From rice fields to rebellion: Untold stories of Northeastern Thailand’s armed struggle

On August 7, fifty million Thais are called to cast their votes in a referendum on a military-backed constitution, which many say will weaken the country’s democratic system and entrench the generals’ influence over politics. On the same day in 1965, a violent incident in the Northeast led thousands of farmers to take up arms against the military-ruled state that had promised a new constitution for years.

The Isaan Record uses this occasion to tell the untold story of their rebellious past and their struggle for political change.

Comrade Phairat, a life insurance broker with a fondness for blue dress shirts and heavy golden watches, holds his hands up as if he was pointing a gun into the air. “Sometimes I duck down in panic because I see helicopters hovering over me,” he says. The 65-year-old suffers from flashbacks, 33 years after he ended his fight in an armed rebellion against the state.

Fifty years ago, a military clique ruled the country after it seized power in a coup in the late 1950s. General Sarit Thanarat tore up the latest charter, outlawed all political parties, and left the country waiting for a new constitution. By the time of his death in 1963, an appointed constitution drafting assembly had still not delivered.

The country kept waiting as the generals tightened their grip to power using Article 17 of the interim constitution to order arbitrary detentions and executions that were set out to stifle all dissent and opposition to military rule.

But after eight years, on August 7, 1965, a burst of resistance from the impoverished Northeast sent shockwaves throughout the country, fomenting a rebellion against the military regime in Bangkok that was to last for decades.

Based on interviews with dozens of former armed fighters over the period of one year, this is the story of how thousands of farmers in the Northeast came to leave their rice fields to join the armed struggle against a military state.

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Khemporn Chuatamuen, alias Comrade Phairat, turned from fighing in an armed struggle against the state to making a living by selling life insurances.

A different angle
Comrade Phairat chuckles to himself as he recalls his cunning start in a 20-year engagement in the armed rebellion. “I was only a kid and the soldiers often sent me to buy them rice whisky and deliver love notes to the village girls,” he recalls. “But they had no clue that I was a spy for the rebels.”

“Who is a comrade here?” asks Phairat, whose real name is Khemporn Chuatamuen, sitting on a plastic chair in a circle of thirty villagers in his home in Nakhon Phanom Province. Everyone’s hands shot up and the villagers one by one gave their code names and positions.

Nestled between the Phu Phan Mountains and the Mekong River, Chat Pattana Chat Thai is one of three villages in the Northeast that was set up in the 1980s by the state to give new homes to communist fighters who surrendered. Most families in the village have a history of fighting along with the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) in the 1960s and 70s.

Growing up in a poor rice-farming community, Phairat says he was bound to turn into a fighter. His father was politicized through CPT recruiters and left the family’s home in 1964 to join the rebels at their base in the Phu Phan Mountains in the upper Northeast.

It was the state’s exploitation of rural people in the Northeast that drew his father into the communist movement, he explains. “The CPT offered him a solution,” says Phairat, adding that his father quickly climbed up the party’s hierarchy to become the director of the hospital at the base.

At night, Phairat’s father sometimes sneaked back into the village to visit his family though this eventually became too dangerous after a unit of the Communist Suppression Operations Command (CSOC) stationed itself in the village in the mid-1960s. The father encouraged his son to become part of the CPT’s sophisticated network of spies that the movement was setting up all across the country.

“Preparing and delivering food to the CPT fighters, spying on the security forces, and keeping an eye on the anti-communist villagers,” is how Phairat summarized his duties when he started working for the communists in 1963. He was twelve years old. Once Phairat turned 17, he told the village headman that he would go to work in the South but he instead secretly followed his dad to the communist base.

“As soon as I arrived, my political education began,” recalls Phairat. “The theories of Marx, Lenin and Mao Zedong helped me to see Thailand from a different angle.”

In 1965, the CPT officially announced that it was leading an armed rebellion from the Northeast against the Bangkok-based military government.

“The CPT’s goal was to build a party, a military, and mobilize the people to change Thailand’s political system,” Phairat explains, “because the country’s problems were caused from within, by a feudalistic system.”

