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    Southeast Asia
     Sep 22, 2012


New war footing on Thai-Cambodian border
By John Cole and Steve Sciacchitano

Since early January, Royal Thai Army (RTA) planners have prepared new plans to defend Thailand against potential attacks from Cambodia, a move that threatens to rekindle tensions along the two countries' contested border. The plan, drawn up by the RTA's 2nd Army Region and formally approved in April, represents a significant departure from previous Thai strategic footings vis-a-vis Cambodia and involves the immediate commitment of large regular army combat units along the border.

The new plan is highly unusual for the RTA and could be perceived as provocative given the lack of any immediate and

 
realistic military threat from Cambodia. It would also seem to contradict the policy of the Yingluck Shinawatra administration, which has worked to ease tensions with Cambodia over a disputed land claim at the Preah Vihear temple that spiked during the previous Abhisit Vejjajiva-led government.

The last time that Thailand faced a threat of conventional invasion was in early 1979, when units of the Vietnamese army arrived on the Thai border after overthrowing Cambodia's Khmer Rouge government. There was an initial brief period of panic that the battle-hardened Vietnamese might continue into Thailand. Those concerns faded, however, when it became apparent that Vietnam was bogged down in Cambodia and China offered support in the event that the Vietnamese crossed into Thai territory.

Thai concerns for their border consequently revolved around deterring and then dealing with shallow, relatively small scale, Vietnamese incursions. The RTA soon developed a system to deal with this threat, which relied first on the use of proxy forces acting as buffers, including the various Cambodian resistance groups that operated along the Thai-Cambodian border. These groups were sometimes supported by Thai Special Forces.

As a second line of defense on the Thai side of the border, the RTA eventually came to rely on lightly-armed paramilitary units of the Thai Border Patrol Police and the army's own force of rangers, or thahan phran. Not to be confused with the elite US Army fighting force, Thai rangers were badly trained, paid cannon fodder largely recruited from the poor populations. Only as a last resort were regular RTA combat units committed to the sporadic border fighting - and they did not always fare well.

The new 2nd Army plan is a complete departure from this security configuration and is notably not part of an army-wide general improvement in training. It is built around the entire regular 6th Infantry Division, headquartered in Surin in the country's northeastern region, and has been reconfigured as the "Suranaree Task Force" in line with the plan.

The task force is scheduled to deploy up against the border with its full complement of heavy weapons and artillery. The selection of positions to be occupied by the various subordinate task forces was based on extensive intelligence, including the use of commercially available satellite imagery of both sides of the border, to assess the terrain.

Costly defensive positions have been prepared for the task force, including deeply dug-in bunkers and individual fighting positions with overhead cover. Buried communications cables have been laid between command posts to mitigate the risk of having their radio transmissions intercepted by the enemy.

Experienced foreign military attaches who have visited the positions have reported that they are very professionally laid out and built. Many details that distinguish between units seriously preparing for combat, including clearing fields of fire and preparing range cards for weapons, from those just going through the motions, were also observed by the envoys. This is in marked contrast to past configurations when such details were often neglected by Thai units on the Cambodian and Lao borders.

Provocative position
The Thai army is not noted for the realism of its training or professional attention to detail, making these preparations all the more noteworthy. There is speculation the sophisticated preparations are a reflection of the influence of division commander Major General Chalit Meekkukda, a highly respected officer and experienced troop leader. Chalit has decided that these positions will be manned on a scheduled rotation by major elements of the task force, with other elements on alert fully ready to deploy.

Two other aspects of the planning, however, indicate a strong influence from the highest levels of the RTA, and again demonstrate the unusual nature of the deployments. The 2nd Army headquarters recently held a one week command post exercise (CPX) in the town of Korat to test the new plan using a computer simulation to help evaluate the results of a Cambodian invasion of Thailand's northeastern region. Several Thai army officers who participated in the CPX reported that the plan seemed to be professionally devised and capable of success.

