Richard Reeves

War Comes Home to Thailand

BANGKOK, Thailand -- Chief Warrant Officers Ampon Chulert and Mitr Clahan came home Tuesday morning in what Thai television called "brown Western-style coffins." The two men were the first Thai servicemen killed abroad in more than 30 years -- a Thai division fought with the United States in Vietnam -- and were hailed as heroes as their coffins were ceremoniously unloaded by a military honor guard at Don Muang airfield.

Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra announced that both men would be posthumously promoted to lieutenant colonels, giving their survivors greater insurance and pension benefits. Then he said he would give each of their families 500,000 baht (about $12,000) of his own money. The army's chief of staff said he would give each family about $750 from his own pocket. They will also receive part of the $10 million reward the U.S. government gave Thailand after the capture here in August of Hambali, an Indonesian accused of planning the Bali bombings of October 2002.

A Thai contingent of 440 soldiers was sent to Iraq a month after Hambali was turned over to the United States. Occupation duty is not popular here -- polls show support in the 30 percent range -- but Prime Minister Thaksin is determined to raise Thailand's profile in Southeast Asia and in the world. Siding with the Americans in Iraq is obviously one way to do that. The prime minister has repeatedly emphasized that the Thai soldiers, almost all of them engineers and medics, were doing only "humanitarian work."

The first official reaction here to the news that the Thais were killed in a suicide bombing at Camp Lima in Karbala, Iraq, was a decision to send combat troops to help protect the engineers and medics. "Force protection," as the Americans call it, usually becomes the curse of occupation -- because foreign liberators soon become enemies of the liberated.

The two Thai sergeants (the American equivalent of their ranks) died along with four Bulgarians and 12 Iraqis on Dec. 27, trying to protect their fellows on sentry duty at Camp Lima, the home base of non-Americans and non-British troops in Iraq. They went down fighting, trying to kill two suicide bombers before their trucks exploded at Gate 5 of the camp. They almost certainly saved dozens of lives or more; the toll would have been much greater if the truck bombers had been able to breach the gate.

The two deaths seem to have traumatized this country of 63 million people, in which 66 people were killed the same day, Dec. 27, in automobile and motorcycle accidents. Part of the reason for the national reaction was certainly Thaksin's assurances that Thais, serving just six months, would not be in danger because all they were doing was helping Iraqis rebuild their country.

"The troops were sent there as a result of a decision that appeared to have been rushed by the country's leaders without taking into account public concern," said The Nation newspaper this week. "Instead, the government told the public only half of the truth: that the troops were being sent to Iraq for a noble and humanitarian cause. Even while Americans and other coalition forces were getting blown to pieces, our leaders stuck to their simplistic line, saying no one would hurt our soldiers ..."

In fact, the Thais are there because the United States is forcing other countries to make choices in President Bush's war of choice. "You're either for us or against us" -- Bush's own words -- has great implications for a prime minister in a country like Thailand. Thaksin's decision was not about Iraq; it was about being caught between the world's only superpower, the United States, and the emerging Asian superpower, China. Thaksin has been courting China, presenting Thailand as first among equals in Southeast Asia, bigger than Singapore or Malaysia, more secure than Indonesia. But so far, China has rejected the idea of any "special relationship" with Thailand.

Then along came President Bush in October, coming to Bangkok for a summit of APEC members (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation). He was quite direct in linking trade benefits to standing with the United States in its war on terror and the war in Iraq. You're for us or against us.

In the end, whatever the cost, Thailand is one of the countries that have decided they have to be for us. It is, for American leaders, a fringe benefit of war.

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