Fifty years ago, the Northeast depended almost entirely on subsistence agriculture and lagged far behind the development of the rest of the country, scoring highest in national poverty rates and lowest in education and health care accessibility. But poverty in the region was rarely linked to exploitative landlords or voracious loan sharks like the CPT believed.

Endemic poverty was rather a consequence of inhospitable conditions for farming like poor soils and unpredictable cycles of floods and droughts, according to Charles Keyes, professor emeritus at the University of Washington and a leading expert on Thailand’s northeast. The situation was made worse by the lack of economic opportunities outside the farming sector.

For many Northeasteners at that time, the state seemed like a distant ghost that only occasionally appeared in the form of an aloof government official from the provincial capital who hardly ever addressed villagers’ grievances.

“In the 1960s, the government was in no way accountable to the people and there were numerous incidents of the government refusing to accept petitions from villagers,” said Professor Keyes in an interview with The Isaan Record.

As the CPT’s battle cry for a people’s revolution echoed through the fields of the Northeast, many of the aggrieved farmers understood the promises of communism to be a solution to the problems left unaddressed by a military government that they viewed as apathetic to their concerns.

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Nabua village in Nakhon Phanom province was the first community in the Northeast to collectively join the armed struggle of the communist movement in 1965.

Education across the border
Following the snaking Mekong River north for 40 kilometers, along the natural and once porous borderline to Laos, lies Nabua, “a historic village,” as the gate at the community’s entrance proclaims.

On August 7, 1965, this unassuming ethnic Phu Thai village made headlines all across the region as it served as the backdrop to the first clash between communist fighters and Thai security forces that kicked off the CPT’s insurgency against the state.

This border region was targeted in the 1950s by recruiters of the Lao communist movement, known as the pathet lao, which worked with Vietnamese communists to mobilize villagers in the Northeast to join the revolutionary movements across Indochina.

Comrade U-sa, a bright-eyed woman, was too young to join the first troop of villagers recruited to receive months-long trainings in Laos, Vietnam and even China. But when her brother returned to Nabua, she decided, at the age of 16, to accept the offer of “an education” in Vietnam.

“I had heard there was equality between women and men in Vietnam and women could become doctors,” recalls the 67-year-old, explaining her motivation to leave her home village as a teenager.

At that time, Nabua villagers had neither access to health care nor to higher education, and many felt like the central government in Bangkok had little interest in lifting the region out of poverty, Comrade U-sa says.

“Socialism in Vietnam let people study for free and even medical treatment cost nothing,” Comrade U-sa claims, adding that it took Thailand decades to introduce virtually free universal health care in 2002.

In the scorching heat of March 1966, plagued by “leeches that sucked all the blood out of our legs,” Comrade U-sa trekked along secret trails from Nabua village to a communist base in Bac Hà District in northern Vietnam, located close to the Chinese border.

She stayed for almost two years, learning Vietnamese and receiving medical training to become a nurse before she returned to Thailand in 1968.

“I knew exactly what I was doing all this for,” says Comrade U-sa. “I went to Vietnam to learn as much as I could in order to return home and help my people.”

Not a soldier for the state
Two hundred kilometers south of Nabua, Bunsong Madkhao sits on the dark tile floor of the meeting house of a farmers’ cooperative in Yasothon Province. The semicircle of mainly middle-aged females, who joined the meeting out of interest in organic farming, moan in unison as he recites the many strict regulations that organic farmers have to follow to keep their fields clean of the chemical fertilizers that their neighbors might use.

The 66-year-old is the chairman of a successful organic rice farming group that actively seeks to convince farmers to switch to organic rice seeds. But in a former life, 40 years ago, Bunsong worked alongside Comrade Phairat to politically educate and recruit new members for the communist movement.

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At the age of 21, Bunsong Madkhao made a decision that changed his life forever. Instead of following the conscription call of the military, he joined the communist insurgency to fight against the state.

In 1964, a then 14-year-old Bunsong sat in front of his croaky radio and listened spellbound to the news program of the Voice of the People of Thailand, the CPT’s radio station broadcasting from southern China, which he said sparked his interest in politics.

At the age of 21, Bunsong’s life was turned upside down. In the yearly military draft lottery that even today all Thai males legally must attend, he pulled a red ticket that sealed his fate. He had to make the “biggest decision” of his life, says Bunsong. “I decided to become a soldier,” he says before chortling, “a communist soldier!” It was a decision “against the capitalist side” and “for the people,” he explains, slipping into communist rhetoric.

