What COIN Teaches Thailand
Image Credit: Flickr / K.rol2007

What COIN Teaches Thailand


The Thai government is preparing to launch a national reconciliation process after the most violent and divisive political confrontation in recent memory came to a head last month. But some key questions have so far been left unanswered. Is the country facing a terrorist threat? Is there a risk of a popular uprising or insurgency? These aren’t academic questions—they need to be answered if Thailand’s leaders are to have any hope of finding the right prescription for the country’s political malaise.

I spoke recently with a Thai Special Forces officer who told me that the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual is actually a good place to start thinking about the situation in his country. The book, penned mostly by US Gen. David Petraeus and US Gen. James Amos, draws on the views of academics, lawyers, human rights activists and journalists. Petraeus, just nominated to succeed Gen. Stanley McChrystal as head of US forces in Afghanistan, was commander of the US forces in Iraq during the so-called surge in 2007, and beta-tested the doctrine with impressive results. Indeed, he’s expected to continue implementing the counter-insurgency (COIN) strategy in Afghanistan.

The officer has a point. The scenarios outlined in the Field Manual contain some striking parallels with what has happened in Thailand over the past couple of months, and while it would be a stretch to describe the Red Shirt movement as a full-blown insurgency, as the Islamist militants in the south of the country are usually described, there’s still plenty of food for thought.

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The Manual defines an insurgency as an organized movement ‘aimed at the overthrow of a constituted government through the use of subversion and armed conflict.’ A common view of insurgencies is that they’re a struggle to break away from the government with a view to forming an autonomous identity. But the Manual argues that this isn’t necessarily the case, and that overthrowing the existing social order within a single state is enough to warrant the insurgency label.

The Manual adds that an insurgent organization normally consists of five elements: Leadership, Combatants, Political Cadre, Auxiliaries and Mass base. Leadership is essentially those providing strategic guidance to the insurgency, and they typically secure this status through sheer force of personality. Combatants are those who actually engage in battle with the authorities, and in doing so provide security for the movement. Political Cadres drive the political agenda of the insurgency, and execute the leadership’s plans, while Auxiliaries provide general support but don’t actually engage in combat (they instead run safe houses, store weapons and provide supplies and other logistical needs). The Mass base is the supporting populace of the insurgent movement.

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