More unusual for the RTA, the CPX was unexpectedly followed up by the announcement of a series of classified and very demanding surprise alerts and deployments of major combat units to the border. Expected to commence sometime in the next two weeks, the quick reaction battalions of the task force will receive no-notice alert orders to move south and reinforce front line positions, which for the purpose of the exercise will simulate observing Cambodian preparations for an attack on Thailand.

Following the arrival of the alert battalions in their forward areas, supporting artillery units will conduct live fire exercises from pre-registered locations. Should Cambodian army forces respond militarily to all this activity, senior Thai army officers told the authors that the RTA will be prepared to respond immediately and aggressively. A second series of these alert exercises is tentatively scheduled for this November.

The same senior Thai officers did not provide a motive for taking such an intensive, expensive, and, if fully implemented, potentially provocative course, aside from the observation that it appeared to be the brainchild of RTA commander General Prayuth Chan-Ocha. The military exercise also seems to be at odds with the foreign policy of Thailand's civilian Peua Thai party-led government, headed by premier Yingluck.

Yingluck's elder brother, self-exiled former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, is widely regarded as the real power behind her government. Thaksin is known to maintain close ties to Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen and bilateral relations have improved substantially since Yingluck took office.

The Thai Armed Forces Headquarters (formerly known as the Supreme Command, a joint organization separate from the RTA) under the ASEAN Defense Ministers' Program recently conducted a joint humanitarian assistance and disaster relief exercise in Hua Hin, Thailand in which Cambodia was a participant. In late August, Thai and Cambodian officials held discussions on how to jointly combat drug trafficking, goods smuggling and forest encroachment in border areas.

Those bilateral meetings have helped to ratchet down tensions. The two countries' competing sovereign claims over border territory located near the ancient Khmer temple of Preah Vihear has sparked several rounds of military confrontations in recent years, resulting in deaths on both sides of the border.

These clashes were mostly low-level and insignificant compared to the level of force now being prepared by the RTA for border areas. While the RTA is duty-bound to prepare defense plans to protect national territory, conducting live-fire artillery exercises in border areas, particularly during a time of relative peace, will be hard to justify on any reasonable grounds.

Prayuth and his royalist supporters were successful in galvanizing a nationalist backlash against Cambodia among the rural population of the northeast in the 2010 standoff near Preah Vihear. Significantly, the geographical area is a major power base for the RTA's main political opponent, former premier Thaksin, who was overthrown in a 2006 military coup and maintains strong political influence from abroad.

Some now wonder whether Prayuth has ordered the 2nd Army to implement this new defense plan and stage exercises to provoke a Cambodian response that would allow the RTA to portray itself as the primary defender of Thai sovereignty. It is not immediately clear that the plan is a reaction to Thaksin's influence over the annual military reshuffle of top command posts, which comes into effect on October 1.

Thailand is divided into four army regions: the 1st Army in Central Thailand including Bangkok, the 2nd Army in the Northeast, the 3rd Army in the North, which oversees much of the Myanmar border, and 4th Army in the South, where authorities are fighting a stubborn Muslim insurgency.

RTA Army Region commanders have traditionally enjoyed a large degree of autonomy. This autonomy refers to more than just a lack of civilian control over the RTA's internal affairs, but in the case of Army Regions has historically involved a great deal of influence over the foreign policy that Thailand pursues with neighboring countries. In certain instances, that autonomy has been independent to some degree of oversight from the RTA's headquarters in Bangkok.

Whatever the motive, there are clear dangers to the RTA's new plans for the Thai-Cambodian border. While the most potentially provocative aspects of the RTA's new defense planning have yet to be carried out, RTA officers are proceeding as if they will be soon, with all the attendant risks to peace and stability.

John Cole and Steve Sciacchitano spent several years in Thailand while on active duty with the US Army. Both were trained as Foreign Area Officers specializing in Southeast Asia and graduated from the Royal Thai Army's Command and General Staff College. They are now retired and the views expressed here are their own.

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