Thursday, July 11, 2013

Winning Hearts and Minds

Muslim girls play in a "bouncy house" during a civil affairs outreach by the Royal Thai Marines in Narathiwat

The Thai government has been battling a persistent and violent insurgency by Muslim extremists since at least 2004. The roots of the conflict go back more than a century, when British colonial powers in Malaya ceded Narathiwat, Pattani and Yala provinces to Siam (now Thailand). The three provinces used to be an independent Sultanates (Pattani was preeminent of the three) but they have a long, complicated history with the Siamese (Thais). 

More than 5,000 people have died in the insurgency and there are several attacks or incidents a day, from drive by shootings to IEDs and roadside bombs. The Thai government has not been able to quell the insurgency and the insurgents are unable to take and hold territory, so it seems destined to go on for a long time. 

The Thai government has tried the iron fist approach. There are tens of thousands of Thai military personnel stationed in the south along with paramilitaries, police and "volunteer" village defense forces. Their tactics haven't been very successful and human rights complaints have soared. 
A Thai Marine stands guard while children eat frozen treats provided by the Marines.

Now they're trying the velvet glove approach. Sunday in Narathiwat, Royal Thai Marines sponsored a civil affairs program. Hundreds of Muslim civilians showed up to receive a health screening, get some rice and staples and watch their children play in the bouncy house. The snacks were cotton candy, popcorn and ice cream - with the fragrance of popcorn wafting through the air even the smells were like a block party in the US. Aside, that is, from the armed Marines providing security. 
Muslim women wait for the program to start. 

"Winning Hearts and Minds"(WHAM) was made famous during the American War in Vietnam but goes back to the Malayan Emergency which pitted Communist insurgents in Malaya against the British (and later Malaysian) governments. It's a way of bringing the civilian population - thought to be sympathetic to insurgents - onto the government side in a conflict. It worked in Malaya but didn't work in Vietnam and now frequently serves as a punch line to a joke about botched military efforts. When I observed to some Thais that the outreach reminded me of WHAM, they laughed in agreement. 
A Muslim civilian waits for a prescription from a Thai Marine medic during the outreach in Narathiwat.

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