The Thai army officer and prime minister Sarit Thanarat (1908-1963) overthrew the government of Phibun Songkhram in 1957 and was responsible for initiating major programs of economic development and social welfare.
The son of Maj. Luang Rüangdetanan (Thongdi Thanarat), an army officer whose career was spent mainly on the eastern frontier and who is remembered for his translations from Cambodian, Sarit was born in Bangkok on June 16, 1908. His youth was spent with maternal relatives in the remote frontier district of Mukdahan in Nakhon Phanom Province, an experience which gave him a lifelong interest in and affinity for the Lao provinces of northeast Thailand. He attended a monastery school in Bangkok and entered the royal military academy in 1919. Completing his studies there only in 1928, he was commissioned a second lieutenant in 1929.
Sarit at first rose slowly in the army ranks. The first decade of his military career was spent in infantry regiments and training schools in Bangkok and nearby Lopburi. A major at the outbreak of war in 1940, he saw service in northern Thailand and at the conclusion of the war was in command of Thai occupation troops in the Federated Shan States of northeast Burma.
Unlike many of his fellow officers, Sarit did not take a prominent role in politics until 1947, when, as a colonel commanding an infantry battalion in Bangkok, he assumed a leading role in the military coup which overthrew civilian parliamentary government. This was the turning point in his public life. He was jumped in rank to major general and placed in command of the troops of the Bangkok military region and in 1949 was primarily responsible for crushing a navy and marine rebellion on behalf of Pridi Phanomyong. He then took charge of the 1st Army in Bangkok, which after 1932 always retained particular political significance. In that position he was responsible for suppressing a further attempted coup by the navy and marines in 1951.
Sarit's promotion in rank to lieutenant general in 1950 and general in 1952 served to confirm power he already had. The restoration of Phibun by the 1947 coup was in effect the assumption of power by a generation of army officers which, unlike Phibun and the leaders of prewar governments, had not had foreign training. They were slow in developing their own political leadership, and the coups and countercoups of the late 1940s and early 1950s saw a jockeying for power which by 1951 had resulted in a rivalry centering on two figures: Sarit—who became deputy commander of the army and deputy minister of defense in 1951 and commander in chief of the army in 1954—and Police Gen. Phao Siyanon, who became director general of the paramilitary police department in 1951 and acted as the strong arm of the regime.
Phibun's power slipped rapidly in the 1950s as economic conditions worsened after the Korean War boom; official corruption became more blatant; and Phao's ruthless attacks on political rivals, the Chinese business community, and civilian political figures got out of hand. Sarit, having become a field marshal in 1956, was increasingly aloof from the regime, although he kept the loyalty of the armed forces and gained some popular support. When Phibun, in a bid for popular support to counterbalance his rivals, attempted a return to parliamentary government in 1957, Phao blatantly managed the elections in Phibun's favor. Sarit capitalized on the publicly displayed royal displeasure with Phibun, public outrage, and student demonstrations to call out his troops and overthrow the Phibun government in September 1957.
Leaving the government in the hands of a newly elected parliamentary regime under his deputy, Gen. Thanom Kittikachorn, Sarit flew hurriedly to the United States for urgently needed medical treatment. In his absence, representative government almost ground to a halt for lack of consensus and leadership, and economic conditions worsened. Returning quietly to Bangkok, Sarit staged a second coup in October 1958 and, with Thanom's consent, seized power.
The revolutionary government Sarit established then, legitimized by a new constitution styled on those of Gaullist France and the United Arab Republic, moved quickly and with great force to execute positive policies of economic development and social reform and services. A commanding executive, he early gained a reputation for getting things done, as when he personally wielded an ax to smash opium dens and arrested arsonists. He encouraged King Bhumibol Aduldej to travel, and he revived neglected royal ceremonies to bolster national identity.
Sarit traveled widely himself, often swooping down on remote villages in an army helicopter to chat with peasants. He attempted to restore some of the authority of specialist bureaucrats in the important ministries, though, through his army, he retained control of the Ministry of Interior. He promised an eventual return to parliamentary democracy but moved only slowly to implement this intention.
Sarit will be remembered for his effective policies of economic development, which brought the country rapidly to an annual growth rate of 8 percent in the gross national product, for his strong promotion of education, especially in rural areas, and for the special attention he devoted to the impoverished northeast, which had long been neglected by Bangkok governments. The statistics were only beginning to show the success of these policies when he died suddenly on Dec. 8, 1963.
An unusually tall, heavyset, and dark-complexioned man, with a booming, growling voice, Sarit is said to have been genuinely concerned that he be remembered in Thai history as one who revived the kingdom and gave it a clear direction. The successful continuance of his policies, and the beginning of a return to parliamentary democracy in the late 1960s, reflected favorably on his intentions and hopes.
There is no full biography of Sarit in any Western language, although numerous popular accounts of his life appear in Thai. The important events of his time are recounted in David A. Wilson, Politics in Thailand (1962), and Frank C. Darling, Thailand and the United States (1965).