Thailand - language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion

Read about Thailand: language, government, economy, cities, history, tourism, people, education, religion, agriculture, climate ...



Thailand, officially the Kingdom of Thailand (Prathet Thai, or “Land of the Free”), country in Southeast Asia. Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country never to have been occupied by any European or other foreign power, except in war. The country was an absolute monarchy from 1782 until 1932, when rebels seized power in a coup and established a constitutional monarchy. Since then, Thailand has come under the rule of many governments, both civil and military. The country was known as Siam until 1939 (when it was renamed Thailand), and again for a few years in the late 1940s. In 1949 the name Thailand was adopted a second time.

Central Thailand is dominated by a large fertile plain, formed by the country’s chief river, the Chao Phraya, and its tributaries. Much of the country’s rice and other crops are grown in this region. Mountains and plateaus surround the central plain on the west, north, and east. The western mountain ranges extend south onto the Malay Peninsula (Malaya). Bangkok, located on the Chao Phraya near the Gulf of Thailand, is Thailand’s capital and largest city.

Thai people form the large majority of Thailand’s population, and most of them practice Theravada Buddhism. Other ethnic groups within the population include Chinese, Malays, and indigenous hill peoples, such as the Hmong and Karen. Thailand is known for its highly refined classical music and dance and for a wide range of folk arts. Traditionally based on agriculture, Thailand’s economy began developing rapidly in the 1980s.


Thailand is bordered on the west and northwest by Myanmar (formerly Burma); on the northeast and east by Laos and Cambodia; and on the south by the Gulf of Thailand (also known as the Gulf of Siam, the northwestern portion of the South China Sea), peninsular Malaysia, and the Andaman Sea. With an area of 513,115 sq km (198,115 sq mi), Thailand is similar in size to France. Its distinctive shape is often compared to an elephant’s head, with the “trunk” extending south into the slender Malay Peninsula. This unusual shape means that Thailand is more than twice as long from north to south (about 1,770 km/1,100 mi) as it is wide from east to west (about 800 km/500 mi). The country as a whole pivots around the Gulf of Thailand.

Natural Regions in Thailand

Thailand comprises five major natural regions. The first is the country’s heartland: a wide alluvial plain whose fertile soils are replenished by the Chao Phraya and other rivers flowing out of the northern mountains. This central plain has been described as one of the “rice bowls” of Asia because of its high agricultural productivity. The plain was originally a swamp, created by a much older river system that was partially submerged when the sea level rose at the end of the last Ice Age (about 10,000 years ago). The plain is still subject to severe flooding during the wet season of the southwest monsoon (approximately April to September).

Thailand’s second natural region consists of mountain ranges lying north of the central plain. Oriented on a north-south axis, the ranges are formed of granite and limestone. Separating them are valleys, where the first Thai settled between the 9th and the 14th centuries. Thailand’s highest mountain, Doi Inthanon, rises among the northern mountains southwest of the city of Chiang Mai to a height of 2,595 m (8,514 ft). The northern ranges are part of a wider mountain system that was created when sections of the Indo-Australian plate moved north, pressing against the Eurasian continental plate and forcing up the Himalayas and the mountains of Indonesia. See also Plate Tectonics.

Thailand’s third natural region, which lies to the west along the border with Myanmar, is also marked by north-south trending mountains. These mountains create a natural frontier that is breached at Three Pagodas Pass, which has been a strategic crossing point and defense outpost throughout Thailand’s history.

To the east of the central plain, the Khorat Plateau, an undulating sandstone area that rarely rises above 200 m (660 ft), forms the fourth natural region. Dry and infertile, the plateau is drained by tributaries of the Mekong River.

Lastly, a long peninsula—part of the greater Malay Peninsula—makes up the south of the country, forming the fifth region. Although dominated by north-south mountains, this region is also noted for its coastal beaches and its many islands, some formed of limestone.

Rivers of Thailand

The central river of Thailand is the Chao Phraya, also known in Thailand as Menam (“Mother of Waters”) Chao Phraya. Along with a number of shifting, unstable distributaries, the Chao Phraya drains the central plain into the Gulf of Thailand. The river forms at Nakhon Sawan, the head of the central plain, where it receives the waters of four other important rivers, the Nan, Ping, Wang, and Yom. These rivers flow out from the northern mountains. Downstream, the Chao Phraya is fed by waters from the Pa Sak River flowing from the edge of the Khorat Plateau in the east. At its mouth, the Chao Phraya is tidal and is fringed with nipa palms. The river is subject to both flooding and drought. In areas subject to such frequent flooding, the inhabitants adapted by developing the traditional Thai stilt house. Thailand’s other important rivers are the Chi and the Mun, which drain the Khorat Plateau eastward into the Mekong River.

Coastline of Thailand

Thailand has a long and intricate coastline measuring 3,200 km (2,000 mi). It faces the Andaman Sea in the west and the Gulf of Thailand in the east and south. The coast is characterized both by rocky shoreline and more gentle shorelines with mangrove swamps, beaches, and offshore coral reefs. Resorts built on Thailand’s beaches are popular tourist destinations, and some, such as Pattaya in the southeast and Hua Hin in the south, have become particularly famous.

Plant and Animal Life in Thailand

Thailand’s natural vegetation includes a wide range of forest types. In the south, tropical semievergreen rain forests are most common. In the north, two types of forests grow: monsoon forests, characterized by dense-growing, broadleaf deciduous trees, and savanna forests, in which grasses and sedges (grasslike flowering plants with triangular stems) grow beneath open stands of widely spaced trees. During the dry season, in both the monsoon and savanna forests, the trees shed their leaves and fires can occur. The monsoon forests are particularly noted for their useful species of trees and plants, including teak, which is highly valued for its strength and durability, and many types of bamboo. The forests abound in orchids, which are widely collected and grown in gardens.

Many animal species inhabit Thailand’s forests. Elephants, traditionally used as beasts of burden, are raised in captivity but also live in the wild. Other large animals native to Thailand include the rhinoceros, tiger, leopard, gaur (wild ox), water buffalo, and gibbon. Thailand has more than 50 species of snakes, including several poisonous varieties. Crocodiles are numerous, as are fish and birds. Other animals, such as the Schomburgk’s deer of the central plain, have become extinct.

Natural Resources of Thailand

Thailand possesses a range of mineral resources. Tin is mined in the peninsula. Important gemstones, such as sapphires, are found in the southeast, and coal reserves, particularly lignite, are in the north. Fish are abundant in rivers and coastal waters. In addition to being consumed domestically, fish are also exported.

Climate in Thailand

Thailand experiences a typical monsoon climate. Winds blow from the northeast during the winter months of October to March or April (known as the “dry season”), while rain-bearing monsoon winds blow from the southwest during the summer months of April or May to September (the “wet season”). This remarkable annual wind reversal is related to changes in air pressure and temperature taking place above the high Tibetan Plateau. Due to these shifting winds, Thailand’s climate varies markedly throughout the year. Conditions depend on the direction of the winds in relation to the north-south trending mountain systems.

During the wet season each year, average rainfall is 1,500 mm (60 in), and during the dry season, rainfall averages between 150 and 250 mm (6 and 10 in). The Thai portion of the Malay Peninsula typically receives a large amount of rainfall, averaging 2,600 mm (100 in) per year, whereas northeastern Thailand normally experiences much less rainfall (1,300 mm/50 in per year). Temperatures are somewhat higher inland than they are along the coast, except at points of high elevation. In the south and center of the country, temperatures vary little from month to month, while in the northern hills temperatures are cooler during the wet season. In Bangkok, highs average 35°C (95°F) in April (usually the hottest month) but fall to 21°C (70°F) in December.

Environmental Issues in Thailand

Many environmentalists regard the loss of forest in Thailand as a serious problem. In 1960 Thailand was more than 50 percent forested. Since then, however, deforestation has eliminated over half of Thailand’s woodlands. Forests now cover 28 percent of the country, and deforestation continues at a rate of 0.6 percent per year. Some environmentalists claim that deforestation has caused major landslides, lowered the water table, affected local climates, and reduced animal and plant diversity. More than 30 mammal species, for example, including the tiger, are threatened with local extinction. The destruction of coastal mangrove swamps and the resulting movement of sediment into the sea have damaged both fisheries and coral reefs. In and around Thailand’s cities, rivers and canals are heavily polluted. Notorious traffic congestion and air pollution afflict Bangkok.


