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4.2.4 Sarit and Thanom Rule 1957-1973

Sarits successful coup in 1957, which toppled the Phibul government, was the end of the Triumvirate regime, in which the power was shared by the army, the police, and the coalition parties in the parliament. Afterwards, Sarit appointed Pote Sarasin (September 20-December 26, 1967) and then General Thanom Kittikachorn (January 1-October 20, 1958) as the prime minister, respectively, before he staged in 1958 another coup in order to abolish the 1952 constitution and appoint himself as prime minister.

After seizing power, Sarit developed Thai politics by legitimizing the role that the military played in ruling the country through authoritarian means (Wilson 1964:711). To him, the democratic model championed by the West, was impossible in the case of Thailand (Thak 1979:154). It caused difficult and chaotic situations in the political arena and in Thai governance (Thak 1979:200). Sarit said that:

If you recall the condition of the country prior to the revolution[ the 1958 Coup] you will observe clearly that there were severe divisions, intriguesand the desire to destroy each other Subsequently, the government of that period [Thanom] was forced to resign and admitted that it could not function correctly. Therefore, the revolutions first plan is to rebuilt national solidarity Because of this, I have relied upon the principle of Samakhitham [moral principles of solidarity] as the first principle of the task of the revolution [1]

Sarit argued that the nation was threatened by communism and that the tensions existed both within and outside country. Therefore, it was necessary to declare that communists must be dealt with radically (Darling 1965:187; Wilson 1963:83-87). However, nothing would change in existing parliamentary laws except where necessary for the security of the country (Darling 1965:187).

The Revolutionary Council wishes to make the country a democracyand to be able to bring this about, it must correct the mistakes of the pastThe revolutionary [the coup] of October 20, 1958 abolished democratic ideas borrowed from the West, and suggested that it would build a democratic system which would be appropriate to the special characteristics and realities of the Thai. It will build a democracy, a Thai way of democracy.[2]

More specifically, the government would maintain the interest of people, uphold the freedom of the country, respect rights under the Declaration of Human Rights and protect the nation, religion and the monarchy. Sarits affinity for authoritarian rule stems from his belief that Thai people need one effective leader, just as a family needs a father. As such, people acted as if they were children, Sarit was their father, and they, therefore, needed to obey him.

In the Thai concept of administration, the king is honored as the father of all the peoplethe father is the head of his familythe method of Thai administration followed the manner of a father looking after his children which is employed as the principle of administration in Siam even until the present time.[3]

To establish Sarits political model after the 1958 successful coup, Sarit did not intend to announce the use of a democratic constitution, which would allow for the parliament to function. Rather, he imposed martial law, dissolved parliament, banned political parties, delayed promulgation of a new constitution and indefinitely postponed elections (Darling 1965:187; Thak 1979:141; Kislenko 2003:200).[4] Like the previous Triumvirate regime, Sarit used the spread of communism as an excuse to harass political enemies. One-hundred and thirty-four people, among them parliamentarians, journalists, writers, labor leaders, teachers, students, and businessmen, were accused of being communists and arrested (Darling 1965: 187; Thak 1979:148). As a result, the period of Sarits rule was the era of the unprecedented and absolute military rule.[5]

Sarit sought political legitimacy from two different sources. The first was American support under the aegis of a shared anti-communist agenda (Fineman 1997:1-9; Kislenko 2003:200). The spread of communism into Thailand legitimized the military rule and was used to maintain the relationship between the United States and the Thai military regime.

Consequently, when Sarit desired to replace Phibul and Phaos power, which the United States had backed, he needed the American approval (Darling 1965:167-169; Kislenko 2003: 201-3; Fineman 1997). The U.S., not having Sarit on their cards as a potential successor of Phibul, sought to avoid the further rise of Phao. As the latter had a questionable reputation for brutality, ambition and corruption (Fineman 1997:chapter IX), the U.S. obviously supported Phibul and invited him to state visit to the U.S. and several European countries (Darling 1965:160-6; Darling 1977:130-2; Fineman 1997:205-230). After the 1957 coup, Sarit thus immediately appointed Pote Sarasin prime minister, who closely worked with the United States Department of State during the Triumvirate regime. Potes crucial mission was to assure Washington that the shift in Thai leadership would not disturb the relationship between Thailand and the United States (Thak 1979:126-134).

