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Afghanistan’s Taliban and the Thai Coup

31/05/2014

Just finished reading “An Intimate War” by Mike Martin.

There are some interesting and profound parallels between the western war against the Taliban in Afghanistan and the way the political situation in Thailand is influenced by that country’s culture and way of life.

Martin, a career soldier, arrived in Helmand province in 2008, the only officer who spoke Pushtu, the native language. That was two years after the Thai military ousted the elected premier Taksin. The background to that, the cultural background, has not been adequately explained until now. And it is important.

Both countries have cultures and politics that appear strange and complicated to the way we think in the West. Martin gives illustrations that show how the internationally funded command misunderstood and misinterpreted what they were being told by those they had come to help in Afghanistan. Sometimes the western media, and indeed many foreigners living in Thailand, don’t fully appreciate the background to events and decisions. Perhaps they need to ask themselves what motivates the Thai to think and act as he does. Only when we try to think as they do can we westerners really understand what is happening and constructively contribute to debate.

There are reasons why that is difficult in Thailand and I will discuss that later.

Back to Afghanistan.

“They are all Taliban in Shin Kalay, …even pulled down our school with a bulldozer”, said the district governor. The colonel in command, who spoke no Pushtu and knew little of the ways of the Afghan, confidently promised he would “do something about that tomorrow.”

And he did.

The encampment was completely destroyed, the villagers grateful for the move against the perceived enemy.

Getting to appreciate the local culture and language better, talking to locals at different levels of society, the truth became clearer. The school that had been destroyed “by the Taliban” had been built with American money on land owned by a family that was jealous of the status the school was attracting both locally and internationally. Family deviousness and resentment were the true grounds for the destruction of the school. Nothing to do with the war on terror and little to do with the Taliban. Circulating a rumour that “girls with big breasts are going to school” was enough to incite local Islamist fighters, not the Taliban, to tear down the school and put an end to the efforts to educate the local children.

The western forces, because they were not near enough to those who controlled and influenced the village people, misunderstood the cultural need for revenge inherent in the Afghan. A lack of language and communication skills combined with an arrogant colonial type attitude of not wanting to see the other man’s point of view was a recipe for failure.

Are there similarities between how the international community responded to the Taliban threats to local troubles and how the foreign community is responding to political events in Thailand today?

What Mike Martin’s excellent book tells us is that the responses from abroad, though different in detail (different countries, different dates) were and are being made by thinking with a western frame of mind rather than considering the cultural norms that influence the political thinking of the people in their respective countries. It is complex.

In Helmand, international peacekeepers believed they were fighting terrorists. They discovered what they were told and believed was a Taliban stronghold. The camp was merely the location of a tribal militia that had been set up to keep the local police out and safeguard their compound. The police were loyal to the local governor who quickly seized the opportunity to set up the British for an attack on Shin Kalay to satisfy his personal revenge. Western forces were there to disrupt supplies to the Taliban and curtail their activities in the illegal drug trade. They had unwittingly become involved in settling local tribal disputes. It was only years later that the need to speak the language and communicate with the locals was taken seriously. Military plans and strategies need accurate and reliable local information.

In Thailand too, one needs to understand cultural norms and ways of thinking. Let’s look at the background first before we look at the cultural aspects.

Prime Minister Yingluck Shiniwatra had called a general election – in fact, two had been called, the first later annulled on a technicality over dates – because the anti-government protesters had blockaded Government House. Work in many government departments was rapidly becoming dysfunctional. Inward foreign mail was disrupted; an extention given to accommodate the late filing of tax returns was introduced. Yingluck was spending a great deal of time away from Bangkok, working instead in the North, a stronghold of her Puea Thai party.

