensive crop. To meet that demand, tobacco companies like Adams International put in place privately financed extension programs that soon taught thousands of farmers in the Northeast how to grow high-quality Turkish tobacco.
With the bottom dropping out of the world rice market these days, the search for new crops continues. Only last year, I went with some representatives of the Simplot Company, a US potato processor, to visit potato farmers in northern Thailand. Simplot was interested in introducing the russet potato to meet the demands of the new fast-food industry that has now reached Bangkok. McDonald's wants to serve the Thai customer the same kind of french fry he ate while studying or touring in the United States. That translates into more income opportunities for Thai potato farmers.
One of the American commercial agronomists traveling with us was surprised to find himself discussing a brand-new and more expensive variety of herbicide with a little farmer dressed exactly like the peasants in the pictures of a travel brochure. The farmer not only knew what the herbicide was, he had already purchased a small amount from a local supplier and tried it to see if it was cost-effective. It wasn't a government extension agent who told him about the new chemical—he had read the advertising at his local farm-supply store.
Not every rural dweller can make extra money by planting new crops or increasing yields. Many of those who wanted new things had no choice but to leave the farm and go looking for work. Sometimes that meant a job found a long way from home. Take the case of Huan Pakpok. Huan, like thousands of other Thai men, went all the way to Saudi Arabia to find a job.
"It was the most miserable two years I ever spent," he recently told me. "The Saudis don't let anyone have fun. No whiskey, no women—it was nothing but work, eat, sleep, and back to work."
He may have been miserable, but every month he sent back $350, and his wife put most of it in the bank. He's been back in Thailand for a year now. He runs his own small carpentry business. He and his wife still live in the house where he grew up, a wooden shack that sits on high stilts. But they have fans, a kitchen blender, a radio, a refrigerator, and a brand-new color TV. Huan is also the one who can afford store-bought whiskey when someone throws a party in the village.
Huan and the other Saudi contract workers also helped solve a national problem: the foreign exchange disaster caused by the sudden jump in oil prices in the '70s. It was the private-enterprise solution. Thailand traded labor for oil.
Not everybody benefited, not everybody succeeded. But those most likely to succeed in a freewheeling private-enterprise system were the people who would have made the best insurgents, the ones with daring, initiative, and a willingness to try something new.
The free-enterprise system came naturally to Thailand. For hundreds of years the Thai kings encouraged trade and provided protection to merchants moving through Thai territory. As Thailand was never colonized, it never suffered the interruption of free trade and commerce that was imposed by European governments in the other countries of Asia.
Following the end of the monarchy in 1932, Thai civilian leaders, many of whom had been thoroughly exposed through education to European statism, attempted to impose a more centrally controlled order on the Thai economy. Fortunately, such efforts failed to have much impact, in part due to the greed of the economically unsophisticated military officers who held controlling political power and who quickly discovered the personal benefits to be reaped by looking the other way when statist laws interfered with a businessman's profits.
None of this is to say that the government had nothing to do with meeting the rising expectations of the rural population. Things like irrigation and rural electrification projects benefited rural populations and encouraged the growth of private enterprise.
The single most important government contribution was the massive road-building program implemented over a 20-year period. Initially, road building was financed as a security measure. The government had to get troops and tanks into the areas where the insurgents were recruiting villagers. The army used the roads occasionally. But an army of merchants used the roads continually, usually before construction was even completed. During the worst of the insurgency, the merchants would go places the army didn't dare go.
The highway from Phitsanuloke to Lomsak was one such road. It cuts through a valley that separates two mountain areas in northern Thailand, where in 1972 and '73 some of the most vicious fighting in the war against the insurgents took place.
It was 1977 before the US Embassy finally decided the road was safe enough for Americans to travel, provided we did so in unmarked civilian vehicles. By this time, I was assigned as the consul in northern Thailand. On my first trip through the valley between the two mountains, still held by the insurgents, it was easy to see what had happened.
The road had opened up a new area for land settlement. Landless farmers quickly moved in to squat and plant crops. The merchants followed them, both the ones who came to buy and sell for the day and those who set up small stores, restaurants, gas stations, and even movie houses.
According to Maoist revolutionary doctrine, all of those people, most of whom had gone broke someplace else before moving into the area, should have been prime candidates for recruitment into the insurgency. Instead, they were more interested in growing and selling cabbages to the long line of merchant trucks traveling up and down the highway. Each new arrival in the area helped to build a corridor of farm villages and small-merchant towns that cut apart the insurgent armies on each side of the valley more than any number of military battalions ever could have done.