Thailand (known until 1939 as Siam) has never been heavily populated. In 1668 an Indian king was reported to have commented somewhat disparagingly to a Siamese visitor that “the King of Golconda is a king of men, while your king is only a king of the forests and the mosquitoes!” By the 1800s Thailand’s population remained low at 2,000,000, and by 1950 it had risen to only 20,041,628. By 2009 the total population had increased to 65,905,410, giving a population density of 129 persons per sq km (334 per sq mi), still one of the lowest in Asia.

Residents of cities are 32 percent of Thailand’s inhabitants. More than 10 percent is concentrated in Bangkok, where serious problems of overcrowding do exist. Since World War II, a significant number of rural Thai have moved from the countryside to cities in search of better economic opportunities. Many Thai people also have migrated abroad either on a permanent basis, mainly to the United States and Canada, or on a temporary one, as migrant laborers, to other Southeast Asian countries (such as Singapore) and to countries of the Middle East.

With an annual rate of population growth of 0.6 percent, Thailand’s population is expected to double in 113 years. However, family size is falling. The Thai have a long tradition of family planning and the use of contraception, which partly reflects the fact that women gain status through their ability to trade rather than through family size. In 2009 the birthrate was 13.4 births per 1,000 people, and the average number of children per woman was 1.6. The proportion of the Thai population that is elderly has grown in recent decades, with 9 percent of the population age 65 or older in 2009. This number is expected to reach 14 percent by 2025.

Principal Cities of Thailand

Bangkok, known in Thai as Krung Thep (“City of Angels”), is Thailand’s capital and largest city, and it dominates the country politically and economically. A seaport located in the southern part of the central plain on the estuary of the Chao Phraya, it became the capital of Siam in 1782, following Thon Buri, which was the capital from 1767 to 1782, and Ayutthaya (1351-1767). Bangkok is a vibrant city, in which the old blends with the new. Within the city, traditional, multicolored temples (wat) and royal palaces are dwarfed by modern skyscrapers. Bangkok suffers from notorious traffic congestion, annual flooding, and severe air pollution. Migration to Bangkok from north and northeast Thailand has swelled the city’s population.

Other important Thai cities include Nakhon Ratchasima, an industrial city in east Thailand; Nonthaburi, a suburb of Bangkok; Chiang Mai, the largest city in the northern mountains; and Songkhla, a coastal city in the southern peninsula. Chiang Mai and Songkhla are noted for their tourist attractions.

Ethnic Groups in Thailand

Although the majority of Thailand’s people (about 75 percent) are classified as Thai, the country has a complex ethnic composition. The Thai themselves vary considerably, with those of the central plain differing markedly in culture and language from those of the north and northeast, known as the Lao. Many Thai have some Chinese ancestry, and Chinese constitute the largest single minority group in the country (about 14 percent of the total population).

The mountains of northern Thailand are home to a number of different hill peoples, including the Akha, the Hmong (also known as the Meo or Miao), the Karen, and the Lua’. Most of these peoples practice slash-and-burn agriculture. Many produce dry hill (or upland) rice, and some, such as the Hmong, produce opium. Farther south are populations of Mon people as well as groups of Khmer (Cambodian) and Vietnamese refugees. The southern peninsula is home to ethnic Malays.

Languages spoken in Thailand

Thailand’s official language is standard Thai, formerly known as Siamese, which is spoken by about 40 percent of the population. Thai is the predominant member of the Tai family of languages, which includes about 60 languages spoken throughout Southeast Asia. The Tai languages are difficult to place linguistically but usually are linked to either the Sino-Tibetan or Austronesian language families. Standard Thai is written in the Thai alphabet, derived from the Indian Devanagari script, and is characterized by the use of five tones. A strong Thai literary tradition goes back to the 13th century.

Another 50 percent of Thailand’s population speak Tai languages other than Thai, such as Lao, spoken in the northeast. Most educated Thai speak English, and Chinese is also widely used. English, Chinese, and Japanese are often the languages of commerce. The Mon-Khmer family of languages is represented both among the hill peoples of the north and in lowland groups of Mon and Khmer peoples. Some Malay is spoken in the south.

Religion in Thailand

Theravada Buddhism is the prevailing religion in Thailand, with about 95 percent of the Thai majority being Theravada Buddhist. Theravada is a school of Buddhist belief that spread to Thailand beginning in the 13th century, primarily via Sri Lanka. Thailand’s most characteristic architectural feature is the wat, the Thai Buddhist temple, of which there are an estimated 18,000. Nearly all Thai men enter a Buddhist monastery for at least a few days or months.

Despite the predominance of Buddhism, Thai religion is highly syncretic, meaning that it combines different systems of religious practice and belief. Many Buddhist ceremonies include elements of animism (worship of objects and phenomena of nature), Hinduism, and even Christianity. Small Muslim groups, comprising about 7 percent of the population, are found throughout the country, especially in the southern peninsula (see Islam). Some hill peoples, including members of the Karen, are Roman Catholic, while missionaries from Europe and North America have converted others to Protestantism. Very few ethnic Thai have converted to Western religions.

Education in Thailand

An estimated 94 percent of Thailand’s population is literate. The country has a comprehensive educational system that extends from kindergarten to university and adult education. Education is free and compulsory for 9 years beginning at age 6, and 94.2 percent of primary-school aged children are enrolled. About 81 percent of students continue to secondary education, which normally finishes at age 17. The country has a wide range of private schools, from international schools to palace and experimental schools.

Thailand has a growing university sector, and 49.5 percent of Thais of university age are enrolled. Universities include the prestigious Chulalongkorn University, Mahidol University (a medical school), Kasetsart University (for agriculture, forestry, and fisheries), Thammasat University (for the social sciences), Silpakorn University (for fine arts), and the Asian Institute of Technology, all located in Bangkok, and Chiang Mai University, in the north. The country also has a number of teacher-training colleges. Many Thai students choose to study abroad, especially in North America, Europe, Australia, and Japan.

Way of Life in Thailand

The Thai have always been an agricultural people of the lowland valleys and intermontane basins, where they cultivated wet rice with the use of water buffalo and harvested a wide range of fish and shellfish from the rivers and the sea. These occupations were often supplemented, especially in the north and northeast, by the collection of forest products, ranging from timber, such as teak and bamboo, to foods stored for consumption during the dry season. In the northern mountain valleys, Tai-speaking peoples developed an intricate system of small-scale irrigation, called muang fai. The eventual move to the great central plain necessitated the development of canals for transportation and, from the late-19th century onwards, of much larger irrigation and flood-control systems. Small nuclear families occupied villages, comprising a wat and wooden houses on stilts. The pattern of life was governed above all by the seasonal rhythm of the monsoons and by a series of important religious festivals. Many of these festivals were closely associated with fertility and the arrival and ending of the rains.

The Thai are now an increasingly urbanized people, with a strong interest in shopping and trade. Thai cookery is considered one of the world’s great cuisines, known for its range of subtle spices and sauces. Favorite Thai foods include salads of meat, fish, and vegetables; soups; curries (stews flavored with a blend of ground spices); and tropical fruits.

Social Issues in Thailand

Thailand faces a number of social problems. Corruption affects government, business, and even the Buddhist monkhood (known as the sangha), and the press frequently reports scandals. Drugs and drug trafficking are ongoing concerns. In rural areas, many tropical diseases, such as malaria, dengue fever, and cholera, remain a threat. Wide social gaps—between rich and poor, city and countryside—compound these problems.


In the 13th century two Thai chiefs united to form the kingdom of Sukhothai, the first Thai state. Lasting until the 15th century, Sukhothai set forth a cultural foundation that developed throughout Thailand’s history and continues today. Under Ramkhamhaeng, who ruled over Sukhothai during the late 13th century and greatly expanded its territory, the kingdom experienced a period of artistic growth. Ramkhamhaeng is credited with developing the Thai alphabet and producing the first written inscription. The various people living within the kingdom were united in part by Theravada Buddhism, which had spread to the area from Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). Fostered by the tenets of this new religion, Sukhothai reached a golden age of artistic achievement during the 14th and 15th centuries. In this period, artisans produced artifacts of exceptional quality in stone, bronze, and fired clay.

In the mid-14th century the kingdom of Ayutthaya was founded in southern Thailand. It rapidly became a major power in the region, ultimately absorbing the kingdom of Sukhothai as well as the Khmer (Cambodian) kingdom of Angkor. Located on an island in the Chao Phraya River with access to the sea, Ayutthaya lay well situated to serve as a port for the increasing regional trade and for religious pilgrimages and commercial ventures from Europe. Extended contact with foreign cultures and the solidarity of the kingdom inspired a flowering of the arts. Ayutthaya lasted until the second half of the 18th century, when it was sacked by the Burmese.

