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The Thai armed forces have a long and proud tradition of being at the cutting edge of creative military innovation, from the battle elephants of ancient Sukhothai to the white elephants of modern-day Bangkok. It’s a tradition that shows no sign of letting up as this time the army takes its turn in flouting popular convention and logic to keep Thailand ahead in the holistic arms race.

The navy has aircraft carriers and submarines that sit rusting in dock, while the air force is always buying everyone else’s leftover jet fighters to fend off some imagined foe. Surely a country that has had no natural enemies since the Burmese were chased out of Ayutthaya doesn’t need such military might and these are just shady deals to line the pockets of Thailand’s overabundant population of generals. The latest fighting folly is, at least, much cheaper on the taxpayer as the army takes the lead in equipping the spiritual soldiers of tomorrow.

A commander of some 4,000 Thai troops on duty in the Southern provincial danger zone has come up with a fool(proof/ish/hardy – please select appropriate suffix) plan to protect his soldiers from harm. Maj-Gen Thawatchai Samutsakorn, it seems, stores little faith in traditional military equipment and has ordered his men to adorn themselves with Luang Poo Jiam amulets in order to shield them from insurgent bullets and bombs.

In fact, so confident is the commander in the protective power of the amulets that he has even threatened any man who disobey his directive with 3 days in jail. It seems that the sage-like Maj-Gen interpreted the signs of an insurgent attack on a bus in which some soldiers who weren’t wearing the amulets were travelling as being an indicator that the amulets would have protected the protected the soldiers if they had been wearing them.

Such logic is difficult to argue with. I would like to concur with this amazingly insightful judgement and add something that I am surprised Maj-Gen Thawitchai somehow missed. Apparently, none of the men on that bus had purple hair nor were they wearing pink Hello Kitty t-shirts. Coincidence? I think not. Surely the army has to act immediately and ensure that all troops dye their hair purple and are equipped with pink Hello Kitty t-shirts before there is a bloodbath.

Of course, there is also one other worrying detail that seems to have been overlooked. What if both sides are wearing the same amulets? Would this mean no more battlefield fatalities? Could everyone in an earthquake zone or on an airliner be saved from disaster? Could the government even be cosseted from further coups? Is this the key to immortality?

The marketing possibilities are endless. In fact, the cynic inside me is surfacing again and wondering whether the commander could have been on commission for each amulet sold. It is not as profitable as getting a kickback on an aircraft carrier that no-one needs, but these are hard times after all and we won’t have a military government for much longer.

Perhaps it was just good man management. The Maj-Gen is either an astute psychologist or else he is barking mad. It’s a very fine line. All the troops were from Isaan, an area steeped in superstitious beliefs. Most of the soldiers would already have protective tattoos on their backs but a little extra help never goes amiss. One of the soldiers is reported as commenting that, “This amulet makes me feel safe, even if I haven’t got my bullet-proof vest on.”

If the soldiers truly felt more confident with the amulets and the placebo effect created improved morale, then it could be considered a master stroke – at least until the next bombing. Even then, a new amulet could be promoted as being what the slain soldiers should have been wearing. It’s a new spiritual arms race. If you think it’s hard enough keeping up with technology, try keeping pace with the whimsical vagaries of mystical defences.

Paul Snowdon – January 8, 2008

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