The Battle of Lom Sak

Cover Photo: A Red Shirt protester builds an obstacle in Bangkok. Photo credit: Associated Press.

…why, after 40 years of US training in basic infantry skills, did the Thai Army suddenly become capable of such complexity?

I appreciated the jumpmaster’s presence of mind. The ramp was already down and if he hadn’t vomited into his shirt his lunch would have ended up all over us in thousands of little droplets. He ran through the jump commands without missing a beat. “Get Ready!” he yelled, holding up both hands with palms facing us.

It had to be about 45 degrees Celsius outside and after transiting the mountains at low level for an hour I just wanted to get the hell out of that plane. In the valley below six Special Forces A teams were trying to focus the wild energy of 20,000 civilians battling against each other in their hamlets. I was jumping in today for a closer look at what they were dealing with because in two days they would carry out my plan to conduct a massive assault on a prison where one of our soldiers was being held. I clutched my static line and drifted off to ponder the reason I was here, 1250 feet over Ban Wai village.

Savage May

In May 2010 the world witnessed the dramatic endgame of years of political struggle in Thailand as the 1st Army moved into Bangkok to crush “Red Shirt” protests occupying the city’s most important shopping districts. Just four years earlier, the popular government of Thaksin Shinawatra was deposed in a coup that eventually returned the royalist “Yellow Shirt” faction to power. Traditional rulers of modern Thailand, the Yellow Shirts formed a government under the Oxford-educated Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva. Good looking and charismatic in the western sense, Abhisit was more popular outside Thailand than he was with ordinary Thais that largely viewed him as a disconnected plutocrat. Pressure built as ostensibly grassroots protest movements from both sides took turns occupying landmarks of economic or political importance. In April 2010 the government had had enough and deployed the Army to clear the protesters.

A cycle of provocation and counter-provocation continued for over a month as soldiers and Red Shirts decided the country’s politics in the streets. Dozens of sites burned, including some of Bangkok’s most important shopping districts, as both sides showed how far they were willing to go to get their way. Red Shirt leadership accused the Army of infiltrating their ranks with soldiers in disguise. Posing as Red Shirt provocateurs however was hardly necessary as the protesters themselves used heavy weaponry on more than one occasion, damaging the Dusit Thani hotel and storming the Chulalongkorn University Hospital among other violations. Traumatizing images emerged of soldiers dragging unarmed civilians in red through the streets by their hair, the intimacy of the violence they suffered evident on contorted faces. Though a Police decision to stand aside probably kept the violence to a minimum –-the Police were known to be somewhat at odds with the Army over Red Shirt grievances-– when the smoke cleared, 87 were dead and 51 were missing, mortally weakening the Abhisit government. Thais and those that love Thailand shed tears at the violations and quietly chose sides.

Thirteen months later, the Shinawatras returned forcefully to power through the ballot box, this time with Thaksin’s beautiful sister Yingluck at the helm. Though the scope of Thaksin’s influence over his sister’s government will forever be a subject of debate, one fact is not in dispute: in 2011 the Red Shirt government was popular and legitimate. The Army returned dutifully to its supporting role and made a good faith effort to repair its relations with Yingluck and her supporters. Their efforts to build bridges are what brought me, seven months later, to the heart of Red Shirt country: Lom Sak.

Central Plaza Burning
Bangkok burns during the Savage May crackdown in 2010.  The event drove a wedge between the Army and the Thai people.

The Genius

Colonel Chakrit was physically tiny and quiet but he was one of the most intelligent and imaginative men I have ever met. The Chief of Staff of the Thai 5th Special Forces Group, he didn’t have the right political pedigree to be its commander. Sadly, that position was reserved for a boisterous con-man of dubious wealth whom I distrusted immediately. Chakrit’s task was to turn the massive, annual US-sponsored Cobra Gold exercise into the largest public relations effort the Thai Army had ever attempted. To do it, he divided 20,000 villagers from the remote Lom Sak district on the Laotian border into two factions, gave them all guns and blank ammunition, and instructed them to support certain Special Forces teams sent in to turn them into an organized paramilitary force.

Trained to overthrow governments by enabling a resistance movement or insurgency, six combined US-Thai SF teams labored for weeks in mock combat against each other. Infiltrating by multiple secret methods, the teams struggled in the shadows to make sense of an ambiguous situation where no one’s loyalties were clear and where success depended upon their ability to build rapport with the villagers that were their source of information, transportation, food, and security. This was the most realistic and challenging training environment I had ever seen inflicted upon Green Berets and it was Chakrit’s vision and energy that made it happen. For the last five days, they had been playing a cat and mouse game to rescue a US serviceman kidnapped off a public bus as he made his way secretly into the Lom Sak district. By manipulating intelligence from our headquarters on the other side of the mountains 75 kilometers away, Chakrit and I led one faction into a series of raids that always just missed the target but gathered information leading to another raid on another day. In 48 hours they would receive urgent information that our missing man was being prepared for execution in a heavily defended prison compound in Lom Sak town.

The genius of Chakrit’s plan was that the Army and the red-shirted residents of Lom Sak would get to know each other very intimately as they struggled together against a fictional oppressor. Our teams were very careful to involve village elders in all decisions and to connect residents to the Thai medical system by running guerilla clinics throughout the district. This had real-world benefits of gathering medical intelligence, educating citizens, and increasing community resilience by building relationships but it was here that Chakrit’s public relations campaign clashed with the reality of our exercise.

