Thailand: Sarit's Legacy

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Ever since Thailand's tough Premier Sarit Thanarat died last December of a variety of ailments aggravated by hard work and high living, his body has rested in a fetal position inside a pagoda-shaped golden urn. Last week, at the end of the 100-day mourning period, Sarit's remains were cremated in an elaborate ceremony attended by King Bhumibol, Queen Sirikit, the government, the diplomatic corps, as well as a spike-helmeted funeral band and contingents of umbrella-carrying Buddhist priests. Sarit will be remembered as one of the few leaders in Southeast Asia who managed to build a firm, anti-Communist regime; but even as the smoke of his funeral drifted over Bangkok, the press was busy kindling acrid stories about his financial dealings and his personal life.

The rumors began last month when Sarit's eldest son, army Major Setha Thanarat, demanded that the courts appoint him executor of his father's estate. Setha charged that his stepmother, thirtyish, comely Thanpuying Vichitra Thanarat, had deliberately underestimated Sarit's assets at $650,000, and had hidden away for her own use millions of dollars in cash, jewelry and land deeds. The press, which Sarit had kept in tight check throughout his reign, gleefully dug through the records and discovered that Sarit had owned or held an interest in a trust company, a brewery, 51 automobiles, and some 30 pieces of land, most of which he had doled out to a score or more of "minor wives." The extent of Sarit's amorous activities astounded even philanderophile Thais. So far, the papers have published the names of 100 women who claim to have shared Sarit's pillow and thus hope to win a share of his estate.

The stories have embarrassed the government of Sarit's successor and old crony, General Thanom Kittakachorn, who appointed a five-man committee to investigate the charges. Critics claim that Sarit siphoned $12 million out of the earnings of the national lottery and channeled it into pseudonymous bank accounts. No one denies that the money disappeared, but there is no evidence so far that Sarit used the bulk of the funds for himself. His "unorthodox way of handling finances," say his defenders, was caused by the fact that the slow National Assembly often delayed budgetary requests; as a result Sarit used the secreted funds for pet economic projects, intelligence operations, and various political moves he wanted accomplished in a hurry.