Today, the fundamental characteristics of traditional Thai culture still prevail in many mediums. However, certain art forms, such as painting, sometimes synthesize the ideals of Thai beauty and form with Western-influenced modern concepts.

Literature in Thailand

Thai literature evolved from a longstanding oral tradition of myths and legends, handed down through the generations. Themes were based on the Ramakien (a Thai version of the Ramayana, one of the great Sanskrit epics of ancient India) and on the Jataka tales, stories of the former lives of the Buddha. Sunthorn Phu was a classical poet of the early 19th century Thai court who wrote renowned romantic epic poems.

In the late 19th century the first modern Thai poetry, short stories, and novels appeared. These works addressed everyday social issues of common Thai people. Notable 20th-century authors include Phya Anuman Rajadhon (pseudonym Sathira Koses) and Kukrit Pramoj, a former prime minister who wrote acclaimed short stories and novels.

Architecture and Sculpture in Thailand

The most celebrated architectural form of Thailand is the wat, the Thai Buddhist temple complex. The wat comprises several buildings that serve the religious needs of the laity and the monastic community. Buddhist structures from India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Cambodia influenced the form and decoration of the wat. The temples often have multitiered roofs with rust-colored glazed tiles and overhanging eaves; wooden finials (crowning ornaments) in the shape of mythical beasts; and gold-gilded beams, ridges, and pillars. Ornamental features are often intricately decorated with mosaics of colored glass, mirrors, porcelain, and inlaid mother-of-pearl. Among the country’s many well-known and greatly admired temples are Wat Phra Kaeo (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) and Wat Arun (Temple of Dawn), both in Bangkok.

Stone and bronze depictions of the Buddha in sitting, standing, walking, or reclining positions are characteristic Thai sculptural forms. Classic features, such as an oval face and a flamelike protuberance at the head that is seen in works from the Sukhothai period, continue in modern renditions.

Painting, Ceramics, and Crafts in Thailand

Temple mural paintings are one of Thailand’s great artistic achievements. Bold, vibrant colors enhanced with gold leaf adorn walls in many temple buildings in a tapestry-like motif. The scenes, which cover entire walls, are inspired by Buddhist doctrines and usually intended to teach worshipers about religion and morality. They are painted without depth, shadow, or perspective. Some Thai artists, particularly those who have traveled abroad for training or exhibitions, are experimenting with combining Thai Buddhist concepts and western abstraction. Others are producing paintings that maintain traditional Thai cultural values but reflect problems in society.

Glazed ceramics are also one of the classic Thai arts. Architectural ceramics adorned the numerous temples built by the kingdom of Sukhothai. Thai glazed ware later included bowls, dishes, jars, bottles, and pots made for export to other areas of Southeast Asia.

The Thai crafts of cotton and silk weaving have a long tradition of royal patronage and continue to reflect the country’s distinct national identity. In weaving centers in the north, the northeast, and parts of the south, weavers reproduce traditional Thai patterns. Other crafts include ornamental woodcarving, lacquerwork, and mother-of-pearl inlay. The country is also known for its metalwork, including intricate use of twisted and soldered metal threads to form a filigree pattern.

Music, Dance, and Theater in Thailand

Thai classical dance developed from the court music of India. Today, the movements of Thai dance and the music accompanying it remain predominantly Indian, although some of the instruments used in a Thai orchestra are unique. A typical work begins with a structured composition that evolves naturally into improvisation. The music and dance of Thailand is closely related to that of Cambodia and Laos. Themes are often drawn from the Ramakien and focus on Rama and his beautiful wife Sita.

Private and government-sponsored groups have been working to preserve Thailand’s heritage in music and dance. The premier dance troupe at Srinakharinwirot University has achieved international acclaim for its performances abroad, which have included venues in the United Kingdom, Europe, the United States, and Asia. Some dancers have received royal titles conferred by the king in recognition of their contributions.

Thailand’s traditional form of theater is khon (masked drama), which is based on ancient court rituals and depicts tales from the Ramakien. Performances involve elaborate, colorful masks and costumes and highly formalized action. Lakhon, less formal than khon, is a dance-drama involving elegant and fluid movement performed without masks. In nang yai, large, black shadow puppets made from cowhide are manipulated by dancer-puppeteers. See also Asian Theater.

Libraries and Museums in Thailand

Thailand’s three major libraries are the National Library, the library of the Siam Society (a preeminent research and scholarly organization), and the Neilson-Hays Library. All three are located in Bangkok and contain extensive collections on Southeast Asian culture.

The National Museum in Bangkok and its branches in cities throughout the country have collections representing Thai culture from the prehistoric period onwards. The branch in Bangkok occupies a group of buildings, some of which were formerly part of a royal palace. It includes artifacts from the ancient Thai capitals as well as modern crafts.

Several traditional Thai teakwood houses are now public museums. The Kamthieng House, originally from northern Thailand, is now located at the Siam Society. The Suan Pakkad Palace includes several traditional houses and a number of art collections. Vimanmek, the world’s largest golden teakwood mansion, was built during the reign (1868-1910) of King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). And the Jim Thompson House, former home of an American who contributed substantially to the development of the Thai silk industry after World War II, houses collections on Thai art and archaeology.


The recent history of Thailand’s economy is defined by more than a decade of sustained and rapid economic growth beginning in 1985, followed by a severe recession that started in late 1997. During the boom years, economic growth averaged more than 7 percent annually, one of the highest rates in the world. The crisis of 1997 and 1998 wiped out some of the gains of the boom and forced major adjustments in Thai industry and economic policy.

Many different factors contributed to the rapid growth of Thailand’s economy. Low wages, policy reforms that opened the economy more to trade, and careful economic management resulted in low inflation and a stable exchange rate. These factors encouraged domestic savings and investment and made the Thai economy an ideal host for foreign investment. Foreign and domestic investment caused manufacturing to grow rapidly, especially in labor-intensive, export-oriented industries, such as those producing clothing, footwear, electronics, and consumer appliances. These industries also benefited from a tremendous expansion in world trade during the 1980s. As industry expanded, many Thai people who previously had worked in agriculture began to work in manufacturing, slowing growth in the agriculture sector. Meanwhile, manufacturing growth spurred the expansion of service sector activities.

By 2007 Thailand’s per capita income reached $3,400, making it an upper-middle income developing economy. Although Thailand was technically still a poor country, spectacular income gains enjoyed by the urban middle class made the country one of the world’s large markets for luxury cars and other expensive consumer goods. However, by Asian standards the gains of growth were not distributed equally among the Thai population: between 1981 and 1994 the incomes of the richest 20 percent of the population grew significantly in comparison to those of the poorest 20 percent. Nevertheless, nearly all Thai benefited in some fashion from growth. The percentage of the population living in poverty fell from 23 percent in 1981 to less than 10 percent in 1994.

In the early 1990s a series of economic policy reforms introduced by the Thai government made it easy and attractive for foreign banks to offer loans to Thai banks. The Thai banks used the capital to lend money to domestic finance companies, property developers, and other investors, stimulating an investment boom. In an atmosphere of great optimism about continued rapid growth, the resulting investment boom created a “bubble economy” based on speculation in urban property and stocks. The bubble burst in 1996 and 1997, when stock and property prices declined steeply. As speculators in these sectors failed to repay loans, many Thai banks became unable to service their foreign debt, causing investor confidence to fall sharply. The consequent outflow of capital caused the Thai banking system to crash in mid-1997. The resulting credit shortage drove many companies into bankruptcy and created a large pool of unemployed workers. Thailand’s economy remained deep in recession through 1998, with gross domestic product (GDP) shrinking an estimated 8.5 percent that year. In the early 2000s Thailand made a full economic recovery, driven by strong growth in exports.

Role of Government in Thailand

Thai governments, including unelected military regimes, have in general worked to ensure price stability while promoting economic growth. Other than in some key infrastructure and energy sectors, the government has not made extensive use of direct interventions in the market. Instead, it prefers to exert influence through indirect measures, such as investment incentives and taxes on trade.

Labor in Thailand

The Thai labor force totaled 36.6 million workers in 2007. Although agriculture’s share in national income is now very small, official statistics indicate that 43 percent of the labor force is still employed in that sector, with 20 percent in industry and 37 percent in services. These statistics are likely to overstate agriculture’s true share of the labor force, as many rural Thai engage in seasonal migration, working in cities for part of the year and returning to the countryside during peak demand periods in agriculture, such as the rice harvest. Within industry, most employment is with small firms (those with less than 50 employees). Less than 10 percent of the labor force is unionized, although that figure rises to more than 20 percent in larger firms of 50 or more employees.