A few days later, he silently left his home and was picked up by a CPT spy. Together, they trekked overnight to a CPT base hidden in the sprawling forests of Phu Sa Dok Bua in the provincial triangle of Amnat Charoen, Mukdahan, and Yasothon.

Arriving at the base felt like stumbling into a utopian land for Bunsong. “It was like a whole other world to me, a society of a different kind, hidden in the forest,” he says, “full of young people debating the future of their country. I didn’t feel homesick at all.”

Bunsong underwent a rigorous political education based on communist ideology and some combat training over a period of three months. He says the training instilled discipline in him and taught every entrant to “take responsibility for their actions.”

When Bunsong left the base to infiltrate villages and recruit new members, he struggled to fit back into the rural communities he had grown up in. “People were drinking their nights away, singing loud karaoke songs,” he recalls disdainfully and complains that such behavior was not beneficial to the communities.

Together with Comrade Phairat, he was part of a secret unit with orders to recruit villagers for the movement. The two of them travelled throughout the Northeast. Bunsong estimates that over time they recruited around a 1,000 families to the Communist cause.

By the late 1970s, the communist insurgents were active in all but two provinces in the Northeast and the movement’s ranks had swelled to more than 12,000 armed fighters all across the country. When the military dictatorship made a violent return and cracked down on the student protests in Bangkok in October 1976, up to 3,000 students left the city and fled into the forests.

The fragile revolutionary movement
For many observers this was a certain sign of a looming communist revolution in Thailand, perpetuating fears that had been aggravated in 1975 by the communist overthrow of the Lao monarchy and the Khmer Rouge’s rise to power in Cambodia.

The Thai communists’ numbers were boosted by the influx of radicalized students to their forest bases, but events inside and outside the country exposed the fragility of the movement.

Many of the students who had found refuge in the forest got caught up in ideological disputes with the communists. They admired the CPT for its devotion to radical social change, but according to Comrade U-sa, few shared the ideology of the armed struggle for revolution. “They complained our way was too violent,” she says, “but if political power comes from the barrel of a gun, you can only fight back with guns.”

In the late 1970s, the coalition of communist movements in Southeast Asia was crumbling. Since the Thai communists sided with Maoist China, the communist governments in Laos and Vietnam who sided with the Russian banned the CPT from using their bases or supply lines.

From then on things became very difficult for the rural communist in the Northeast, Bunsong says.

By 1979, China abandoned the CPT as it began to improve relations with the Thai government. In order to please the rulers in Bangkok, it stopped support of the CPT and closed the Voice of the Thai People, the CPT’s radio station based in China and the main channel of communication between CPT members in Thailand.

“The shutdown of the CPT radio station in Yunnan province [in southern China] and the ban from using Lao bases, which also cut their food supplies, caused the first serious problems for the party,” argues Ian Baird, Assistant Professor of Geography at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, who researches Thailand’s communist movement.

In the early 1980s, the revolutionary spirit among the rural communists was diminishing and living conditions in the bases worsened. Comrades U-sa, Phairat, and Bunsong turned their backs on the revolution. Left with no other choice, the farmers fighters returned defeated from the wilds of the Isaan forests, their futures thrown into disarray.

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In March 1966, Comrade Us-a, at the age of 16, walked from her home in Nahkon Phanom province to northern Vietnam to reiceive a medical training to fight with the communist movement in Thailand.

It was a tragic moment for most Northeastern communists, some of who had spent almost two decades in the forests-turned-homes where they had married and raised children.

“We had sacrificed our lives, and many of us had been killed,” says Comrade U-sa. “But in the end we couldn’t make it. I was so sad I wanted to die.”

Bunsong likewise felt deeply disappointed, but he took one last shot to revive the struggle for revolution. He travelled to Laos asking for support to rebuild the Communist movement in Thailand. But the effort came to no avail, as the Lao People’s Party was too busy securing its power and recovering from years of war.