There were protests and demonstrations from both her supporters (red shirts) and the anti-government side (yellow shirts). There was some violence but not comparable to that of past demonstrations and rallies. Yingluck seemed to be adopting a more conciliatory strategy by talking to senior members of the elites that were opposing her and her party. She discouraged her more assertive supporters (red shirts) from engaging with the anti-government protesters led by Suthep. She must have realised that she would be playing into their hands if she rose to the bait and give an excuse (and duty) for the courts or army to take action. Her brother, Taksin Shiniwatra, who had been deposed by the army in 2006, might have played it differently. She gambled that her strategy was better. For many months that appeared to be successful but the stalemate continued. No violence but no agreement for a way forward either. Government was still in paralysis. This undoubtedly could not go on.

It is enigmatic that the Thais can be quite ruthless and violent while also always trying to avoid conflict. A cultural trait that should have been noticed. Yingluck was avoiding conflict by stamping on her more aggressive elements but would not compromise on her party’s politics. No real discussions could take place and the country faced an impasse.

Prime Minister Yingluck had anyway already been forced to resign through a judicial decision that she had misused her power in the appointment of friends or family members. At the time she was only a caretaker prime minister as she had called a general election.  The inevitable happened.

The May 2014 coup removed her administration and a junta was established. There were soldiers on the streets but few tanks and little violence. There were anti-coup demonstrations but most Thais welcomed army intervention in the same way they had in past coups. There appeared to be a chance to end years of intermittent violence erupting, to get government working again. And for the Thai, with his respect for those of higher station than himself, army intervention was not seen in the same way as other countries saw it.

Indeed, international condemnation was swift. America reduced, though not immediately, some of its aid. The States initially saw no reason to cancel joint military manoeuvres but later did precisely that. Mixed signals from a country that is keen to maintain good contacts with an ally that is strategically placed in the Far East and with strong trade links. Other countries followed suit to different degrees.

What was happening on the ground and the cultural norms that influenced the decisions “to coup or not to coup” were either misread or not understood. The foreign media appeared ignorant of the importance given by a Thai to respecting the hierarchy. That does not always fit well with more western concepts of democracy being a given which can not b questioned.

That is not to say that Thais want dictatorial or plutocratic rule. It is to point out that they want a structure that gives them security, freedom, a good standard of living, and a laissez-faire (mai bhen rai) way of life. Thais do not want to be serious. Full democracy may well come after that has been achieved. It is after all a fledgling democracy and still finding a form of democracy that works for them. They have had years of a beneficent monarch loved by all. Superimposing a (western) style democracy on that was never going to be easy. A democracy suited to the Thai people and which takes full account of a beneficent monarch can be the only way forward,

A parallel in Helmand province may help explain how the West can make mistakes from a lack of understanding of how culture and politics works in the Middle and Far East.

Sher Mohammad, at that time the governor, had been appointed by Karzai with US funding and support. A power broker with links to key members of the Taliban, he was a key man for the British to keep on side. Nevertheless, he dominated the opium trade and enriched himself from development project funds. At the request of the British, Karzai dismissed him but then promoted him to senator. Not only were intelligence and contacts lost but also the forces that set out to destroy the Taliban and bring peace to Afghanistan suffered a setback from which they have never recovered. Sher Mohammad had said, “They do not understand Helmani politics at all. We are on the same side.”

The taking of Khwashal Kalay village was a further example of the West not always understanding the culture. The attack had cleared out a Taliban position but the villagers feared the allies would go further and destroy their poppy crops, their livelihood. Those that led the attack then involved themselves in discussions with local villages on poppy growing and harvesting, It was important that western efforts against the Taliban were not thwarted by not getting the locals on side. Eradicating the Taliban had to take precedence over eradicating the narcotics trade. Doing both at the same time would have been counter-productive. Cooperation and intelligence were needed from the locals and respecting them and their culture and way of life was paramount.

Later in the operations in Afghanistan, more importance was given to learning the local language so that communications could improve. Afghan interpreters told western commanders what they wanted tom hear, not what they needed to know. We can see that trait in today’s Thailand where, so not to appear unfriendly or unhelpful, a Thai will tell a white lie and misinform in the belief that that saves both sides any loss of face.

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