The economic boom of 1985 to 1996 caused massive growth in total employment, especially of unskilled and semiskilled workers. From 1990 to 1996, real wages (adjusted for inflation) rose by about 10 percent per year. The employment boom drew many Thai from rural areas to urban centers and resulted in a large influx of illegal immigrants from poorer neighboring countries, such as Laos and Myanmar.

Following the 1997 collapse of Thailand’s economy, unemployment and underemployment became serious problems, with the former peaking at nearly 3 million jobless in mid-1998. Some of the unemployed returned to rural areas, but many more remained in the cities in the hope that jobs would become available again once the economy recovered.

A longer-term issue for the Thai economy is the prevailing low educational attainment of Thai workers, as compared to their counterparts in other middle-income developing economies. Although the literacy rate is high, official figures show that only 56 percent of children of high school age are enrolled in high school.

Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing in Thailand

Agriculture was traditionally the mainstay of the Thai economy. However, along with the remarkable acceleration of economic growth in the 1980s came rapid changes in the country’s economic structure. While agricultural production increased, the economic contributions of industry and services grew faster, which decreased the relative importance of farming. Agriculture’s share of GDP fell from 23 percent in 1980 to 11 percent in 1996 as Thailand moved into the ranks of the so-called newly industrializing economies.

Thailand has 18 million hectares (44 million acres) of land under cultivation. Of this total, about 5 million hectares (12 million acres) of irrigated land produce most of the country’s major crop, rice. Other important crops include sugarcane, natural rubber, corn, soybeans, coconuts, and other tropical fruits. Agricultural exports, especially of rice, were the basis for most of Thailand’s early trade. The country is still a major exporter of rice, but its agricultural trade has diversified to include rubber, cassava, fruits, flowers, and many other products.

Much of the expansion of agriculture has taken place at the expense of forest cover, which is disappearing at a rate of 0.6 percent per year. The timber harvest in 2007 was 28 million cubic meters (1 billion cubic feet), nearly all of which was burned for fuel. Following severe flood damage caused by deforestation, the Thai government banned all commercial logging in 1989. Formerly an exporter of tropical hardwoods, Thailand now imports much of its timber from neighboring countries.

Fisheries in the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, along with inland and coastal fish farms, yielded 4.2 million metric tons of fish and shellfish in 2007, up from 1.8 million metric tons in 1980. Thailand is one of the world’s leading exporters of fish and seafood products, especially farmed shrimp.

The rapid growth of agriculture and fisheries has raised concerns about the long-term sustainability of these industries. Urbanization and the spread of irrigation have generated water shortages and spawned conflicts over water use. In dryland agriculture (farming in dry areas using methods other than irrigation), intensive cultivation has led to soil erosion and land degradation, which in turn have required farmers to increase fertilizer use in order to maintain yields. Mangrove swamps and other coastal ecosystems have been severely depleted to create fisheries, and the rapid expansion of the commercial ocean fishing fleet has reduced catches. These natural resource management issues pose major policy problems for current and future Thai governments.

Mining in Thailand

Thailand is not richly endowed in mineral resources. Chief mineral products include lignite (a form of coal), zinc ore, lead concentrates, tin, gypsum, and iron ore. However, supplies of most minerals are insufficient to satisfy the growing domestic demand. An exception is gemstones, which form the basis of an export-oriented jewelry industry.

Manufacturing in Thailand

Manufacturing has led Thailand’s economic growth. Manufacturing output grew at 10 percent annually during the 1980s and early 1990s, much faster than the economy as a whole. As a result, the manufacturing share of GDP rose from 22 percent in 1980 to 35 percent in 2007. While all industries grew, expansion was most rapid among manufacturers of labor-intensive products, such as clothing, footwear, and consumer appliances. Industrial production diversified considerably, spurred by foreign investment, new technologies, and the growth of domestic and export markets. Major industries include food processing, textiles and clothing, electronics, motor vehicles and parts, cement, petroleum, plastics, and chemical products.

Services and Tourism of Thailand

Thailand’s rapid growth transformed the services sector. This sector, which includes housing, restaurant and hotel services, personal services, wholesale and retail trade, and many other related activities, grew very quickly in response to increased demand, especially from the expanding urban population in and around Bangkok. The service share of GDP was 45 percent in 2007. The sector has shifted from low-skilled jobs to formal, high-skilled jobs in banking, finance, management, and trade.

Tourism is a major industry within Thailand’s services sector, with 14.5 million tourists visiting the country in 2007. Revenues from tourism make up the largest single component of Thailand’s export earnings. Popular tourist destinations include Bangkok and the country’s beach resorts.

Energy in Thailand

In 2006 Thailand produced 130.7 billion kilowatt-hours (kwh) of electricity, up from about 3 billion kwh in 1968. Of this, 92 percent was produced by generating plants powered by oil, gas, and coal. Thailand is heavily dependent on imported fossil fuels and electricity to meet its energy demands. The country imports electricity from hydroelectric plants in neighboring Laos, and natural gas along a pipeline from Myanmar.

Transportation in Thailand

Thailand has an extensive network of inland waterways, based on the Chao Phraya River and linking the agricultural heartland of central Thailand to Klong Toey Port in Bangkok. These waterways provided the major mode of transport until just a few decades ago and are still widely used to ship bulky products, such as rice and oil. Ferries on Bangkok’s extensive system of canals (khlongs) serve thousands of commuters every day.

Thailand’s railway system, established a century ago, consists of 4,071 km (2,530 mi) of track. It links Bangkok to the northern city of Chiang Mai as well as to the country’s western, northeastern, and southern extremities. The country has 57,400 km (35,700 mi) of roads and highways. Major improvements to the road system, begun in the 1970s, have brought all but the most remote communities within relatively easy reach of markets and services.

In September 2006 the Suvarnabhumi Airport opened in Bangkok to replace the overloaded Don Muang International Airport. The new international airport ranked as one of the largest in Asia. Smaller domestic airports are located throughout the country.

Communications in Thailand

Thailand has a thriving newspaper industry, in large part due to the 1991 repeal of a press censorship law. Network television is largely controlled by corporations owned either by the government or by institutions such as the military. Satellite technology has helped television reach almost every town and village. In 1997 Thailand had 234 radio receivers and 281 television sets for every 1,000 residents. Although there are only 110 fixed telephone lines per 1,000 people, the rapid spread of cellular telephones has facilitated personal communications in all parts of the country. In 2004 there were 430 mobile phones per 1,000 people. That year there were 58 personal computers per 1,000 people.

Foreign Trade in Thailand

Thailand’s economy is closely linked to world markets through trade, as well as through investment and other capital flows. The composition of trade has shifted dramatically toward manufactures; between 1980 and 2006 manufactures as a percentage of total exports increased from 25 percent to 74 percent. In 2007 Thailand’s exports earned $153 billion, while the cost of imports totaled $141 billion.

Thailand’s economy is highly vulnerable to fluctuations in world prices of its major imports, such as oil. On the other hand, it has successfully taken advantage of growth in world demand for many of its exports, including seafood products, clothing and textiles, and electronics. The United States and Japan are Thailand’s largest trading partners. The establishment of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Free Trade Area in 2002 substantially increased Thailand’s trade with other Asian economies.

Currency, Banking, and Foreign Capital Flows in Thailand

Thailand’s basic unit of currency is the baht. The central bank is the Bank of Thailand (established in 1942), which issues the currency. Until 1997 the Thai banking system combined private and publicly owned banks, with limited participation by foreign banks.

In the late 1980s economic policy reforms greatly facilitated foreign purchases of Thai stocks and bonds as well as international borrowing by Thai banks. Whereas private foreign capital flows had previously consisted mainly of direct investments in factories and equipment, by the early 1990s the major source of foreign capital was short-term loans to Thai banks. The boom in capital inflows placed great stresses not only on the private banking system (to which most foreign loans flowed) but also on the capacity of the Bank of Thailand to monitor and regulate the financial sector. These institutional weaknesses formed fault lines along which the Thai financial economy fragmented when capital inflows abruptly reversed in 1997.