One year before Sarit became prime minister in 1958, it was clear that Pote and Thanom were simply caretakers for Sarit while he was receiving medical treatment in the United States. It was during his stay in the United States that Sarit introduced himself to American Secretary of State Dulles and President Eisenhower; these meetings were organized by the American ambassador to Thailand. Even still, it was not absolutely clear that the United States would approve him as Phibuls successor (Darling 1965:167-9; Fineman 1997:243). It was rumored that Sarits junior military aide, Praphat Charusathien, would have overthrown Sarit, if Sarit had failed to gain support from Washington (Darling 1965:188; Fineman 1997: 244). Therefore, before Sarit staged the 1958 coup, he informed the United States of his actions in advance, in the hope that Americans would approve of his coup (Fineman 1997: 225).

Nonetheless, the United States had very little interest in Sarit as an individual; instead, they were merely interested that their anti-communist policy was supported by Thailand -- no matter who the leader was. Washington merely needed Thailand as defender of Southeast Asia (Singh 1963:541) and a political regime which could effectively contain the expansion of communism in Laos and South Vietnam. The Eisenhower administration, which continued to champion the Domino Theory, defined those countries as a testing ground for the American foreign policy in Asia. From that point of view, America could not allow Laos to become communist, and, for that reason, American involvement was inevitable (Kislenko 2003:201; Nuechterlein 1965).

Those circumstances convinced the Sarit government to continuingly implement a foreign policy compatible with the American involvement in the region. At first, the Sarit administration encouraged the United States to support the right-wing government of Laos, ruled by Prince Boon Oum and Army Commander Phoumi Nosavan, which was suppressing the communist forces of Pathet Lao. The Pathet Lao forces were supported by Chinese communists as well as the forces of neutralist Captain Kong Lee (Singh 1963:536-7; Wilson 1963:85). Sarits government was very pleased, therefore, when 2,800 American soldiers were deployed in Northern Thailand to set up a forward base from which they could attack the Pathet Lao (Sing 1963:539). Additionally, on the economic front, the Thai economy was also positively affected by the establishment of American bases in the north due to the flow of American dollars necessary to create the bases and airports, which began in 1961. There were four major bases in the Northeast region; at Nakhon Phanom, Udon, Ubon and Khorat; two additional bases were built, one at Sattahip and the other at Takhli (Viksnins 1973:443).

Apart from the serious situation in Laos and Vietnam, the Sarit government sought ways to make United States concerned about the danger of an infiltration of Chinese communists into the Northeast of Thailand, a region which lagged behind the rest of the country economically. As such, this was the most vulnerable region to the communist threat emanating from the North Vietnamese and Chinese.

In the end, not only did Sarit gain American support for his rise to power, but he also succeeded in convincing the Americans that Northeastern Thailand and the attacks of communism were their burden to bear.[6] Furthermore, Sarit successfully established a bilateral agreement between Thailand and the United States, which strengthened their relationship even further. In the Thanat-Rusk Agreement American Secretary of State Dean Rusk and Thai Foreign Minister Thanat Khoman declared in March 1962 that the Secretary of State assured the foreign minister that in the event of such aggression, the United States intends to give full effect to its obligations under the Treaty to act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes.[7] As such, the U.S. troops began to use Thai soil in suppressing the spread of communism in Thailands neighboring countries. Thailand thus became a forward base in the U.S. containment strategy.

Sarits second major strategy to shore up public support and legitimacy for his autocratic regime was the construction of an ideology of political traditionalism. This ideology broke as has been argued before with the vestiges of Western constitutionalism of the Phibul regime and instead sought to mobilize the shining values of a great past for a bright future under his leadership. Sarit, regarding himself as the inheritor of Sukhothai tradition (Thak 1974:227), explicitly referred to Sukhothai, the first major Tai empire, which stood for a vast territorial expansion, superior military power, economic prosperity and justice; in short, an ideal object for national identification. While Sarits reference to Sukhothai is often regarded as a return to an indigenous state concept, it is often forgotten that the Sukhothai state model was one imposed on Sukhothais rulers by adverse geopolitical conditions and the necessities of the warrior state. Sarits state model thus reinvented something as indigenous what in reality had external origins.

Identification with the Sukhothai state implied the championing of conservative concepts of political hierarchy. For Sarit the state is ideally organized in only three strata: the government (rat/rattaban), the bureaucrats (karatchagan) and the people (prachachon). The relationship between leader and people is paternalistic as the leader is regarded as the father of the people (phokhun), while the people are the children (luk). This description of the social structure re-intonates the famous Ramkhamhaeng inscription, a mythical Thai narrative, which almost every Thai knows. Speaking in 1959, Sarit explained this relationship as follows:

In this modern age, no matter how much progress is made in political science, one principle in the traditional form of Thai government which still has the utility and must by constantly used, is the principle of phoban phomuang [father of the family and father of the nation]. The nation is like a large family provincial governors, vice-governors, and district officers are like the heads of various families. Local administrators must keep in mind that the people under their jurisdiction are not strangers, but are sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews of a large family (quoted from Keyes 1987:76).

