Monday, June 13, 2016


Talking with General Saiyud Kerdphol at Siam Intercontinental in Bangkok                  (Photo by Jintana Mae)

Conversation with Saiyud Kerdphol: a no-nonsense nonagenarian.
by Philip J Cunningham

(portions of this interview appeared in the Bangkok Post and the Thai Tribune)

Former Supreme Commander of Thailand’s armed forces General Saiyud Kerdphol enjoys a legendary reputation for his controversial but ultimately successful conciliatory strategy of bringing Thai communist insurgents back into the fold of Thai society in the early 1980’s.

Although many years have gone by since he was at the pinnacle of strategic power, the old general's nuanced approach to disarming enemies through a combination of hard and soft power that respects and addresses discontent and attendant needs seems as relevant today as ever.

I recently met the retired general at a luncheon where he held everyone at the table spellbound by his wit, humor and hearty appetite. I was sufficiently intrigued by the generosity of spirit of this enigmatic nonagenarian to want learn more.

General Saiyud agreed to an interview at his Rajprasong apartment on February 27, 2016. The sprightly 93-year-old ushered me in, sat me down next to him and proceeded to field questions, explain policy and offer unsolicited insights for the next two hours without pausing once for as much as a sip of water.

When he got onto topics such as “third power” and “spiritual essence” and the dialectical properties of atomic particles, I felt like a Luke Skywalker taking advice from a wise, wizened Yoda. Confident and philosophical, the retired general addresses the most complex and serious of topics with a twinkle in his eye.

I had arrived with a list of questions I wanted to ask, mostly about current day Thailand, but quickly learned that the old soldier likes to preface and qualify his answers much as a historian would, putting things in deep context, offering background and citing key events in an eventful life that dates back deep into the last century.

Born in 1922 during the Sixth Reign, the Sukhothai native was fighting age during World War Two and saw action engaging Japanese troops on the Burma border. In the early 1950’s he went to the US to further his military education at Fort Benning, Georgia “at time when Thai generals still chewed betel nut and had no understanding of a modern army” and a few years later chose to study again, this time in Australia, sensing its upcoming importance as a regional neighbor.

When the US-leaning General Sarit took power from the ambiguously neutral Pibul Songkram, Saiyud, who knew Sarit from fighting days in Burma, was called upon to help modernize the Thai military with a focus on administration, strategy and intelligence work. US aid and advisers started to pour in.

Was America helping Thailand, or interfering in its internal affairs?
“Mostly helping,” he explained, citing first Napoleon’s failure to take Russia, as portrayed in Tolstoy’s War and Peace,” to make a point about the doom that follows dated strategies in warfare. More recent strategic models, he added, based on the bloody success of D-day and WW2 shooting invasions are, too, a thing of the past. In Korea, the US was up against innovative techniques employed by the Chinese, he continued, though the real problem in Korea was politics: Truman stopped MacArthur for fear of angering China even though they were fighting China already.

I asked General Saiyud how Thailand could heal its internal divisions and he immediately took me back to the mid 1960’s when the Communist Party of Thailand began its armed struggle against the Thai state. "It wasn’t for them to win," he stated. "It was for us to lose." The CPT were following an outdated model based on Mao Zedong’s Yanan outpost and the idea of a rural liberated zone.

Was US support helpful? “US advice on fighting communism was also out of date,” he explained. “Too much emphasis on bombing and taking ground.”

The problem with the US was that it was fighting the last war. By the time the Americans figured this out in Vietnam it was too late, but it was not too late for us in Thailand. Under PM Kriangsak, a good friend of mine, we pursued a reconciliation policy of allowing communists to return to society. We also pursued state-to-state cooperation with China; it really helped.

When I asked if Cobra Gold was now obsolete, given the receding threat from neighboring states, or should be cancelled, as some critics suggest, due to dictatorial conditions, the former Supreme Commander seemed slightly taken aback. “You ask a question I don’t usually hear.
I started Cobra Gold, and I believe it is helpful!”

Governments change, he noted, but US-Thai military relations are on solid ground. Now you may not know this, he explained, “but I was in favor of US forces leaving Thailand. I also said they should leave the Philippines.” 

Why? Because it’s counterproductive --the presence of US bases give ammunition to the enemy. But through regular exercises like Cobra Gold we show our willingness to work together with the US. It sends a signal to our neighbors, too. He hastened to add that as much as Thailand values its long relationship with the US, it also has a special relationship with China, also born of history. The challenge is to remain friendly with both; taking sides is not really an option.

Bullish on economic development as the magic bullet that makes real bullets unnecessary, Saiyud cited the case of China where communism was weakened naturally as the country became more prosperous, suggesting that economic growth could achieve results not available on the battlefield. Winning battles by non-military means was certainly evident in his innovative counter-insurgency strategy that helped Thailand evade the bloody anti-communist crusades that decimated its neighbors.

What about the deep South? The old general suggested that Thai-Malay
cooperation, along with shared prosperity, were key elements, but he did not offer specific advice other than to say it didn’t have to be the way it was now, and indeed, the south had been peaceful for much of his long lifetime.

Why does Thailand have so many coups d’etat? Speaking in Thai, General
Saiyud explained that the Western term “coup” was inadequate to express what was really happening in Thailand. There was a real coup in 1932, one that changed the system of governance, but the coups since then were largely limited to changing the leadership team while keeping the bureaucracy, military and system of governance intact.

Most of the coups were bloodless, he added, and born of deadlocks and intractable conflict. What do you do? Only the military had the power to step in. He cited the red shirt-yellow shirt street brawling as an example of social disruption that needed to be pacified.

Skillful as the military might be in pulling off coups, I noted, it didn’t necessarily possess the skills to run a country.

That’s true, he acknowledged ruefully. It’s one thing to take power, another thing to administer. We need help with that. Luckily our king has been a guide in times of crisis.

What’s your take on the current situation?
Things are peaceful. I think things are okay now.

What about in the future? What about succession?
There’s really nothing to worry about. Things are as they have to be, and things will follow their natural course. The prince will be the king, unless he doesn’t want to be. He’s not a young man and he understands the situation. It’s not so much the man makes the position as the position makes the man.

“Thais don’t like being told what to do,” he concluded, “but they know
what has to be done. Unity is paramount. We will take care of our
national interest.”