Using the free-enterprise model, from 1960 to 1984 Thailand experienced sustained growth averaging 7 percent in real terms. It wasn't an evenly distributed growth, and the cities prospered far more than the rural countryside. The rich got richer, and the gap between the rich and the poor grew broader. But not all the poor got poorer. They did discover wants they never had before. They weren't able and still aren't able to fulfill all those wants. They never will be. But the average family can count on acquiring something new every year.
First it might be the medicines. Next, cloth and clothes made in a factory instead of by hand. Then come bicycles, transistor radios, wristwatches, and for the most successful, motorcycles, TV sets, and even an occasional pickup truck. A free-trade policy ensures that almost anything they might want is available.
A short history of private enterprise in rural Thailand could be written just focusing on the exploding sale of corrugated tin roofing. In the 1950s, almost all rural farmers lived under thatched roofs. As merchants began selling sheets of corrugated tin, the tin roof became the status symbol in farm villages all over the country.
By the late '70s, thatched roofs were rare in many parts of the country. At a wedding party in Chiang Mai one evening, I sat at at table with a couple of businessmen who had made small fortunes from tin roofing. I jokingly asked them what they were selling now that everyone had a tin roof.
"Linoleum," one of them quickly answered. "That's where the money is these days. Every woman in the North wants a pretty floor covering." The other fellow joined in, and I sat there fascinated as they argued over the merits of different types of floor coverings and whether or not Japanese, Korean, or the locally produced product brought the most profit to the businessman.
Now, several years later, plastic or asphalt-based floor coverings are almost as common as the tin roof. Who knows what the Thai farm housewife will decide she wants next? The person who discovers that valuable piece of information will not be a government planner.
Development on the free-enterprise model is not without its problems. Most Thai farmers, like farmers everywhere, still live on the brink of disaster, facing ruin from weather, unstable world-market prices, and just bad judgment.
The less successful farmers are losing their land to more productive neighbors and are forced to seek work in the cities. Bangkok slums are filled with those who came to the city hoping for jobs they sometimes can't find.
The social ills of a free economy have taken their toll on families and individuals. Slum children spend their days selling flowers to Bangkok motorists instead of taking advantage of free education. The daughters of rural families often sell themselves, or are sometimes sold, into prostitution.
Yet even here the free-enterprise system can offer solutions, if people are only willing to try. Take the Paknet family as an example. It may not be a typical rural Thai family, but it's the family I know the best, since the youngest daughter paid me the great good favor of becoming my wife.
Plod and Samniang Paknet were successful rice farmers in rural Ayuthaya Province until Plod died of tuberculosis back in 1954. His widow and a couple of the children tried to work the farm for a few more years but ended up selling out. Today, none of the children work on farms or are married to farmers. They all had to seek jobs as servants in the homes of the rich in Bangkok or as workers in nearby textile mills or furniture factories.
Some might describe the story as another rural tragedy, the kind of thing that breeds insurgency. It's not. All the children have families of their own and high hopes for their own children. They are too busy climbing into Thailand's new urban middle class to worry about what might have been. They are doing it without benefit of welfare payments, unemployment compensation, farm subsidies, government-financed loan programs, or any financial support from the one daughter who married into money.
Samniang still lives in the old family house, which she managed to keep when she lost the farm. Her son, who works in a small factory a few kilometers from the village, and his wife live with her. An American social worker would describe their house as an example of abject poverty. They sit on the floor to eat and the meals are cooked over open charcoal fires. Samniang doesn't think she's poor. In the last 10 years, she's acquired electricity, fans, a TV set, a refrigerator, and spray cans of Off mosquito repellent.
I have met people like the Paknet family in every province of the country. They know that living free is neither safe nor easy, but that's the only way they want it. When people like the Paknets fail in rural Thailand, they place the blame on themselves or forces outside the control of human beings. They don't blame the government for having failed to provide for them. Of course, there are some who do. Every society has its malcontents, and the foreign journalist out to prove a point can always round up a few people eager to complain about the inequalities of life, which must all be the fault of whoever currently holds power in Bangkok.