The CPT received its final blow when Thailand’s military government realized the inefficacy of its heavy-handed approach against the insurgency and announced a general amnesty in 1980. A wave of Communists announced their surrender. By the mid-1980s, the decades long Communist rebellion was virtually over.

Though the movement was hit hard when external support ended and the government’s anti-insurgency policy shifted, Thailand’s Communist revolution eventually failed for less obvious reasons, according to Professor Keyes.

“The CPT was initially successful, primarily among rural people in the upper Northeast, but subsequently it failed to sustain its recruitment, primarily because of the overly Maoist ideology,” he said.

As part of this ideology, the leaders of the CPT saw the villagers as passive victims of a feudalistic system whose Buddhist faith posed an obstacle to the revolution. But these Buddhist traditions were central to the everyday lives of Isaan peasants, something that the CPT never quite realized, according to Professor Keyes.

The Communists’ popularity among rural Northeasterners eventually slipped because two fundamentally different worldviews clashed—the CPT’s Maoist revolutionary mind-set and the Buddhist beliefs of rural Northeasterners.

From Rebels to Thai National Development Partners
Thousands of Communists insurgents and their families came marching out of the forests when hopes for the revolution were shattered. But unlike the left-wing students who were allowed to continue their studies in Bangkok when they gave up their rebellion, many Northeastern Communists had no lives to return to. Others had often occupied their families’ lands, or they were too ashamed of their defeat to return to their home villages.

The CPT fighters were greeted by speeches, television cameras and free meals provided by the state. The insurgents who were no longer called terrorists but “Thai National Development Partners,” and the military government hurried to reintegrate the rebellious Northeasterners back into life as farmers.

Under the condition that they lay down their arms, each family in Chat Pattana Chat Thai received 15 rai of land and five cows. “Everything was set up for us. They gave us food and kitchen utensils. “It wasn’t too hard to settle down here at first,” says Jomtrai Chuatamuen, the wife Comrade Phairat, the former communist fighter who is selling life insurances today.

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Jomtrai Chuatamuen fought along with her husband Comrade Phairat for the communist movement for almost twenty years. The couple met, got married and had two children at the CPT base in the Phu Phan Mountains before accepting an amnesty offer from the state in the early 1980s.

 

But the state’s generosity came with a catch. The land given to them turned out to be unsuited for rice farming and so could not feed the surrendered communist families. The land was also never officially registered and so even today, no one in Chat Pattana Chat Thai, or in the other two villages set up for the communist veterans in the region, possesses full title to the land that they have called their own for over twenty years—a situation all too common in the Northeast.

In 2015, the villagers received an alarming reminder of this precarious settlement when they were asked by local authorities to sign an eviction agreement in line with Prime Minister General Prayuth Chan-ocha’s push to reclaim forests from encroachers.

In exchange for giving up their armed insurgency, many CPT members were also promised financial compensation for the atrocities allegedly committed by the state in its efforts to crush communism.

In 2007, a total sum of 269 million baht (about $7.5 million) in compensation was disbursed to 2,600 Communist veterans in the Northeast. A second round of payments followed in 2009 pushing the number of compensated former CPT members to 11,960 nationwide who, on average, received about 203,000 baht (about $5,600) per head, according to a MCOT TV report.

Comrade Phairat never received any compensation in land or money, he claims. He was unable to provide any documentation of his involvement with the CPT. The same applies to Bunsong, who worked along with Phairat for the communists, and Comrade U-sa, the Nabua villager who was trained in a communist base in Vietnam – they were never compensated by the state in any way.

“It just shows that we did a pretty damn good job,” Comrade Phairat says jokingly. “We kept our mission secret to this very day.”

Uneven Transitions, Uneven Memories
Retiring from the revolution and transitioning back to normal life played out differently for most students who had joined the CPT. Returning to the cities with crushed spirits, they spent years of soul-searching and dealing with their shattered dreams of democracy.

But despite their shame, many eventually made careers as academics, writers, politicians and entrepreneurs. They started telling their stories of middle-class rebellion in books and movies, successfully rewriting the history of leftist failure. Today, many in Thai society recognize the former student activists are heroes in a fight for democracy

“The story of the Communist movement in Thailand has mainly been written by the students of the October 14 generation,” said University of Wisconsin-Madison academic Ian Baird in an interview with The Isaan Record, referring to the pro-democracy protests that toppled the military government in 1973. “The voices of the rural members of the CPT have mostly been absent from history and I think that’s problematic,” he added.

