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In Buddha's Company

Thai Soldiers in the Vietnam War

Richard A. Ruth

Publication Year: 2010

In Buddha’s Company explores a previously neglected aspect of the Vietnam War: the experiences of the Thai troops who served there and the attitudes and beliefs that motivated them to volunteer. Thailand sent nearly 40,000 volunteer soldiers to South Vietnam to serve alongside the Free World Forces in the conflict, but unlike the other foreign participants, the Thais came armed with historical and cultural knowledge of the region. Blending the methodologies of cultural and military history, Richard Ruth examines the individual experiences of Thai volunteers in their wartime encounters with American allies, South Vietnamese civilians, and Viet Cong enemies. Ruth shows how the Thais were transformed by living amongst the modern goods and war machinery of the Americans and by traversing the jungles and plantations haunted by indigenous spirits. At the same time, Ruth argues, Thailand’s ruling institutions used the image of volunteers to advance their respective agendas, especially those related to anticommunist authoritarianism.

Drawing on numerous interviews with Thai veterans and archival material from Thailand and the United States, Ruth focuses on the cultural exchanges that occurred between Thai troops and their allies and enemies, presenting a Southeast Asian view of a conflict that has traditionally been studied as a Cold War event dominated by an American political agenda. The resulting study considers such diverse topics as comparative Buddhisms, alternative modernities, consumerism, celebrity, official memories vs. personal recollections, and the value of local knowledge in foreign wars. The war’s effects within Thailand itself are closely considered, demonstrating that the war against communism in Vietnam, as articulated by Thai leaders, was a popular cause among nearly all segments of the population. Furthermore, Ruth challenges previous assertions that Thailand’s forces were merely "America’s mercenaries" by presenting the multiple, overlapping motivations for volunteering offered by the soldiers themselves.

In Buddha’s Company makes clear that many Thais sought direct involvement in the Vietnam War and that their participation had profound and lasting effects on the country’s political and military institutions, royal affairs, popular culture, and international relations. As one of only a handful of academic histories of Thailand in the 1960s, it provides a crucial link between the keystone studies of the Phibun-Sarit years (1946–1963) and those examining the turbulent 1970s.

47 illus., 2 maps

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press

Cover

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pp. c-vi

Contents

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pp. vii-x

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Introduction

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pp. 1-20

From 1965 to 1972, Thailand sent 37,644 military personnel to South Vietnam as part of the Free World Military Assistance Forces fighting there.1 Thailand sent two special units of the Royal Thai Army, and one each from the Royal Thai Air Force and the Royal Thai Navy.2 The Queen’s Cobra Regiment, Thailand’s initial army offering in 1967, consisted of a...

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1 Sawadi, Vietnam

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pp. 21-52

Montri Rasi listened closely to the radio announcement that morning, but he still could not decide. On 15 February 1967, the twenty-four-year- old was working as a surveyor in a sugarcane factory in the northern city of Uttradit when he heard the final call for Thai volunteers to come forward and join a special combat regiment that Thailand would be sending...

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2 Firing Up the Thai Public Sphere

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pp. 53-80

It was late afternoon when the US Navarro docked at Saigon’s Newport naval facility. A light rain had begun to fall on the Thai troops gathered on deck. Despite the drizzle, the soldiers felt elated as they looked out over the crowds of Vietnamese and Americans assembled to receive them (fig. 2.1). A South Vietnam Navy band was playing marching songs while...

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3 Muang PX

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pp. 81-116

Legends were conceived and born in the line outside Bearcat Camp’s post exchange, or PX, as it was universally known. It was said that the only time the line ever dissipated in daylight was when the camp was under attack. Even then, a popular story goes, there were always a few Thai soldiers who held their places while mortar fire exploded around them. In numerous versions...

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4 Trading Magic for Modernity

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pp. 117-136

The Thai troops came to understand American culture through whiskey, drugs, and magic. If they were initially dazzled by the opulence and volume of goods housed in the PX shops, the volunteers soon realized that the Americans did not have everything. They quickly discovered that the rich catalog of modern products and services on sale in these bustling stores...

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5 Thai People Have No Enemies

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pp. 137-179

Beyond the American realm of Bearcat Camp, the Thais found even greater admiration and appreciation among the South Vietnamese. According to the recollections of the veterans, the South Vietnamese people welcomed the Thais’ presence in their midst. This reception encouraged the Thais to think of all Vietnamese—civilian and military, friendly and hostile—in...

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6 Fighting on the Metaphysical Landscapes of South Vietnam

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pp. 180-212

Even while the Thai soldiers’ battlefield successes were being reported with great enthusiasm in Thailand’s daily papers and generating medals that were awarded in well-publicized ceremonies, another contest was under way, out of sight of the news media and unacknowledged by the public. It was a conflict that unfolded in the realm of the metaphysical, a continuous battle...

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Conclusion

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pp. 213-226

On 24 December 1967, a few days after news reports of the Queen’s Cobra Regiment’s first major battle with the Viet Cong were published in Thailand, the Bangkok Post ran an editorial praising the “historic role” that the volunteers seemed destined to play in the Vietnam War: “Perhaps in [the] not too distant future the country will honour our brave men in South Vietnam...

Notes

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pp. 227-262

Bibliography

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pp. 263-268

Index

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pp. 269-278


E-ISBN-13: 9780824860851
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824834197

Publication Year: 2010

Series Title: Southeast Asia: Politics, Meaning, and Memory

Research Areas

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Subject Headings

  • Thailand. Kō̜ngthap Bok -- Military life.
  • Thailand -- Politics and government -- 1945-1988.
  • Vietnam War, 1961-1975 -- Participation, Thai.
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