Somehow critics of free enterprise in the Third World never seem to find people like Khun Thongbai to interview. Thongbai's family never had any property, at least as far back as anybody in the village could remember. The village still talks about how poor he was as a kid. He went to school in rags and bare feet. Somewhere along the way, Thongbai scraped together enough baht coins to buy a few eggs from another villager. He walked into the nearest town and sold them for a small profit. That worked so well that he kept doing it. Eventually he earned enough to feed himself a bit better than he was used to, though he kept living poor.
He lived so poor that no one imagined that he was saving a bit of money each week—until the day he put in the high bid on a piece of property another villager was selling. Thongbai doesn't buy the eggs he sells these days. On that piece of land, he has 5,000 chickens in modern coops that lays eggs for him. His two trucks haul the eggs to market.
But there were insurgents. The Communists had to have something to entice young men and women into the jungle to fight. They couldn't have all been common criminals and psychopaths. Something must have been wrong to keep the size of the insurgency growing through the '60s and most of the '70s.
The first point that many of the foreign experts tended to ignore was that the insurgency was only developing in the more-remote areas of the country, places where lack of communication and poor crop land made it very difficult for the free-enterprise system to operate—not impossible, just difficult. Frustrations in these depressed areas did lead to higher levels of dissatisfaction. Sometimes, people got so angry and frustrated that they wanted to kill somebody.
While the developing insurgent situation obviously required a military response, few assessments were ever made of whether or not the same kind of discontent that was feeding the insurgency in the remote areas of the Northeast also existed in the more heavily populated areas. It was accepted almost without challenge that Thai people everywhere were fed up and that the insurgency would spread under its own force unless the government took drastic action.
There were a few American voices that questioned the general assumptions. One of my colleagues in the embassy's political section in 1968 did an assessment that concluded that the Thai rural population was not seething with open discontent. His report claimed that the free-enterprise system that had long been in place was meeting the rising expectations of the populace. People were opting to work harder rather than drop out. They were trying to find new jobs, plant new crops, and try new kinds of economic activity rather than pick up their guns and go into the jungle.
The report made it all the way to Washington and drew considerable comment and quite a bit of challenge for a few weeks. Then the experts went back to counting the few hundred villages that had fallen under Communist control and forgetting about the 10,000 villages where the game of free enterprise still played.
At least a few Thai businessmen and government officials understood that the average village peasant wanted nothing more than to be left alone to make his own decisions. They realized that free farmers considered the political agitators as much a threat to their personal peace as did the government officials sitting in Bangkok.
On a cold (for Thailand) January evening in 1977, a colleague, the British consul in Chiang Mai, and I were invited to a small party thrown by a local businessman at his vacation cottage high up the mountain overlooking the largest city in the North. The other guests included the deputy governor, the provincial police chief, and several other businessmen.
Late in the evening, after we had stuffed ourselves with minced pork and chili and bet on the outcome of a fight between two horned beetles locked in combat on the field of a sugar-cane stick, the talk turned serious. The officials and the businessmen were worried about reports that some of the students who had fled into the jungle after the October 1976 coup were working in the villages around Chiang Mai, trying to recruit local youth into the insurgency.
The Thai men all agreed that the village leaders didn't want the students around, but they didn't have adequate equipment to defend the villages. The solution was obvious and the bargain was struck. The businessmen agreed that each would donate a substantial amount of money to purchase weapons, and the government officials agreed to make sure the weapons got distributed to the villages that the student activists were threatening.
My British colleague, who also spoke Thai, and I sat there with stunned expressions on our faces. Our insurgency experts in our embassies in Bangkok were screaming concern about the weapons that were supposedly flowing across the border out of Vietnam, yet these local community leaders were going to pass even more weapons around the rural villages! Those Thai businessmen understood something that we Americans seemed to have forgotten. Free people can be trusted with weapons, because 99 percent of them will use those weapons to ensure their own freedom, not to threaten the freedom and property of others.
In explaining why some young people joined the insurgency, one factor in recruitment that was often ignored was the role of boredom. Rural Thailand had always been subject to massive underemployment. This meant that people had lots of time on their hands, and life in a remote village can be pretty dull if you're young and adventurous but see nothing ahead but long days and quiet evenings.
Some jumped at the chance of adventure the insurgent recruiters were offering. Many of those who went singing into the jungle eventually discovered that they had made a bad deal. Life in a jungle camp proved to be more than just dangerous; most of the time it was even more boring than life in the village had been. At least in the villages, one didn't have to put up with the constant propaganda harangue and the strict rules of personal behavior that the insurgent leaders imposed on their troops.
