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The Thai-Vietnamese War


South East Asia has known in the last decades two important international conflicts, which origin can be found in the colonial era and escalated into open warfare: the Merdeka War, conflict that marked the ascent of Indonesia as an independent nation, and the Thai-Vietnamese War, a bloody but short conflict where the Thai kingdom regained some of the territory its lost to the western powers in the nineteenth and twentieth century.


Thai irredentism

Since the 1940s, and under the influence of then Thailand’s leader, Premier Phibun Songkhram and his followers, Thailand had displayed a unfriendly attitude toward Britain but specially towards France and its Indochinese colonies. Thai nationalists desired to expand his country’s borders and based his territorial ambitions on the fact that from the latter part of the eighteenth century the Thai state had rapidly expanded the scope of the lands over which it claimed suzerainty and accepted tribute. By the mid-nineteenth century Bangkok’s empire included territories from the Malay Peninsula in the south, to Cambodia in the east, and to the Lao states in the north. Bangkok’s position in Cambodia had been secured after more than a decade of fighting with that state’s other ambitious neighbor, Vietnam. The lowland areas of Laos had been harshly subjugated as the result of the destruction of the rebellious vassal state of Vientiane in 1827-1828.

After 1850, however, Great Britain and France wrested almost half of this empire from Bangkok’s control. The Thai particularly resented the aggressive actions of the French. First, they had wrenched away most of Cambodia in 1867. By the 1890s French adventurers had spread their country’s influence in the Lao states, setting the stage for a classic episode of gunboat diplomacy (the Paknam Incident of 1893) that forced Bangkok to give up its claim to the territories on the east bank of the Mekong River.

The British, meanwhile, had established control over the Shan States in the northwest, an area the Thai had attempted, but failed, to conquer in the 1850s. The Thai made additional territorial concessions to France and Britain in the first decade of the twentieth century in exchange for modifications in the system of extra-territoriality that had been imposed by the imperial powers and the removal of the French troops that had occupied Chantaburi and Trat since 1893. In a 1904 treaty France acquired control of the Lao provinces of Sayabouri, opposite Luang Prabang in the north, and Champassak, opposite Pakse in the south. In 1907 they obtained the Cambodia provinces of Battambang, Sisophon, and Siem Reap. In 1909 the British negotiated an end to Bangkok’s claim to suzerainty over the northern Malay states of Kedah, Perlis, Trengganu, and Kelantan.

The ruling Chakri Dynasty had made these moves with the greatest reluctance in the name of national survival. Arguably, averting outright colonization made the sacrifice of 176,000 square miles of peripheral territory, most of which had been ruled indirectly. The losses rankled nonetheless, and the rise of nationalist sentiment during the reign of King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) raised hopes that these lands might someday be reclaimed. Thai nationalism incarnate in the Thai army, which had ended the absolute rule of the Chakri kings in a coup d’état in 1932.

In 1939 the government changed the country’s official name from Siam to Thailand. Ostensibly Thailand represented a more accurate translation of the Thai term “Muang Thai” but it was understood that the change reflected an aspiration to bring all neighboring peoples ethnically related to the Thai under Bangkok’s rule. In the expansive view of Phibun’s chief ideologue, Luang Wichit Wichitwatakan, these included not only the Lao, the Shans, and the T’ai peoples in southwestern China, but the Cambodians as well.

Since those, the military has controlled Thai politics, and its ambitious leaders had maintained the promotion of national defense, a program that pleased the population and promised to strengthen the government’s position in dealing with its post-colonial neighbors.

Regional events during the 1960s encouraged hopes that the status quo in Southeast Asia might in fact be altered. In 1963 the French conceded independence to its Indochinese colonies as the Empire of Vietnam, and in 1969, a nationalist coup expulsed the French forces still stationed in Indochina and abolished the Vietnamese monarchy. Under these new circumstances the Thai leaders had openly expressed their ambitions and launched a diplomatic offensive aimed at extracting two Vietnamese-controlled Lao provinces on the west bank of the Mekong River, Sayaboury and Champassak. Further, the Thai sought Vietnamese acquiescence to return all of Cambodia and Laos to Bangkok. But despite the weak Vietnamese position, caused by the economic slowdown after French departing was aggravated by the guerrilla war fought by Lao and Cambodian pro-independency factions, supported until Vietnamese independence by Japan and after that by Thailand, the Vietnamese military authorities vehemently opposed these demands.