That the military takes the leading political position of the country is also easily explained by historical analogy. In previous times only the best soldiers could become king.

But the paternalistic relationship between leader and people also implies that the father has to take care of the welfare of his family members, a task taken much more seriously by Sarit than his predecessors as we will learn in Chapter 4.3.2. The phokhun-image thus implicitly also relates to the thammaraja concept which obliges a king to rule justly and to create conditions of economic prosperity in this kingdom (Keyes 1987:77). It, thus, is interesting to note that in Thailand like elsewhere in Southeast Asia ancient political concepts tally well with more modern concepts of corporatist state organization.

Perhaps the most crucial innovation of the Sarit era was the revitalization of the Thai monarchy. After a quarter of a century in which the anti-royalist tendencies of the coup promoters of 1932 on both sides of the factionalist divide (the civilian as well as the military faction) prevailed, Sarit consciously and deliberately attributed a high-profile public role to the monarch. Part of this strategy was to encourage the young King Bhumiphol and his wife, Queen Sirikit, to tour the country, to give him the opportunity to represent Thailand on state visits abroad and to revive traditional ceremonies in which the king officiated. One example is the graduation ceremonies of university students in which members of the royal family award the degrees to the graduates. The king responded to the overtures by the regime by urging Thais to support the internal security policies of the government. Sarit and his regime thus also benefited from the growing royal prestige and military rule remained unchallenged for the next 10 years. The monarchy, even though the various Thai constitutions only vested it with primarily ceremonial power, constantly gained in informal political influence. As an institution, deeply revered by Thais, and a superior moral authority the king became a stabilizing force in the Thai polity who repeatedly intervened in the political process at crucial junctions of modern Thai history. Yet, despite the stabilizing effects of the monarchy, it is also clear that it is a force stabilizing the fabric of Thai society from above.

A third strategy of winning the hearts and minds of the people was Sarits populism which foreshadowed Thaksins rise to power in 2001. Sarit ordered reductions in electricity rates, provided access to free tap water and reduced the prices of many commodities (Thak 1974: 197). He might also have been a model for Thaksin in his social purification program, which, inter alia, included anti-crime drives, anti-begging drives, anti-narcotics drives, the extermination of stray dogs and so on (Thak 1974:250-259).

When Sarit died on December 9, 1963, the stability of the military regime, which was economically and politically stabilized by the United States and Sarits political philosophy, did not initially waiver due to the change of leadership from Sarit to Fieldmarshal Thanom. Apart from the post of prime minister, Thanom succeeded Sarit as the military supreme commander. The new government soon announced its decision to uphold the pro-American policy and assist Washington in suppressing communists in Southeast Asia (Wilson 1964: 711). Domestically, his government moved forward with the economic development plan. Additionally, due to the increase of severity in the Vietnam War, the United States needed Thailand and Thanom (Kislenko 2003:213-5). 

Wilson notes that With his [Sarits] death, the chances appear good that they [Thanons clique] will still remain suppressed at least so long as the military leadership remains cohesive and the general economic and international environment is fairly steady (Wilson 1964:712) [emphasis added by Dhiwakorn Kaewmanee].

Certainly, Thanom, like Sarit, was satisfied with the involvement of the Americans in the regions conflicts. American money continued to flow at an increasingly high rate for use in the Vietnam War as well as funds to ensure the vitality of the Thai-American relationship. Those American funds perpetuated rapid economic growth in the Thai economy, which continued since the early 1950s, while they facilitated the stability of the military government. This was important because it was the backbone of the Thanom-American relationship and essential to the war in Vietnam (Darling 1968:120; Kislenko 2003:214).

The Asian Survey in 1965 reported, by saying:

During 1964 nothing very decisive occurred in Thai politics. Writing a summary of the years political trends in Thailand is rather like drawing the Painted Desert with hard pencil-flat, not very bright but full of intimations. The most noteworthy outcome was the survival of Fieldmarshal Thamom Kittikachorns leadership [emphasis added by Dhiwakorn Kaewmanee].[8]

Also in the following years the regime remained stable as the military was unified, American aid continued to flow, foreign investment was booming and economic growth recorded high rates of around 7 per cent per annum (Nuechterlein 1967:126; Darling 1968:120).

