Renewing old connections
Surayud banks on ex-communists in bid to win hearts and minds in Northeast
Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont has refreshed his connections with former communist insurgents in their strongholds in Sakon Nakhon and Buri Ram provinces in the Northeast in an effort to divert their support from the Thai Rak Thai Party to the junta-installed government.
The premier is familiar with the insurgents, since he spent two decades during his military career fighting the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), who counted Surayud's father, Lt-Colonel Pa-yom Chulanont, as a key member.
Payom, known as Comrade Kamton to his party colleagues, did not help Surayud in the anti-communist war to win the hearts and minds of the insurgents or persuade them to defect from the party.
Father and son, however, avoided confrontation on the battlefield. Payom never introduced any communists to his son, as they never met during the war. They only met when Surayud visited Payom in China, where the latter was seeking refuge in the early 1980s.
It was then-prime minister Prem Tinsulanonda who offered the insurgents a deal and granted them amnesty which brought Surayud to know the human face of his enemies.
Surayud climbed the military ranks under Prem's patronage and served as his close aide for a decade from 1978 to 1988. He also obtained experience in dealing with defecting insurgents during that period.
In 1982, when Prem promulgated Prime Minister's Order 66/23 granting amnesty, thousands of communist fighters emerged from their strongholds in the North and Northeast to surrender to the military in their respective regions.
The Prem administration promised to allocate them plots of land and tools for farming as a reward for giving up the fighting and reconciling with the government.
The Internal Security Opera-tion Command played a significant role in mobilising the ex-communists to support the government and took care of them during the Prem regime.
Political fighting in the late 1980s brought an end to Prem and his aristocratic regime and gave birth to Chatichai Choonhavan, who championed capitalism as the way forward.
The former communists, who were mostly poor peasants in rural areas, were left in poverty and sought their own ways to survive in the new capitalist world.
Many entered local politics, some joined non-governmental organisations or other forms of political groupings such as the Assembly of the Poor, while many helped political parties in national politics.
Whatever else they may have been taught by the Communist Party, they were instilled with the spirit of struggle for justice for their class of poor peasants and believed that politics could be a tool to achieve this with the end of the armed struggle.
Key leaders of Thai Rak Thai, including Prommin Lertsuridej, Phumtham Wechayachai, Chaturon Chaisang and other ex-student activists who joined the CPT after the student massacre in 1976, never forgot this. They recalled their relations with former peasant comrades and brought them in as party supporters.
Some former comrades played a key role in mobilising people from the grass roots in rural areas to support the party.
The former communists in Thai Rak Thai employed their know-how of guerrilla warfare to organise political support for the party, which could boast as many as 14 million members. This is far beyond the tens of thousands of communist fighters at the peak from 1976 to 1979.
Thai Rak Thai also gleaned supporters among the former communists when the CPT merged with Chavalit Yongchaiyudh's New Aspiration Party. It was Chavalit who set up these connections when he helped Prem with the anti-communist strategy in the 1980s.
With Thai Rak Thai getting slimmer in the absence of Thaksin Shinawatra, the ex-communists in the party have lost the ability to use the connections with their former comrades.
The situation, however, opened the door for Surayud to restore relations with these groups.
In his Friday visits to Buri Ram, the former base of the CPT in the lower Northeast, and Sakon Nakhon, the stronghold of the CPT's upper Northeast, Surayud made a promise to do whatever was necessary to help release the people from their problems, including providing land for farming.
With his authority as the junta-backed prime minister and his understanding about the nature of the former insurgents, Surayud should have no difficulty in winning hearts and minds again as he did in the 1980s.