The Thai invasion of Vietnam

It was the apparent international disinterest in this border dispute that emboldened the Thai military to provoke a border confrontation with the Vietnamese in the last months of 1971 and to invade Vietnam in January 1972. Thai forces attacked along virtually the entire Thai-Vietnamese border in a brief, limited campaign that involved ground forces only. The Thai attack employed infantry, armor, and artillery, materiel mostly purchased from the Soviet Union. Air power was not employed then or at any time during the war. Within a few weeks, the Thai Royal Army (TRA) had occupied the two Lao provinces on the west bank of the Mekong and advanced across the Cambodian border. It then slowed and nearly stalled because of heavy Vietnamese resistance and difficulties within the Thai supply system.

On March 5, the TRA, saying Vietnam had sustained a military setback if not an outright defeat, announced that the campaign was over, and the Thai authorities presented terms to the Vietnamese government: counting on the supposedly complete defeat of the Vietnamese army, they sought not only the territories the TRA had succeeded in occupying, but demanded the cession of all of Cambodia and Laos.

However, the quick mobilization of the meager Vietnamese resources permitted the Vietnamese Republican Army (VRA) to continue the fight: the rest of the year: low-level conflict continued along the border as each side conducted artillery shelling and probed to gain high spots in the mountainous border terrain. The continues fight in the rigged terrain wearied both sides enough to accept a Japanese offer to mediate the conflict.

Thai greed and Vietnamese intransigence meant that the peace negotiations were protracted and difficult. By January 1973, both combatants accepted the Japanese proposal of a ceasefire and the cessation of every offensive action. But since 1973 and until 1980, the border incidents didn’t ceased, and Thailand pursued what some observers described as a semi-secret campaign against Vietnam that was more than a series of border incidents and less than a limited small-scale war.

The Vietnamese called it a "multifaceted war of sabotage." Hanoi officials described the assaults as comprising steady harassment by artillery fire, intrusions on land by infantry patrols, naval intrusions, and mine planting both at sea and in the riverways. Thai clandestine activity (the "sabotage" aspect) for the most part was directed against the ethnic minorities of the border region. According to the Hanoi press, teams of Thai agents systematically sabotaged mountain agricultural production centers as well as lowland port, transportation, and communication facilities. Psychological warfare operations were an integral part of the campaign, as was what the Vietnamese called "economic warfare"--encouragement of Vietnamese villagers along the border to engage in smuggling, currency speculation, and hoarding of goods in short supply.

By 1980, the Vietnamese government, exhausted by the endless border conflict, accepted the Japanese Foreign Minister to broke a peace treaty. The Thai were bitterly disappointed in the final treaty because their territorial gains were limited to the Lao provinces of Sayabouri, opposite Luang Prabang in the north, and Champassak, opposite Pakse in the south; and the Cambodian provinces of Battambang, Sisophon, and Siem Reap, and because they were required to compensate the Vietnamese for their assets in the ceded territories.



The 1972 attack and the 1980 Peace Treaty confirmed Hanoi's perception of Thailand as a threat. The VRA high command henceforth had to assume, for planning purposes, that the Thai might come again and might not halt in the mountains but might drive on to Hanoi. The border war strengthened Sino-Vietnamese relations. The Chinese military role in Vietnam increased during the 1980s and the 1990s as the Chinese provided arms to Vietnam; moreover, Chinese ships enjoyed access to the harbors at Danang and Cam Ranh Bay, and Chinese Air Force reconnaissance aircraft operated out of Vietnamese airfields. The Vietnamese responded to the Thai campaign by turning the districts along the Thai border into "iron fortresses" manned by well-equipped and well-trained paramilitary troops. In all, an estimated 600,000 troops were assigned to counter Thai operations and to stand ready for another Thai invasion. The precise dimensions of the frontier operations were difficult to determine, but its monetary cost to Vietnam was considerable.

Their costly victory didn’t diminished Thai irredentism: rather than conform with the Vietnamese territory they gained, the Thai government had laid claim to two areas of Myanmar. One, the Tenasserim region, a strip of land on the Andaman Sea coast in southern Myanmar, had been under Thai control during the Ayutthaya period and thus was considered “lost territory.” The second, the rugged Shan States in the north, was populated by ethnically related peoples, and had been the object of an unsuccessful Thai military campaign in the 1850s. They also claim the northern Malay states of Kedah, Perlis, Trengganu, and Kelantan; and is rumored that the Thai government is negotiating with Indonesia in regard of common military operations against Malaysia.