The Spectacle

As I leaned on the anchor line cable, I shook my head with disappointment that the sun was still up. My mission was to assess preparations at the school for the impending attack. Though this was an administrative task, I wanted to conduct it within the scenario to maintain realism for the A-teams that had to support my reconnaissance. Traveling with me was our battalion surgeon and a team of US and Thai medics that were going to augment a guerilla clinic that night in a neighboring town. The original plan was to limit our exposure to enemy observation by jumping in at night and running the clinic the following evening but Chakrit had other ideas. For him, this was an opportunity for real-world publicity for the Thai Army’s medical support to this Red Shirt-friendly district. The spectacle of paratroopers landing in the center of Lom Sak in the middle of the day –-something Chakrit said hadn’t happened there in 40 years-– would serve to advertise the arrival of the doctor and initiate the clinic.

Knowing I did not want to disrupt the realism of the exercise, he had changed the time of the clinic and spread this information throughout the residents of the district so there was no way for us to jump at night or to even argue about it. My only recourse would have been to cancel the jump but he calculated correctly that I would not take that step. Fait accompli. I had been outmaneuvered and would be stepping off the ramp onto a very crowded drop zone complete with local media crews and banners welcoming the surgeon.

It was probably for the best. Octagon Drop Zone in Ban Wai was one of the most dangerous DZs I had ever jumped. A large field divided into individual family garden plots, the terrain varied wildly depending on which crop was growing on it. Furrows nearly two feet deep marked most fields, some featured dangerous trellises made of bamboo poles covered with nets, and all were bordered by water filled canals of unknown depth. It was an absolute safety nightmare and the heat and altitude guaranteed a very rapid descent through thin air. I spared a worried thought for the surgeon who was the only non-operator among us.

“One minute!” the jumpmaster screamed. We passed the hand signal back as the training took over. Pointing at the ramp, he issued the next command: “Standby!”  The two Japanese SOF observers leading our stick shuffled toward the base of the ramp, the hot Thai air buffeting them wildly as the black MC-130 lurched into position.

Experienced parachutists, we all fixed our eyes on the green light that was the signal to jump on computer assisted airborne operations. The bird dropped violently into yet another air pocket in the superheated turbulence at the base of the hills and we all struggled to stay on our feet. Recovering just in time for the green light, the Japanese commandos exited the aircraft. They jumped first because they had never jumped ramp before and no one was certain how their French parachutes were going to perform. I watched with alarm as their parachutes opened inside the aircraft, filling the opening at the rear because the static lines were too short for the ramp. Miraculously we avoided a towed jumper situation but our First Sergeant was lightly injured by a Japanese deployment bag that struck him painfully in the face.

Ban Wai, Octagon DZ_05
Children from Ban Wai village in Lom Sak came to watch the American doctor fall from the sky.

The hot, thin air provided little resistance and I fell like a stone upon exit from the aircraft. Despite the rapid descent I had a good feel for our specialized parachutes and maneuvered away from a canal and a trellised garden plot to land relatively comfortably in a low furrow between lettuce heads. I marveled at just how challenging this DZ really was. Worse, I became aware that I had dropped into the rural Thai equivalent of a carnival. There were hundreds of people waiting for us on the edge of the DZ. Mothers brought their children to see the sky soldiers jump. Teenage girls blushed and posed for selfies with us as we tried unsuccessfully to remain in role. Someone produced a barbecue and drinks and there was music coming from a long line of cars parked on the dirt road. Realism was out the window so we enjoyed ourselves until the clinic drew attention away from us.

Two days later, moving by foot, car, tuk tuk, and pack animals, a cordon of thousands of Thai villagers isolated the school where an American soldier was being prepared for death by a fake firing squad. Thai SOF helicopters delivered an assault force onto the roof of one of the buildings and all hell broke loose as the defenders fought to reestablish supremacy in the streets of Lom Sak. The chaos of the event was impossible to understand from our headquarters so far away so I left it to the company commander on the ground to manage. As the night progressed, reports from the field were increasingly punctuated by incredulous laughter as the Green Berets reported on all manner of nonsense occurring at the collision of thousands of Thais experiencing something new. Ultimately no one was actually hurt and our man was rescued from Colonel Chakrit’s evil clutches.  It was a good night indeed.

Re-Coup

Later that year, my unit was visited by the commander of US Army Special Operations Command, Lieutenant General John Mulholland, famous for commanding the initial ground invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. I was asked to brief the General on our operation and described to him the seven-day progression that led to the Battle of Lom Sak. A former commander of our 1st Battalion, General Mulholland knew our Thai allies very well and asked why, after 40 years of US training in basic infantry skills, did the Thai Army suddenly become capable of such complexity? The answer I gave was it was simply a question of will. The political situation had shifted in such a way that the Thai Army was suddenly compelled to set the operational agenda.

This is not a subtle point. The Thais treated previous US training exercises as rewards, giving certain commanders an opportunity to conduct US-funded training, increase their public profiles, and sometimes upgrade their equipment. Over time, the goal of Thai commanders was not to improve their capabilities but to simply create a need for more training. This time it was different. In Lom Sak the Thai Army defined its success in political terms and at a very high level. Money was secondary to the conduct of an expansive and lengthy operation in close contact with the local populace. Rather than drive the train as we were accustomed to doing, the United States was very much along for the ride in Lom Sak. This brought home a very important point about the political context of our operations and the inherent, though understated competence of Asian allies.

Four years on, the effort seems lost.  In 2014 the Army moved again, ousting Yingluck’s party for the second time in 8 years (Yingluck herself was removed by a judicial decree pending corruption charges associated with a controversial personnel transfer). Unlike the previous junta, General Chan-O-Cha’s military dictatorship does not seem inclined to relinquish power.  They have clamped down on political freedoms and vigorously enforced controversial lèse majesté laws that increasingly serve as a catch all for anyone that disagrees with military rule.  The Red Shirts have grown quiet but there are rumors of fractures within the military.  It is possible the same officers that brought us to Lom Sak in 2012 may once again find themselves in power.

Stranger Pic

 

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC 

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