Beginning in the mid-1980s the baht’s exchange rate with the United States dollar was fixed at approximately 25 baht to U.S.$1. However, the 1997 capital outflow forced the abandonment of the fixed rate. Allowed to float, the baht fell as low as 60 to the dollar before stabilizing at around 36 by late 1998. The 1997 crisis also led to a number of reforms in banking and finance. Restrictions on foreign ownership of Thai banks, property, and corporations were relaxed, and measures were passed to improve the structure of the banking sector and the transparency and efficiency of financial transactions.


Thailand was ruled by an absolute monarchy from 1782 until 1932, when a small group of rebels seized control of the country and persuaded the king to accept the introduction of a constitutional monarchy. The country’s first constitution called for a government headed by a legislature (the National Assembly), with the king maintaining an advisory role as head of state. When the king sought to dissolve the new legislature the following year, the army moved to prevent him, thus becoming the dominant political force in the country. For most of the next half century, Thailand was under the control of various military governments.

In 1997 Thailand’s 16th constitution took effect. It was the country’s first constitution to be drafted by a process involving public debate, and the first to include a bill of rights guaranteeing equality and basic human rights to all citizens. The constitution was intended to move the center of power away from the military and bureaucracy and toward the elected members of the legislature. It contained guarantees for social welfare and environmental protection and required the government to report its activities. Following a military coup in September 2006, the 1997 constitution was rescinded. The military government drafted a new constitution, which voters approved by referendum in August 2007.

Thailand is a unitary state, in which the authority of the central government is superior to that of the country’s provincial and municipal governments. However, in recent years pressure has increased for more devolution of power to the provinces and municipalities. All citizens age 18 and older are eligible to vote.

Executive of Thailand

The king is Thailand’s head of state and the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. Although the king has little direct power, he may exercise considerable influence on political leaders and moral influence on society as a whole. Since 1946 the king of Thailand has been Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX.

The country’s chief executive official is the prime minister. The prime minister is designated from among the members of the House of Representatives and is usually the leader of the dominant party following elections. The king formally appoints the prime minister. The prime minister heads the cabinet, which consists of no more than 35 members. Under the 2007 constitution the prime minister is limited to two four-year terms in office.

Legislature of Thailand

Legislative power in Thailand is vested in a bicameral (two-chamber) National Assembly (Ratha Sapha), consisting of a House of Representatives (Sapha Poothaen Rassadorn) and a Senate (Woothi Sapha). The House of Representatives has 480 members; 400 of them are elected from single-member constituencies (geographical areas that each have one representative) and the remaining 80 are elected through a party-list system. House members are elected to four-year terms, but these terms can be cut short if the king decides to dissolve the legislature and call for new elections. The Senate has 150 members, 76 of whom are directly elected from districts corresponding to Thailand’s provinces and 74 of whom are selected by a committee. Most provinces have a single representative in the Senate, but the larger ones have additional representatives. The elected members of the Senate serve six-year terms, and the appointed senators serve three-year terms.

Judiciary in Thailand

Thai citizens are guaranteed due process and equal justice under the law. At the top of the court system is the San Dika (Supreme Court), located in Bangkok. It serves as a court of final appeal in all civil, criminal, and bankruptcy cases. Below the San Dika is the San Uthon (Court of Appeal), which has appellate jurisdiction in all cases. Courts of first instance include magistrates’ courts, provincial courts, and courts with exclusive jurisdiction in Bangkok and its immediate environs. The 1997 constitution recognized, and increased the independence of, the judiciary. As part of the country’s reforms to enhance the rights and freedoms of the Thai people, a royal decree created the 15-member Constitutional Court in 1998. This court makes final and binding decisions in cases involving constitutional issues, and it may recommend amendments to the constitution.

Local Government of Thailand

Thailand is divided into 76 provinces (changwat), each headed by a governor. Except for the governor of Bangkok, who is elected by popular vote, the provincial governors are appointed by the minister of the interior. The provinces are divided into 744 districts (amphoe), headed by appointed district officers. Municipalities are governed by elected and appointed officials, while elected heads hold power at the village level.

Political Parties of Thailand

Thailand’s political parties were severely restricted for several decades following the 1932 change of government but have multiplied since that time. Many parties serve as the personal political machines of individuals or small groups, and few represent defined ideologies. The populist Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party, founded in 1998 by businessman (later prime minister) Thaksin Shinawatra, was ordered to be disbanded by the Constitutional Court in May 2007 for breaking electoral laws in the April 2006 election campaign for parliament. Former members of the Thai Rak Thai party regrouped to form the new People Power Party (PPP), which won the 2007 elections. However, the PPP was disbanded by a court ruling in December 2008 that found the party engaged in fraud during the 2007 elections. Other prominent parties include the Prachatipat (Democrat) Party, founded in 1945 as a royalist party, and the Chart Thai (Thai Nation) Party of former prime minister Banharn Silpa-archa.

Social Services in Thailand

Thailand has an extensive network of public health facilities down to at least the district level, and an expansion of medical education has increased the number of doctors. The average life expectancy in Thailand (73.1 years as of 2009) is high by world standards. Basic medical care is heavily subsidized by the government. Medical services have been strained by the spread of acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes the disease. The World Health Organization estimated that the number of HIV-infected people in Thailand was about 600,000 in 2007, with 236,000 new cases reported annually. The country’s AIDS-prevention campaign, launched in 1991, was among the first in Southeast Asia. Thailand does not have unemployment insurance, disability provisions, or retirement benefits.

Defense of Thailand

Military service is compulsory for two years for all able-bodied men between the ages of 21 and 30. In 2006 the armed forces included an army of 190,000 members, a navy of 70,600, and an air force of 46,000. Beginning in the early 1990s, the proportion of GDP spent on the military was reduced substantially. In 2003 military expenditures totaled 1.3 percent of GDP.

International Organizations in Thailand

Thailand joined the United Nations (UN) in 1946 and has been an active member of the organization. The country also belongs to a number of UN agencies, including the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), and the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific. Thailand is a member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which plays a central role in the country’s foreign policy. Thailand became a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995.


Although Thailand only recently took its current name and assumed its present-day borders, its history extends back many thousands of years. One of the pervasive themes of the country’s history has been the ability of its inhabitants to adapt to, and accommodate, the changes that have constantly surrounded them.

Early History in Thailand

It is natural to think that the history of Thailand is the history of the Thai people, but in fact it is much more than that. The Thai were relative latecomers on the scene, becoming the majority of the region’s population only 700 or 800 years ago. The lands now included in Thailand have been inhabited for 4,000 or 5,000 years. Even long ago, people of the region were adept at adopting new technologies and absorbing new populations.

The society and economy of Thailand’s earliest inhabitants, in prehistoric times, went through a long evolution. As is demonstrated by archaeological discoveries at Ban Chiang and other sites, these early peoples were among the first in the world to make and use bronze tools and weapons, to which they later added iron. They domesticated pigs and chickens, cultivated rice and caught fish, and produced fabrics from bark and fibrous plants. They lived in small villages scattered over a broad area.

In early historic times, the peoples living in what is now central Thailand probably spoke Mon-Khmer languages (a group of languages of the Austro-Asiatic language family) and were absorbed into a number of local states that developed in the area. Especially between the 6th and 9th centuries, the kingdom of Dvaravati dominated the central plain of the Chao Phraya River system and the Khorat Plateau to its east. The most enduring legacy of this period was Theravada Buddhism, which was strongly influenced by the Buddhism of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). Many of the region’s inhabitants embraced Buddhism. Many also were exposed regularly to foreign trade by traders passing through the region when traveling between China and India by sea.

Between the 9th and 13th centuries the central plain and the Khorat Plateau were incorporated into the Khmer (Cambodian) kingdom of Angkor, centered on the ancient city of Angkor in what is now western Cambodia. This added a Khmer element to a population that already included indigenous and Dvaravati elements.

The Thai people began to incorporate themselves into this mixture of peoples from the 10th or 11th century onwards. The Thai had been moving steadily southwestward from the border region between Vietnam and China, usually occupying the mountainous areas between major lowland states. They may have founded tiny upland principalities in the upper Mekong River region near present-day Chiang Saen as early as the 7th century. However, only in the early 13th century did they suddenly burst upon the scene in the Dvaravati and Angkor domains.

