THAILAND: The Inside Man

  • Share
  • Read Later

Everybody agrees that the most powerful politician in Thailand is astute Premier Pibulsonggram, but there has long been dispute as to just which of the Premier's closest cronies, his Army field marshal, Sarit Thanarat, or his police chief, General Phao Sriyanond, is the second most powerful. This uncertainty has always suited Pibul just fine.

Like most good generals the world over, dour, gong-shaped Marshal Sarit has always professed a profound dislike and disinterest in politics. Instead, he has been content to boss the army and to combine business with business by seeing that most of the army's requirements for supplies and equipment are met by commercial firms he owns or controls himself. The marshal's business astuteness pleases his followers but they have long been distressed by his political indifference, and have watched with more than a tinge of envy as General Phao and his 50,000-man police force soared onward and upward in the Siamese political firmament.

Knights with Armor. Pink-cheeked General Phao invested his top lieutenants as "knights." The knights and all their lesser cops survived charge after charge of corruption and opium smuggling, activities which got particularly careful coverage in Marshal Sarit's own personal chain of newspapers, while Marshal Sarit's commercial connections were discussed in the columns of General Phao's papers. The activities of both Phao and Sarit, in turn, were dutifully reported by Premier Pibul's string of newspapers, and with this delicate system of checks and balances, Thailand's government has survived an impressive list of ups and downs.

When Thailand held its national election this year, General Phao's police force was highly active in its support of Pibul's government. Pibul declared martial law when it became apparent his majority was going to be less than he had hoped, and called out the army and air force to see that the election itself did not get out of hand. Afterwards Marshal Sarit let it be known that he was "the only good man left." He demanded, as a slap meant for Phao, a new government in which Cabinet ministers would not maintain private commercial connections.

The Resigning Game. Premier Pibul thought this an excellent suggestion—and appointed Simple Soldier Sarit to his Cabinet as Defense Minister. Then he ordered all Cabinet ministers to forsake their commercial interests. Marshal Sarit and some of his supporters resigned both their political posts and—in theory at least—their positions in private enterprises. General Phao resigned from his various directorships, but held firmly to his position as police chief.

  1. Previous Page
  2. 1
  3. 2