As the former Communists in the Northeast are aging, the memories of their turbulent lives are fading into oblivion. Their own efforts to publicly remember the role they played in Thailand’s political history receives hardly any attention from the public.

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89-year-old Comrade Tang greets two military officers at last year’s 50-year- anniversary celebrating the begin of the communist armed struggle. The military only allowed a small event and banned all political content. This year, the event is banned altogether because it conflicts with the constitution referendum on August 7.

Last year in 2015, the people of Nabua village were prepared to mark the 50th anniversary of August 7, 1965, the day the first physical confrontation between communist fighters and Thai security forces occurred. The incident became known as “The Day the First Gunshot Rang Out”. They planned a large celebration that included political debates and lectures.

But unlike the day when they laid down their arms and marched out of the wild, there were no television cameras or state-sponsored meals. Instead, military officials sent by ordered the villagers to keep the event small and banned all political content. Plain-clothes police officers came to the village temple to observe the villagers’ gathering.

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Chom Saenmit, or Comrade Tang, experienced the clash with state security forces on August 7, 1965.

“We began commemorating this day because otherwise our history will be lost,” says 89-year-old Chom Saenmit, alias Comrade Tang, one of the eight villagers who kicked off the armed struggle against the state in 1965.

Anuwat Saelim, a Public Administration student at Sakon Nakhon Rajabhat University who attended the event in Nabua as part of a class activity, says he barely knew anything about communism in the countryside. “I only knew stories from my grandfather about evil communists hiding in the forests to kill people in the villages,” he recalls.

Public memories of those times often echo the period’s anti-communist state rhetoric that reached its extreme high point in 1976 when a well-known Buddhist monk proclaimed that the killing of communists was the duty of all Thai citizens. Current state-approved history books now avoid mention of rural Northeasterners’ involvement with communism altogether.

In the recent history book “History of the Thai Nation,” sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and approved by Prime Minister General Prayuth, the communist period is mentioned only in passing. While the text does devote half a page to the students’ flight to the forests after the massacre at Thammasat University in 1976, it remains silent on the rural communists’ struggle.

“Histories of villagers have tended to receive less attention in mainstream history than the students,” said Baird, adding that the role of the students in the events of October 1976 were of national importance. “But those events meant little to villagers in rural areas.”

In Chat Pattana Chat Thai, efforts to publicly remember the history of its residents are well hidden in an unused wing of the village school.

Comrade Phairat had trouble locating the key to the so-called community’s musuem, which turned out to be a dusty room cluttered with communist paraphernalia and walls lined with faded photographs of villagers in communist attire.

The room was set up and funded as the personal project of a schoolteacher a few years back. But some villagers voiced concerns that the political content might attract unwanted attention from the authorities. Today, the museum room’s door remains mostly locked and it hardly seems to live up to its purpose.

Villagers in Nabua face a similar situation. They have been calling for a proper museum for years to replace the makeshift hut that today contains the history of their turbulent past. But efforts never made it past the planning stage due to a lack of funds, said Comrade U-sa.

Comrade Phairat always had the ambition to turn the story of how he challenged state power from the forests in the Northeast into a book. “I started writing when I was still with the CPT,” he says. “But somehow the manuscript was lost when I gave up the fight.”

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A stature of Comrade Sathian, the Nabua villager who died in the clash with security forces on August 7, 1965. Communist veterans in the village say plans to open a museum to remember the community’s history were never realized because of the lack of funding.

Isaan rebels move on to new battles
More than 30 years after they ended the struggle for revolution, many Communist veterans in the Northeast have returned to the village life they had left behind to follow the Communist’s call. Others moved on to other kind of battles.

Bunsong, who had fought for the movement for more than ten years, channels his desire for change into the Northeast’s civil society. In the early 1990s, he co-founded the Isaan Small Farmers Assembly, a pro-farmer activist group that became well known for its rallies along major highways in the region.