Sukhothai and Ayutthaya

Beginning in about 1220 a number of states, most of them Buddhist, arose in the region. In general, the southernmost states tended to assimilate the broadest range of cultures and languages, while those to the north tended to be more heavily Thai. By the end of the 1200s the most important such states were Sukhothai, Phayao, Chiang Mai, and Nakhon Si Thammarat. Of these, Sukhothai was the largest. Under King Ramkhamhaeng, who ruled in the late 1200s, Sukhothai prospered, gaining tributary territories that extended the kingdom’s territory to the Andaman Sea to the west, into present-day Laos to the east, and to the southern Malay Peninsula to the south. The acquisitions were opposed by the kingdom of Angkor, whose western outpost at Lopburi (the preeminent Khmer city of the central plain) contested control of the Chao Phraya valley and seaborne international trade.

The Thai people continued moving southward onto the central plain. This movement brought about the establishment of a new center of Thai power, the kingdom of Ayutthaya, founded by King Ramathibodi I in 1351. Ayutthaya was on an island in the Chao Phraya, located at a point reachable by seagoing vessels. Thus the kingdom was visited regularly by trading ships from Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, China, India, and Persia. International trade was a significant source of Ayutthaya’s strength, but so was its relative cosmopolitanism—the fact that its people were so varied and their skills and outlooks so diverse.

The first century of Ayutthaya’s existence was filled with warfare, which culminated in its defeat of its main rivals, Angkor (in 1434) and Sukhothai (in 1438). When Ayutthaya’s next ruler, King Borommatrailokanat, or Trailok, came to the throne in 1448, he focused his efforts on reforming the kingdom’s laws and strengthening his administration. Trailok also extended the wars of conquest farther afield, beginning a long series of wars with the kingdom of Lan Na, centered on Chiang Mai in the far north.

The Burmese kingdom (present-day Myanmar) conquered Ayutthaya in 1569 after virtually annexing Lan Na in 1558, inaugurating a period of warfare that persisted throughout the century. Ayutthaya did not reestablish its independence until the 1590s, under the great warrior king Naresuan. Naresuan and subsequent kings worked to strengthen the state by further developing its international trade with the Dutch East India Company, the English East India Company, and, somewhat later, with China. Meanwhile, Ayutthaya increasingly became known to visitors as Siam.

In the mid-1700s the Burmese monarchy under King Alaunghpaya began another period of expansion, turning again to the south. In 1760 Burma launched an invasion against Ayutthaya. The military effort lasted until 1767, when the Thai capital finally fell following a two-year siege that resulted in many deaths and widespread famine and destruction.

The Burmese might have remained to colonize Siam, but a series of Chinese invasions of Burma forced them to beat a hasty retreat. In the immediate aftermath of Ayutthaya’s fall, a competition ensued for the Siamese throne. The prize fell to a former governor who came to be known as Taksin. Taksin was an excellent general who had fled Ayutthaya to the southeast and built up an army. After defeating his kingly rivals, he abandoned the ruined Ayutthaya and established a new capital farther south at Thon Buri, on the western shore of the Chao Phraya. Taksin sent his forces far afield, south along the Malay Peninsula, east to Cambodia and Laos, and north against Lan Na. In the last years of his reign, Taksin’s successes went to his head. He became arbitrary and dictatorial, even requiring Buddhist monks to pay homage to him. Such actions infuriated Taksin’s contemporaries, who deposed him and brought to the throne his chief general, known as the Chakri (in reference to his function) or as Chaophraya Mahakasatsuk (his title, meaning “Great King of Warfare”). This marked the beginning of the Chakri dynasty, which continues to rule the Thai state.

Early Years of the Chakri Dynasty

The Chakri took the throne as King Rama I (Phraphutthayotfa) in 1782. It was natural that at a time of ongoing, bitter warfare with Burma, an exceptionally able general should have been chosen as king. However, Rama I was much more than that. He was highly intelligent and a natural leader. He also was related by blood or marriage to all the leading families of the kingdom and thus had strong connections with Thai trading interests, including China and India.

The new king moved the capital across the river to the eastern shore because the main Burmese military threat to the Thai came from the west. The new capital came to bear the name of the village it supplanted (Bang Kok, or Bangkok), although the Thai state continued to be known abroad as Siam.

Rama I was not free of the Burmese threat until 1805; nevertheless, he devoted effort to laying the foundations for a modern kingdom. He undertook fundamental legal and administrative reforms as well as extensive cultural, religious, and artistic activities. When his son succeeded him as King Rama II (Phraphutthaloetla) in 1809, the Thai kingdom was stronger and more extensive than ever, encompassing all of present-day Laos as well as portions of northeastern Burma, western Cambodia, and the northern Malay Peninsula.

Rama II died in 1824, and one of his sons succeeded him as King Rama III (Nangklao). By this time, the world seemed a more threatening place to the Thai. The British were beginning their colonial involvement in the Malay Peninsula and entering into war with Burma. Rama III faced increasing pressure from the British to open up Siam’s trade. Following the British victory over Burma in 1826, the Thai government agreed to sign a treaty with Britain that allowed British merchants some trade concessions in Siam. The Thai signed a similar treaty with the United States in 1833.

In the 1830s and 1840s Siam went to war with the Vietnamese over Cambodia and Laos, emerging with its dominant position grudgingly recognized. As the end of Rama III’s reign approached around 1850, Siam faced a renewed threat from the West. Both Britain and the United States sent missions to Siam demanding free trade, extraterritorial rights (which allowed the people of these foreign nations to live in Siam under the laws of their own countries), and other reforms. The royal court refused the demands quietly, explaining that progressives in the Thai government could not afford to appear too lenient with the West. However, the foreigners were encouraged to return once the progressives had managed the accession of a new king who would be more receptive to concessions.

Colonialism Averted

The new monarch was King Mongkut (Rama IV), the younger son of Rama II, who assumed the throne in 1851. Mongkut had spent 27 years as a Buddhist monk and had used the time in intellectual pursuits, learning Western languages and science. He was well acquainted with the few British and Americans in Bangkok and had much more experience of the lives of common people than had any of his predecessors. Mongkut and his son Chulalongkorn (Rama V), who reigned from 1868 to 1910, are given much credit for Siam’s conciliation of the West during the next half-century. While this is justified, much credit also is due to their ministers. Together they blunted the force of Western imperialism, which swept over much of the rest of the world during this period. In 1855 Siam signed the Bowring Treaty, which yielded free trade, extraterritorial rights, and some special privileges to Britain. The treaty served as a model for subsequent treaties with the United States, France, Japan, and many other nations. These treaties were known as unequal treaties because they placed Thailand in a subordinate diplomatic position. However, by upholding these treaties, avoiding offending the imperial powers, and playing those powers against one another, Siam managed to secure its own independence while working to earn the respect of the West.

As modern as King Mongkut might have been in the eyes of the West, he undertook no fundamental reforms during his reign. Such reforms would have been bitterly resisted by Siam’s entrenched noble and bureaucratic families. His successor, Chulalongkorn, was unable to undertake real reform until the leading members of the old families began to retire from public life in the 1880s.

Cambodia had come under French control in 1863, and in 1885 France completed its conquest of Vietnam. Britain took the last remaining portion of Burma the same year. When in 1893 Siam mounted a resistance against French troops sent to Laos to press Vietnam’s claims there, France sent gunboats to Bangkok. The Thai capitulated and had to yield to France their sovereignty over Laos and also pay a large indemnity. Most of Laos then became part of French Indochina, France’s colony in the region. France gained additional territories in Laos and Cambodia from Siam by treaty in 1904 and 1907. In 1909 Siam ceded to Britain the four northern Malay states (Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu), while the British agreed to assist in financing a Bangkok-Singapore rail line and to yield some of their extraterritorial rights.

Meanwhile, between about 1890 and 1910 Chulalongkorn’s government launched a major administrative reform, establishing virtually all of Siam’s modern government. The existing departments were reorganized into twelve ministries, including ministries of war (for a new army), justice, education, interior (for administration of the countryside), and public works, as well as specialized departments for such things as postal services, railroads, and hospitals. Chulalongkorn also established new, modern schools and encouraged study abroad. The kingdom’s new administration made tax collection possible. The government used the tax revenues to finance reforms and to create jobs for the many modern educated people emerging from the kingdom’s new schools.

In 1910 Chulalongkorn was succeeded by his son Vajiravudh (Rama VI), who had been educated in England. King Vajiravudh was an active proponent of the idea of the nation, and he popularized the idea of sacrificing, and even dying, for Siam. In July 1917 he entered Siam in World War I on the side of the Allies, winning for the kingdom a seat at the Versailles peace conference. Vajiravudh hoped to gain a sympathetic hearing for Siam’s wishes to end extraterritoriality. His strategy worked, and in the early 1920s the Western nations and Japan agreed to end their unequal treaties with Siam as soon as Siam completed modernizing its laws and courts.