By 1968, however, the stability of the Thanom government progressively decayed when the American President Johnson announced on March 31, 1968 that the United States was significantly reducing the American military involvement in Vietnam and would seek a peaceful negotiation with the Hanoi government. Soon, Washington also announced that it only has a limited obligation in Thailand and the other nations in Southeast Asia (Darling 1969:115).

Table 4-3: Thailands Balance of Payment Summary, 1965-1970 (in Billion Baht)





Merchandise export




Merchandise import








Military service receipts




Service payment




US grants




Non-military capital flow




Direct investment








Source: Bank of Thailand, Monthly Bulletin, September 1971, cited in Viksnins (1973), adjusted by Dhiwakorn Kaewmanee.

Due to the uncertainty of American foreign policy toward Thailand, Thanom faced difficulties in maintaining the unity among military factions. Military leaders unanimously believed that the United States, the worlds only superpower, with its intention, and its resources was needed to prevent Chinese communism from spreading (Nuechterlein 1967:130). However, the growing anti-Vietnam War movement in the United States presented President Johnson with a serious political problem. As a result, he decided not to run in the 1968 election, which allowed Richard Nixon to be elected President, who furthered the policy of slow disengagement from the war. In addition to South Vietnam, he was determined to also remove American troops from Thailand.

With the American disengagement in Vietnam, Thailand entered an era of military factional politics, which denoted the disunity of political leaders in army, cabinet and the council of the revolutionary group. More specifically, one began to see their disagreements about the direction of countrys development and the foreign policy. [9]

Domestically, in the second half of the 1960s, rampant corruption of government leaders, police and bureaucrats as well as the failure of rural development projects in the Northeast has become one of the most severe problems haunting the Thanom and Praphat regime. This intensified the demands for parliaments control to quell the communist insurgency in the rural areas. This outcry for parliaments intervention became a new threat for the stability of the authoritarian regime. King Bhumiphol, for example, expressed his abhorrence of dishonesty in the government. His speech sparked public awareness about the severity of the corruption within the regime, which in 1967 was also exposed by the courts (Darling 1968: 121).

In foreign politics, the Thai involvement in Indochina created rifts within the military establishment. In 1970, for instance, the new right-wing government of Cambodia, which had ousted with American support the neutralist regime of Prince Sihanouk, requested Thai support for its struggle against the Vietnamese communist forces. Thanat Khoman, the minister of foreign affairs, opposed Prime Minister Thanom, who wanted to send troops to Cambodia. Thanat argued that Thailand should not get involved in this conflict, since the United States Congress prevented the Presidents administration from subsidizing Thai troops. Finally, paralleling to the American policy, the Thai government ceased its involvement in Vietnam War. Thai troops were completely withdrawn Vietnam by 1972. Moreover, in 1971, some members of parliament wanted to normalize the diplomatic relationship and opened trade with China. They sent a message to congratulate China when it first became recognized by the United Nations as a member. This partly caused the frustration of the Thanom government and led to the 1971 coup which was led by Thanom and Praphat virtually against themselves (Morell 1972a:156-7).[10]

In the end, the combination of four factors - the end of American involvement in Southeast Asia, parliaments demand for a constitution, government corruption, and the disarray of the militarys leadership - encouraged Thanom to seek fresh legitimacy for his leadership: These events were instrumental in Thanoms promulgation of the 1968 constitution and the organization of the 1969 general election. In other words, the Thanom regime dismantled the political foundations on which Sarits power was built (Morell 1972a:162-3).

However, even with the opening of parliament and the establishment of an administration through the constitutional process, Thanoms power was still not legitimate and stable. AAfter promulgating the 1968 constitution, Thanom and Praphat founded the United Thai Peoples Party (UTPP) to run in the 1969 election. UTPPs campaign themes included the need for strong leadership to ensure the stability of the country, the existence of the military regime to face the spread of communism, and the continuation of the economic development program (Neher 1970:162). However, although the UTPP won the election and succeeded in organizing the government, Thanoms leadership was fragile largely due to the disarray of military and political leaders in the army and cabinet which largely demanded a new foreign policy ensuring military and domestic stability (Morell 1972a:156,161-3). This illustrated the vulnerability of his government and finally ended with the 1971 coup of Thanom-Praphat (Morell 1972a:156-7). The coup group, which called itself the Revolutionary Group, did not want to rule by a constitution and claimed that their democratic rule was ineffective (Morell 1972a:157). They thus tried to reinstate Sarits authoritarian state model, even though that was no longer possible.

