"This radio is from the Americans," Mr. Ja Da said, indicating a green rectangle of dust-covered, dial-studded, antique tech.  ©copyright-by-richard_s_ehrlich_5381rwps2cpcr.jpg 

BAN RAK THAI, Thailand -- Rotting weapons, faded battlefield photos, and rough-sketched jungle maps from defeated, anti-communist, U.S.-equipped Chinese Kuomintang (KMT) guerrillas are cherished in this northern border village.

The KMT and China stopped killing each other decades ago.

Today, the KMT's descendants graciously serve China's fun-seeking tourists, sheltering them in cozy, Chinese-themed hotels and quenching them with locally grown, fermented oolong tea.

KMT families are thankful their victorious former foe is boosting their local economy.

The traumatic reversals in fortune on both sides display the way China's monetized soft power is influencing in this Southeast Asian country.

"Some Chinese come here and see these things, and say they are sorry for the way the KMT were treated so hard, years ago," said Wang Ja Da, gesturing inside his thatch-roofed restaurant at shelves displaying his family's rusty, decrepit machine gun alongside metal helmets, canteens, ammunition cartridge boxes, and other KMT equipment.

The dusty display is dotted with photos of armed, uniformed KMT who did not survive.

"Because of China’s soft power, some KMT Chinese in northern Thailand have gradually shifted their position from being pro-Taipei to being pro-Beijing," said ThinkChina, a Singapore-based, English-language news site.

China's soft power appears in other subtle ways.

Many ethnic Chinese-Thai parents -- and some non-Chinese Thais -- send their children to private Chinese language schools for their first four years to learn Mandarin, preparing for possible careers dealing with Chinese investors, officials, and others.

Dozens of Chinese government-funded Confucius Institutes are in Thailand, sponsored worldwide by China's National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language.

Open to the public, they promote Chinese language, culture, and festivals, and teach locals to become teachers.

Confucius Institute (C.I.) classes for Thai officials included, “Anti-corruption Bureau Chinese class,” “Immigration Bureau Chinese class,” “Parliament Chinese class,” and “advanced Chinese classes for government officials,” said a report titled, "Confucius Institute in Sino-Thai Relations: A Display of China's Soft Power," by Singapore's National University.

"Through the introduction of C.I., some Thailand companies can find a reliable go-between to facilitate trade with Chinese companies.

"These programs garnered the support of the Thai government, Thai royal family, and local businesspeople in that they equate C.I.s to a strategic and economic tool," said the university's sociology department report.

China-based Huawei's 5G telecommunications is also penetrating Thailand, welcomed by Thai Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-ocha's administration.

In Bangkok meanwhile, a new generation of Chinese immigrants have been arriving overland from Yunnan, Sichuan, and other landlocked provinces.

These so-called “overland Chinese” or “overland Yunnanese” are a different ethnic trend compared to previous centuries when most Chinese arrived in then-Siam by sea from China's southeast coast.

Many Thais' ancestors left China during those centuries of trade and calamities, creating politically and commercially successful Chinese-Thai families.

Those settlers also created Bangkok's Chinatown 200 years ago along the Chao Phraya River, building "go-down" warehouses and "shop-houses" for international imports and exports.

Thailand depended on its ethnic Chinese entrepreneurs to help this country's economy survive international financial upheavals, especially during the 20th century.

Today, Chinatown's expensive real estate, and tourist-thronged maze of densely-built neighborhoods, outprice many new arrivals.

Newcomers instead are carving what they hope will become a "new Chinatown" along non-descript, two-lane Pracha Rat Bamphen Road.

These lanes in Bangkok's Huai Khwang neighborhood offer Yunnan and Sichuan cuisine -- hard to find among Chinatown's mostly Teochew, Hokkien, Hakka, and Cantonese restaurants.

Arriving Chinese immigrants and tourists are also attracted by the neighborhood's less expensive hotels, apartments, and offices, enabling them to do business, intermarry, and study -- conveniently near China's embassy.

Another form of Beijing's soft power is through its government-controlled People's Daily media supplements, occasionally appearing in the English-language Bangkok Post and cooing about China's benevolent, practical, peaceful, high-tech, profitable plans and policies.

Amid the ongoing, often ephemeral, soft power and propaganda, the Pentagon is concerned which side Thailand -- a war-tested treaty ally -- will support if a U.S.-China war erupts in the region over territorial rights to Taiwan or the South China Sea.

Bangkok tries to project a neutral stance between the two countries, hoping all sides may benefit, and enjoys close relations with both.