Right at the time that the pessimist was predicting a Communist victory, the Communist Party of Thailand was suffering massive defections. Whole units were following their leaders over to the government side. The Communist Party of Thailand not only failed to recruit the peasant army they had counted on, but the party eventually lost those they did recruit.
Long before the final victory, an astute observer could see it starting to happen. As early as 1973 we were seeing a rash of defections from the insurgent camps in southern Thailand.
"What am I supposed to do?" one intelligence officer complained to me one day in Songkhla as he pointed to a pile of defector interrogation reports on his desk. "The boss wants me to go through these reports and come up with an erudite political explanation for the defections, something we can use in designing a psy-war campaign to encourage more of them. They'll think I've gone 'round the bend if I tell them the truth. It's lack of nooky."
"You mean they're defecting because they want to get laid?" I asked in disbelief.
"That, and everything else you can get in a city but not in a jungle camp run by Maoist puritans," he answered.
The Communist Party of Thailand offered the young men and women who were bored with the monotony of village life the challenge of the jungle, the chance to get even with the oppressor government, training in how to shoot a gun and ambush a military convoy, and the promise of a brave new world.
The free-enterprise system offered them movies, cheap bus fare to the big city, pop music, blue jeans, running shoes, Ovaltine, Fab, contraceptives, and Vicks Vaporub. In massive numbers, the disgruntled opted for the temptations of the modern world.
In 1983, I accompanied some Thai government workers on a walk into a Hmong hill-tribe village in Nan province. The people living in that village had fought for 10 years with the Communist Party insurgency. They had only just surrendered to the government side when we made our visit.
We spent the night with one of the villagers, his two wives, and his children. For 10 years, his crops had fed Communist insurgent soldiers. Two of his daughters had been trained in China as jungle combat nurses. As we sat passing around a small bottle of whiskey, one of the Thai officials asked our host why he decided to defect.
"It wasn't any fun being an insurgent," he told us. "Somebody was always ordering us around. Now we do what we want to do. We can sell things we grow. We can take the money and go to town. We can buy anything we want."
The next morning we walked out with him to his fields. It was the off-season, so the rice had been harvested and the money crops planted. He was growing ginger, cotton, and kidney beans. His wives and his daughters were collecting sweet seeds that grew wild in the jungle and brought a good price in the nearest town.
Our host was ambitious, not content. "We have to sell our crops to the man that drives the truck up here," he complained. "We know what he gets in Nan City, but we don't have any way to get them down to market ourselves. We have to sell at his price."
One of the Thai officials in our party suggested that he and his neighbors in the village pool their resources, set up a cooperative, and buy their own truck. Our host listened politely, then shook his head. He had been part of a grand cooperative for 10 years, sharing equally what he produced with all in the group. He didn't want any more of it.
"I've got it figured," he explained. "In three years I can save enough to make a down payment on a used pickup. Then, I'll make the money." He was probably a damned good insurgent; he was a lousy Communist.
The Thai example has important ramifications for other parts of the world where the United States places its prestige on the line. Too often the American public judges the prospects of an allied country not by what is happening with the 90 percent of the population that is busy looking out for themselves and their families but by the small, vocal group of malcontents who demand an instant remake of society and government solutions to all social and cultural ills.
Too often our press and political leaders judge the worthiness of another government for our support solely on the basis of how closely their electoral system matches our own. Too often, once governments are elected, the leaders decide that the only way they can compete with the Marxist challenge is by adopting Marxist principles. And all too often, they are encouraged to do so by the development "experts" we send out to advise them.
Such countries then embark on programs of unsound and uneconomical land reform, currency and exchange controls, public housing, artificially depressed basic commodity prices, and farm subsidies, all accompanied by major tax increases and massive international borrowing to pay for the programs. They justify such state-controlled programs by claiming that if wealth is not redistributed by the elected government, then the poor will fill the ranks of the insurgents. Too often, they only succeed in preventing the private sector from engaging in the activity that is necessary to meet the demands of the ordinary citizen, who wants to get some of the benefits of the modern world.
It's time we learned one of the most important lessons of the Vietnam era, the one taught by Thailand. The free-enterprise system does work. It offers the only way in which a society can meet the demands of rising expectations without the tragedy of violent revolution.
Maurice M. Tanner serves in the US diplomatic corps in Bangkok. Since 1967, he has spent a dozen years in Thailand in various diplomatic positions, including that of consul.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Welcome to the Domino That Didn’t Fall".
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