But King Vajiravudh wastefully spent the nation’s budget on his favorites and on personal pursuits, forcing his younger brother and successor, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII), to institute a massive cutback of expenses. The worldwide economic slump known as the Great Depression, which hit Siam by 1930, intensified the country’s financial troubles. Although Prajadhipok favored modest democratization, he was overruled repeatedly by his elderly uncles. Dissatisfaction grew within the kingdom, especially among young Siamese educated abroad who objected to the tight political control maintained by their country’s rulers.

The Revolt of 1932 and Its Aftermath

On June 24, 1932, a small revolutionary group, including European-educated civilians and discontented army officers, overthrew the absolute monarchy in a bloodless coup. The leaders of the coup and their associates—a group that became known as the Promoters—persuaded the king to accept the introduction of a constitutional monarchy. However, they argued that the country was not yet ready for true democratic government and thus kept the army in control. The Promoters were divided into leftist and rightist factions. In 1933 Pridi Phanomyong, the most influential civilian Promoter and an intellectual who had been influenced by French socialism, proposed an economic plan with an emphasis on nationalization of land and elimination of private trade. The rightist factions denounced the plan as communist. They were supported by monarchists, who mounted a rebellion against the new regime that year. The monarchist forces were soon overcome, and in 1935 King Prajadhipok abdicated in favor of his young nephew, Prince Ananda Mahidol. The prince was, at the time, studying in Europe, so a regency was appointed to carry out the functions of the monarchy until he returned.

The 1930s brought about a more strident and assertive Thai nationalism, an increased role for the military in national life, and a sharp decline in the role of the monarchy and of royalty in general. By 1937 the unequal treaties and extraterritorial rights of the imperialist era had finally been eliminated, and the Thai government obtained complete autonomy over its internal and external affairs. During this period, public education improved dramatically, and industrialization and urbanization grew.

In 1938 Siam came under the prime ministership of Phibun Songkhram, a field marshal who had helped lead the revolt of 1932. In 1939 Phibun changed the name of the country from Siam to Thailand in an effort to popularize the idea of its leadership of all speakers of the Tai languages, not just those inhabiting Siam’s narrow bounds. In changing the country’s name, Phibun also wished to emphasize Thai identity and distinctiveness against the country’s Chinese minority, which by this time amounted to more than 10 percent of the population.

World War II

In 1940 Thailand fought a brief war with French Indochina, which had become cut off from France as a result of World War II. With Japanese mediation, the Thai government regained the territories in Laos and Cambodia that had been ceded to France in 1904 and 1907. On December 8, 1941, Japanese troops landed on Thailand’s southern coast. This was around the same time that the Japanese launched attacks on Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guam, Manila, Hong Kong, and other sites. After tense meetings with the Japanese and his cabinet, Phibun agreed to allow the Japanese to move their troops through Thailand to invade and occupy the British-controlled Malay Peninsula, Singapore, and Burma. In January 1942 Thailand declared war against Britain and the United States. In 1943 Japan rewarded the Phibun government for its cooperation with the Japanese by awarding Thailand part of the territory that had been incorporated into British Burma in 1885 and the four Malay states that Siam had been forced to cede in 1909.

Meanwhile, considerable anti-Japanese sentiment was developing in Thailand. With aid from the United States government, Pridi and M. R. Seni Pramoj, the wartime Thai ambassador to the United States, organized the underground Free Thai Movement to agitate against Japanese influence. In July 1944, as the war began to turn against Japan, Phibun was forced from office, and Khuang Aphaiwong, a civilian, took over as prime minister. Pridi continued to be a major power behind the scenes. When the war suddenly ended in August 1945, M. R. Seni Pramoj returned to become prime minister. He faced not only chaos and the disruption caused by nearly four years of Japanese presence but also extensive demands by European nations that threatened to turn Thailand into a Western colony. With strong American support, Thailand successfully resisted these pressures. However, the Thai government did restore to Britain and France the territories in Indochina, Burma, and the Malay Peninsula that it had gained during the war. After doing so, Thailand was admitted to the United Nations (UN) in December 1946.

In June 1946 King Ananda died under mysterious circumstances, an event for which many irrationally blamed Pridi and others seen as opposing the monarchy. Ananda’s younger brother succeeded to the throne as King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), but a regency council ruled until 1951 while Bhumibol completed his studies abroad.

Domestic Instability

The Thai government faced significant challenges in the immediate postwar period, including rampant inflation and shortages, widespread corruption, and inexperience among civilian officials. These conditions paved the way for a return to military rule, and in November 1947 a group of military officers seized the government. The new military regime was presided over by Phibun as prime minister.

Phibun’s government, like the military regimes that followed it, made close relations with the United States and other Western nations central to its foreign policy. The government sent a small force to assist UN forces in the Korean War in 1950 and accepted massive U.S. military aid, which further strengthened military rule.

Thai representatives took part in the Geneva Conference of 1954, which temporarily ended the First Indochina War (see Geneva Accords). Later that year, Thailand became a founding member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which established its headquarters in Bangkok. This alliance formed to provide defense and economic cooperation in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific.

Increasingly shunted aside by his military lieutenants, Phibun attempted to win popularity and legitimacy by staging elections in 1957. However, the widespread accusations of corruption and ballot stuffing that followed the elections served to further discredit the government. When Phibun and his interior minister Phao Sriyanond attempted to defend their beleaguered regime, General Sarit Thanarat, backed by considerable popular support, staged a military coup that ended Phibun’s rule. Sarit temporarily went abroad to seek medical attention, handing power over in early 1958 to a coalition government headed by his deputy, lieutenant-general Thanom Kittikachorn. In October Sarit returned to stage yet another military coup. He suspended the constitution, declared martial law, and banned all political parties. Sarit declared his intention to carry out a new “revolution” in Thai society, restoring authority and discipline through measures such as improved public education and rural development.

Both Sarit and Thanom (who became prime minister following Sarit’s death in 1963) were alarmed by growing unrest and insurgency—mainly motivated by poverty—in rural Thailand, especially in the impoverished northeast and the south. Even more worrisome to them was the decline of pro-Western regimes in Cambodia and Laos, territories the Thai military considered natural wards of Thailand. The military believed these territories had to be saved from the Communism that was threatening to overcome Indochina with the Vietnam War, which had begun in 1959. This war pitted the Communist North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (a Vietnamese nationalist group based in South Vietnam) against the South Vietnamese, who were eventually assisted by the United States.

The Vietnam War

During the 1960s Thailand increasingly was drawn into the conflict in Indochina. The Thai government sent a military contingent to fight in South Vietnam, lent considerable covert military support to right-wing forces in Laos, and established Thailand as a major air power base. Numerous military bases were built in Thailand to house U.S. military contingents. New roads, improved railroad service, and telecommunications linked the bases. All of Thailand, but especially Bangkok, benefited economically from the heightened activity the war produced. See also Vietnam War.

Thailand’s increasing involvement in Indochina stimulated Vietnamese and Chinese Communists to support rebellion among rural Thai, which engulfed most of Thailand’s outer provinces in the 1960s. As direct American involvement in Vietnam began to diminish beginning in about 1969, Thailand was left with considerable involvement in Indochina (especially in Laos) as well as persistent internal problems.

Struggle for Democracy

As a result of improved education and heightened prosperity among the Thai people, as well as frustration with governmental corruption and inefficiency, the country’s military rulers came under increasing political pressure by the late 1960s. Thanom’s government took gradual steps to restore the political rights suspended in 1958. Elections to municipal councils were held for the first time in a decade in 1967, and a new constitution was promulgated in 1968. In 1969 Thailand held legislative elections. The United Thai People’s Party won a plurality of 75 seats in the House of Representatives, while the largest opposition group, the Democrat Party, won 56 seats.

As the United States gradually decreased its military involvement in Vietnam and moved to establish friendly relations with Communist China, Thailand sought to establish a more flexible foreign policy, especially toward China and North Vietnam. Meanwhile, the United States withdrew from Southeast Asia, contributing to a decline of the Thai economy, and opposition to Thanom’s government increased in the outer provinces and in Bangkok. The government responded by reestablishing military rule in 1971, abolishing the constitution, and dissolving the legislature.