In the meantime, the cracks within the military deepened. One new faction emerging were the so-called Young Turks who declined to obey the senior military leaders and withdrew their support for the Thanom regime which they considered as corrupt and undemocratic (Neher 1971:132; Chai-anan 1982:35). Colonel Prajak Sawangjit, a member of the Young Turks, said that,

we [the Young Turks] are the class of 1960s. At the outbreak of the war in Laos in 1961, we went to fight in Laos and (later on) in the jungle with the (Thai) communist terrorists. Our feeling while fighting in the jungle were [was] that the country was decaying and degenerating because the mechanisms in the city were bad. We therefore decided to get together and do something so that our union can survive. We were closely united, all of us determined in our pursuit of the same objective: to solve the nations problems.[11]

Colonel Manoon Rupekachorn, another leading member of the Young Turks, explained that the Thanom regime indeed was overthrown in 1973 because the Young Turk group did not support it, by saying,

The Young Turk Group was born and become actively involved in politics amidst the 14 October 1973 crisis. Since then, especially in the past three years of confusion and disorder in Thai society in the era of blossoming democracy, we were forced to be involved in politics. For we could not let nation security remain in the hands of those dirty politicians or even senior officers in the Army who are irresponsible to the nation and allowed themselves to be subservient to the rotten political system just to live happily with benefits handed to them by those politicians [12] [emphasis added by Dhiwakorn Kaewmanee].

Morell described the numerous demands in the Thai political system in the 1970s that:

There were many, many demands on the political system-from impatient MPs; from frightened urbanites [economic decline]; from bureaucrats wanting to expedite passage of their legislative proposals; from cliques favoring new or old foreign policies; from younger military officers wanting to accelerate communist suppression and national development programs; and from Cabinet members and military leaders competing for power and advantageous positions in political struggles to come (Morell 1972a:162) [emphasis added by Dhiwakorn Kaewmanee].

Moreover, in the late 1960s, a conflict emerged, revolving around the correct method to choose the political successor upon if Thanom is stepping down. Fieldmarshal Praphat who waited for Thanoms retirement, was not accepted by many politicalmilitary factions as well as King Bhumiphol. Although Praphat ruled a strong military faction, his assumption of the premiership was impossible (Neher 1971:133; Morell 1973:162). Moreover, Praphats political influence was challenged by that of Prasert Rujirawong, the police chief since 1963. Prasert, who maintained close relationships with businessmen, bankers and the palace, vied to get appointed as the minister of interior, which controlled village security forces and business interests from the states local constructions, which competed with Praphat (Morell 1973:163). It has been argued that Prasert planned to use his police forces to attempt a coup and topple the Thanom-Praphat government in October 1972 (Morell 1973:164). It became clear, however, after the end of the Vietnam War, when Thanoms power waned, that Thanom and Prapat agreed to name Colonel Narong Kittikachorn (Thanoms son and Praphats son-in-law) their political successor. Their attempt to consolidate their political empire increased the discontent among numerous military and political factions in the cabinet and national assembly; they had no desire to see the continuation of the Thanon-Praphat military regime.[13]

In October 1973, thus, amid a worsening economic recession and soaring inflation, growing restiveness of the students who demanded the return to constitutional rule, and an intensifying insurgency of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) in the rural areas of the North and the Northeast, the Thanom-Praphat regime was eventually toppled by a student revolt which was also supported by the countrys revered monarch.

[1] Sarit, cited in Thak (1979:156).

[2] Sarit, cited in Thak (1979:157).

[3] Sarit, cited in Thak (1979:174).

[4] See also Kislenko (2003:200-210).

[5] See also Vantiga (1989).

[6] See also Kislenko (2003:210-5).

[7] See The Department of State, Bulletin XLVI, No. 1187, March 26, 1962.

[8] Cited in Wilson (1965:108).

[9] See Neher (1971); Morell (1972).

[10] Before that, Thanat suggested that he was willing to negotiate with Chinese communists in order to establish a diplomatic relationship (Kislenko 2003: 217).

[11] Colonel Prajark Sawangjit, cited in Chai-anan (1982:35).

[12] Colonel Manoon Rupekachorn, cited in Chai-anan (1982:31).

[13] See Neher (1971:131-2); Morell (1973:162-3); Chai-anan (1982:30-1); Likhit (1992:191-5).



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