Not all soft power meanwhile is working to the advantage of China or the U.S.

"The two aspects of soft power that come immediately to mind concern American products and Chinese tourists," said Benjamin Zawacki,  Bangkok-based American author of "Thailand: Shifting Ground Between the U.S. and a Rising China."

"But while Thais overwhelmingly consume American products -- Starbucks coffee, Facebook, Marvel movies, Nike sneakers, Taylor Swift -- and criticize Chinese tourists as being disorderly, it is hardly clear that such raises Thai public, or elite, opinion about the U.S. or lowers it about China," Mr. Zawacki said in an interview.

When Chinese communist leader Mao Zedong achieved victory in 1949, most anti-communist KMT fled to Taiwan, led by Gen. Chiang Kai-shek and his seductive, English-speaking wife who wooed Washington to finance his Kuomintang National People's Party.

Washington also backed a trapped KMT "Lost Army" comprised of 93rd Division stragglers who retreated southwest across the border into Myanmar [then known as Burma] near Thailand's frontier.

From makeshift KMT bases inside Myanmar, the rebels launched futile cross-border assaults into southern China's Yunnan province during 1949–61, aided by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

"This radio is from the Americans," Mr. Ja Da said, indicating a green rectangle of dust-covered, dial-studded, antique tech.

"My father was a KMT fighter. I was too young, so I was radio messenger, running on foot from radio towers to wherever the KMT was, to deliver the messages," he said, because the KMT lacked enough portable "military wireless phones."

In 1950, Thailand's then-police chief, Police Gen. Phao Siyanon, "allowed CIA planes to refuel in Thailand, and personally transported the first shipment of arms to the [KMT] Nationalists in Burma, bordering Yunnan," Mr. Zawacki wrote in his book.

"Three invasions were attemped through August 1951."

In 1956, "Thailand also accused the Nationalists -- still assisted by the CIA -- of illegally obtaining weapons and funds," Mr. Zawacki wrote.

Some KMT smuggled opium sap grown in Myanmar's Shan state -- the heart of the narcotic-rich Golden Triangle where the porous borders of Thailand, Myanmar and Laos meet.

Armed KMT mule convoys guarding heavy bags of opium -- strapped to saddles of wood, leather, and canvas -- slid into northwest Thailand's chunk of the Golden Triangle.

China convinced Myanmar to jointly oust the KMT.

So the rebels and their families fled here to Ban Rak Thai -- less than one mile from Myanmar -- and other northern Thai mountain villages in the 1950s and early 60s.

Opium smuggling continued and poppy-growing spread in the steep mountains of northwest Thailand.

Eventually, Thai officials instructed the estimated 200 KMT families to grow tea and other legal, cool-climate crops.

In exchange, Thailand allowed the KMT to settle, initially to guard the region against suspected Communist Party of Thailand members and subversive minority ethnic tribes during the 1960s and 70s.

"Apparently the Thai government did not believe it wise to fully apply the army at this point," said a 70-page 1967 declassified Counterinsurgency in Thailand, "tactical evaluation" report distributed by the U.S. Air Force.

"If they brought a large part of the army into the COIN (counterinsurgency) operations, they would lay themselves wide open to communist propaganda," said the report's author, then-U.S. Air Force Maj. Gen. Charles Bond, Jr.

"The people would be told that the RTA (Royal Thai Army) was brutally suppressing the people. They had seen this occur in South Vietnam (during the U.S.-Vietnam War) and did not wish to repeat this error.

"The Chinese Communists have designs on all of Thailand, presently concentrating their efforts in the northeast area," Maj. Gen. Bond warned at the time.

Today, Thailand's tourism industry touts 1,800-meter-high Ban Rak Thai as a nostalgia-themed echo of the KMT's long-lost Yunnan province.

Tourists from Beijing, Shanghai, and elsewhere marvel at quaint, mock-vintage, stone architecture themed to resemble a cute portrayal of Yunnan's traditional villages.

KMT families also own plantations around Ban Rak Thai, supplying ubiquitous tea stalls.

An estimated 200,000 Chinese with Yunnan origins live in more than 100 villages scattered across the northern provinces of Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, plus here in Mae Hong Son province.


Richard S. Ehrlich is a Bangkok-based American foreign correspondent reporting from Asia since 1978. Excerpts from his two new nonfiction books, "Rituals. Killers. Wars. & Sex. -- Tibet, India, Nepal, Laos, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka & New York" and "Apocalyptic Tribes, Smugglers & Freaks" are available at