In 1973 a series of student-led demonstrations against the military government resulted in Thanom’s resignation and the appointment of a civilian cabinet. A new constitution was approved in late 1974, and a new government was freely elected in early 1975. Stability remained elusive, however, and elections in 1976 made little difference. Thailand became deeply polarized between liberals and conservatives, especially after Communist regimes took power throughout Indochina in 1975 and the monarchy was abolished in Laos. When Thanom returned from exile abroad in mid-1976, demonstrations grew into bloody battles on the streets of Bangkok between leftist students and Thanom’s right-wing supporters. In October the Thai military and police launched a bloody assault on students demonstrating at Thammasat University. As disorder spread, a military group led by Admiral Sa-ngad Chaloryu seized control of the country and installed a civilian and former Supreme Court judge, Thanin Kraivixien, as head of a conservative government.

Thanin’s government proved to be more authoritarian than even the most repressive of the country’s military regimes. In October 1977 he was overthrown by Sa-ngad and his group and replaced by General Kriangsak Chomanand. The many students who had fled Bangkok slowly began drifting back to a society that was slowly righting itself.

The military maintained tight reins on the government until a new constitution was promulgated (December 1978), elections were held (April 1979), and military leaders were sufficiently satisfied with the new order. The military then allowed the installation of a new cabinet headed by General Prem Tinsulanonda as prime minister. Elections in 1983 confirmed Prem as head of a new coalition government, and he was reelected in 1986. General Chatichai Choonhavan replaced Prem following elections in 1988, but in 1991 the military overthrew Chatichai and installed their own interim coalition government. When the military manipulated 1992 elections to guarantee a victory, demonstrations broke out in Bangkok calling for democratic reforms. The protests were violently suppressed. Thailand’s king then intervened, ending military rule and installing another interim prime minister, Anand Panyarachun.

Civilian Governments

In September 1992 new elections brought a genuinely civilian government to power under prime minister Chuan Leekpai, leader of the Prachatipat (Democrat) Party. Chuan began the process of writing an entirely new and more democratic constitution for Thailand, which was completed in 1997. He also presided over a period of economic boom during which Thailand experienced one of the highest economic growth rates in the world.

Chuan’s government collapsed in 1995 following accusations of corruption. He was succeeded by Banharn Silpa-archa, leader of the Chart Thai (Thai Nation) Party. However, Banharn’s government was soon accused of corruption and other wrongdoing, and he resigned from office in 1996. Chavalit Yongchaiyudh’s New Aspiration Party won September 1996 elections, and Chavalit became the new prime minister.

In mid-1997 Thailand’s economy experienced a significant setback as the Thai currency fell sharply against the U.S. dollar. Many businesses and financial institutions failed, and unemployment rose sharply. The crisis then spread, affecting the economies of other Asian nations. To control and contain the situation, the International Monetary Fund stepped in with a package of loans, in return for which Thailand accepted measures intended to restore its economy to health. By late 1998 the exchange rate had improved.

Thailand’s economic crisis spawned a number of related problems, including urban unemployment, a widening gap between rich and poor, and a decline in social services. The crisis made it difficult for the government to fund adequate educational reform and to care for the country’s considerable population of AIDS and HIV patients. A test of Thailand’s strength in the years to come will be its ability to restore its own self-confidence and surmount these and other challenges.

In November 1997, meanwhile, Chavalit resigned as prime minister in the face of criticism for his economic policies. Chuan Leekpai was appointed to the post a second time. The January 2001 general elections were the first to be held under the reformist 1997 constitution, which created the Election Commission to monitor elections for vote fraud. The Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thais) Party of telecommunications tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra won by a landslide on a populist platform, promising economic initiatives to benefit small businesses and farmers. Thai Rak Thai entered a three-party coalition controlling 325 of 500 seats in the House of Representatives, and Thaksin secured a parliamentary mandate to become prime minister. His party then merged with the New Aspiration Party (NAP) and the Seritham (Liberal Democratic) Party to gain 50 additional seats, making it the first governing party in the country’s history to secure a simple majority.

Thaksin led Thai Rak Thai to another landslide victory in the February 2005 parliamentary elections, taking 377 seats. It was the first time a Thai prime minister had completed a full term in office without having to call early elections. Forming the relatively powerless political opposition in the legislature were the Democrat Party, with 96 seats; the Chart Thai party, with 25 seats; and the Mahachon Party, with 2 seats. Thaksin was appointed to a second term as prime minister and formed Thailand’s first democratically elected single-party government.

Tsunami Disaster of 2004

On December 26, 2004, the world’s most powerful earthquake in 40 years struck deep under the Indian Ocean. The magnitude 9.0 earthquake was centered off the northwestern coast of the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The earthquake triggered a tsunami (massive waves), which crashed into the coasts of 14 countries from Southeast Asia to the eastern coast of Africa. The western coast of Thailand, about 480 km (about 300 mi) from the quake’s epicenter, was hit by huge wave surges within two hours. Thailand’s many offshore islands, such as the popular tourist resorts of Ko Phuket and Ko Phi Phi Le, were hit during their busy holiday season. In the absence of a tsunami early warning system in the Indian Ocean region, coastal communities received no warning of the impending disaster.

The tsunami was the deadliest in recorded history. The International Committee of the Red Cross reported a death toll of more than 250,000 people as a result of the tsunami and the earthquake. Indonesia, nearest the epicenter of the quake, suffered the largest loss of life. Thailand, Sri Lanka, and India reported high death tolls from the tsunami. Thai officials estimated that about half of the more than 5,000 people known to have died in the country were foreigners, most of them vacationers from Europe.

The tsunami destroyed entire coastal communities in the stricken countries. Millions of survivors were left in desperate need of food, water, shelter, and medical care. A number of countries and international humanitarian organizations responded to the widespread devastation with one of the largest relief efforts in modern history.

Military Coup

Thailand entered a period of political crisis in early 2006. After the Thaksin family sold a 49.6 percent stake in the telecommunications firm that it controlled, opposition forces renewed charges that Thaksin had used his political position to bolster his fortune. In response to charges of corruption and abuse of power, Thaksin dissolved parliament and called for new elections to win a show of confidence.

Three opposition parties boycotted the April election, which Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party won with more than 50 percent of the vote. The large protest vote combined with the opposition boycott led Thaksin to announce his resignation the day after the election. He handed over power to a deputy prime minister, the April elections were annulled, and new elections were scheduled. Thaksin returned to work as caretaker prime minister in May. In September, while Thaksin was out of the country attending a session of the UN General Assembly in New York City, a military coup was staged. A “Democratic Reform Council” was formed, headed by General Sonthi Boonyaratkalin, leader of the coup. The 1997 constitution was rescinded, and the council appointed retired army chief General Surayud Chulanont as interim prime minister until new elections could be held.

In May 2007 the Constitutional Court ruled that Thai Rak Thai had violated electoral laws in the April 2006 election and ordered that the party be disbanded. Earlier the court had acquitted the Democrat Party, finding that it had not violated election laws. In disbanding Thai Rak Thai, the court also ruled that more than 100 Thai Rak Thai officials, including Thaksin, could not participate in politics for five years. That would prevent them from running in elections that the military government promised to hold by the end of 2007.

The military leaders made the holding of elections contingent on the approval of a new constitution, which they claimed was needed to curb executive power. In August 2007 nearly 58 percent of voters approved a referendum on a new constitution drafted by a military-appointed panel. Among other changes from the 1997 constitution, the new charter imposed a two-term limit on future prime ministers and made it easier to impeach them.

Return to Civilian Rule

Elections to choose a new civilian government were held as promised in December 2007. The People Power Party (PPP), a new party formed by former members of the dissolved Thai Rak Thai, won the largest share of the vote and formed a governing coalition with five smaller parties. PPP leader Samak Sundaravej, a veteran politician and supporter of Thaksin, became the new prime minister of Thailand. However, in September 2008 Samak was removed from office by a judicial ruling that found he had violated the constitution in accepting payments for appearing on a television cooking show. Citing the new constitution’s safeguards against corruption, the court found that the payments represented a conflict of interest. Samak was succeeded by Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law and a former judge and government official. Somchai’s close ties to Thaksin sparked protests from an opposition group known as the People’s Alliance for Democracy.

The protests escalated and resulted in a weeklong blockade that closed Bangkok’s two airports. The military refused to obey the government’s orders to crack down on the protests. In early December 2008 a court disbanded the PPP, ruling that it engaged in fraud during the 2007 election. In late December 2008 Thaksin’s supporters finally lost their grip on power as a coalition of opposition parties successfully formed a new government. The leader of the Democrat Party, Abhisit Vejjajiva, was selected as the new prime minister. A special election (by-election) scheduled for January 2009, however, threatened to undermine the new coalition.

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