For the last 20 years, he has been promoting organic rice farming through a local group that he set up with other Communist veterans. “What I do now isn’t so different,” soft-spoken Bunsong says with a smile. “As a Communist I learned how to convince people of a political ideology and this skill is helping me now in building farmers’ interest in organic agriculture.”

Bunsong flipped from fighting the state to collaborating closely with government agencies in training farmers in organic agriculture. His group now receives support from large companies as part of the companies’ corporate social responsibility policies.

“You can say it’s funny,” says Bunsong about collaborating with the state and the capitalist forces that he used to fight against. “But you know, times change.”

It is a sentiment shared by many communist veterans in the Northeast. For Comrade Phairat the failure of the communist revolution marked a critical juncture in his life but it did not crush his spirit. “Turning a crisis into an opportunity,” is the mantra that Phairat chooses to describe that period of his life.

After returning from the forest essentially penniless, he tried his hand at selling life insurance – an occupation that even today feeds his family and provided the initial funds for his hog breeding and rubber farming ventures.

Judging by the number of projects Phairat is involved with today, he has become a pivotal figure in his community. Among others projects, he initiated a collective cattle breeding project and runs the village savings club and a community radio station.

But after the 2014 coup, military officials confiscated the radio station’s transmitter as pat of a nationwide crackdown that closed stations broadcasting anti-government content. Ever since, Phairat has been attempting get it back, but to no avail.

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Today, Bunsong Madkhao is using the rethorical skills he learned during his time as a recruiter for the communist movement to convince farmers in the Northeast to join the organic rice farming movement.

Unlike Bunsong, Phairat did not join any movements after his involvement with the Communist insurgency ended. Like many communist veterans in Chat Pattana Chat Thai, he was longing for a quiet life after spending two restless decades underground.

“I’ve never taken sides in the political conflict of the last years,” he says. “But I’ve always stood on the side of the people.”

Comrade U-sa said she supported the struggle of the Red Shirts movement that had mobilized many farmers in the Northeast, but she never joined any protests. It would have been unfaithful to the promise the communist insurgents made when they accepted the state’s offer for amnesty, she says.

There is also a widespread sentiment among the Communist veterans in the Northeast that the political movements of today are somewhat less ideologically pure. The CPT firmly rooted its armed struggle for revolution in Maoist ideology that helped to intellectually guide Northeast farmers who joined the movement. But today, they say, things seem to be more complicated.

“The radical leftists rode on Thaksin’s back to start a revolution,” Bunsong says, referring to two former student activists turned prominent Red Shirt leaders. “But it couldn’t work because it was a deal with the capitalist side.”

In Nabua village, Communist veterans’ reluctance to participate in any of the color-coded protests hails from a deep-seated mistrust in the state and a fear of being seen as acting as pawns in a conflict between elite groups. For them, the faces of those who are in power might have changed in the past 30 years, but the state continues to betray the will of the people of the Northeast.

Yet, their scorn of the military as a political force has not waned over the years, although the political situation is also not as clear-cut as it used to be.

“In the past, the regimes were military dictatorships but today it is not as clear anymore. Looking only at the surface, it might seem like there is a good side to this government,” says Comrade Vihan who was involved in the first clashes with state forces on August 7, 1965.

After the military only allowed a scaled-down anniversary celebration of “The Day the First Gunshot Rang Out” last year, the event was banned altogether this year because the date conflicts with the constitution referendum.

Most communist veterans in the village say the new constitution, if accepted, won’t bring about real democracy for the country. Many say they would vote against the draft in the referendum on Sunday, according to a village leader.

To many, the situation in Thailand today might feel like the 1960s, when the country had waited for nine long years to receive a new constitution from the military government. The charter of 1968 only brought back a partial return to democracy as it provided for a fully appointed senate and unelected prime minister.

By that time, many Northeasterners had already given up on negotiating for an empty democracy. They had instead taken things into their own hands by arming themselves and joining the communist insurgency.

Despite the scars their failed revolution left them with and the political bitterness they struggle with today, communist veterans in Nabua show few regrets for having devoted their lives to a fight that they firmly believed was worth fighting for.

“From the day I joined the movement when I was 16 years old until today, I never had any doubts about my decision,” Comrade U-sa says resolutely. “If there was a movement like this again, I would be the first to join.”