History, Culture, Situation
This website focuses mainly on working and living in current times in Thailand, and covering the history of Thailand in a significant way would be a huge undertaking and duplicate other sources, so all I would attempt here is a nutshell summary from my viewpoint. I have read a lot of scholarly work (and also writings of some bloggers and amateurs who apparently haven't read much scholarly work...) on Thailand's recent and distant past, so it's not as if I don't know; it's just what's appropriate for the focus of this website and its readership. There are reams of scholarly works on the history of Thailand, but this website must streamline it for modern purposes.
Thailand is an unusual country in the region in several ways, including these two:
The Thai language spills over into Laos and southern China. The Lao language is very close to Thai, both written and spoken. Thai is actually a most recent dialect of southern Lao.
The Thai people claim to trace their history to a Tai race who emigrated from an area in southern China in waves starting around 1200 years ago, and brought their language and ethnic name with them, and there is a lot of evidence of their paths of migrations and influences on local cities and the power structure, but DNA studies reflect the base of the population present which is much more diverse.
There is relatively little in written records about ancient Thailand. Archaeological digs have turned up bronze and iron age cultures, some apparently prosperous for their times, but little is known about them except what may be extrapolated from the artifacts found. There are some differences of seaside vs. inland events, and it is far inland that most digs have turned up things. The diversity of artifacts well over 2000 years old makes it appear that unlike much of the rest of the world, Thailand in ancient times wasn't run in a centralized, heirarchical governance but instead was decentralized in a sort of heterarchical system, until the last couple of millennia. There is evidence of trade from these periods, but the diversity of artifacts and apparent customs implies decentralized cultures.
Rice farming cultures prospered in ancient times, and Thailand had early bronze and iron age establishments, but there appears to be much less and much later utilization of metals for weapons and warfare than in some other parts of the world, with artifacts of metal jewelry and tools in a higher percent.
It seems that for a long time, the people in present day Thailand resisted foreign domination while still absorbing positive foreign aspects.
The indigenous central populations were probably a mix of migrants from many sources, but had a lot of Mon cultural influences, which is a population which in current times extends to southern Myanmar (and is distinct from the warrior dominated Bamar population which eventually established "Burma").
As you can see in some places on Google Maps in satellite view, there are circular moats around inland islands spread around Thailand. Many of these are more than 2000 years old. There are additional ones which can be detected by other methods and which have long since silted and filled up, going back thousands of years. Some of these I have visited while driving around Thailand, just noticing some of the more apparent ones on satellite view. There isn't much there, but it's remarkable the amount of labor which must have been organized over time to dig the moats of those sizes. While there is the obvious application of defense, there is also some evidence they were used for irrigation, too.
Buddhist and other influences from longreaching Indian and Sri Lankan states, including the ancient Dvaravati culture, permeated Thailand going back to roughly 2000 years ago, as witnessed by artifacts and inscriptions. Then came the kingdoms of Mon, Lanna, and Khmer cultures, the latter headquartered in Angkor Wat. The Khmers left many engineering feats behind upon the collapse of its administrative presence in Thailand.
The Thai state was established in 1238 in Sukhothai (now a city and province in north central Thailand). Its peak was under the brilliant King Ramkhamhaeng, who expanded Thai institutions and standardized the modern Thai alphabet, reducing the de facto written language from about 76 to 44 characters.
This came as the Khmer empire was imploding on its own.
The Thai nation expanded over the next few centuries. The modern Thai nation consists chiefly of the merge between Sukhothai and two rival but ethnically close kingdoms, the economically dominant one centered at the ancient trading center of Ayuthaya just about an hour up the river from Bangkok, and the Lanna kingdom centered around Chiang Mai in the mountainous northwestern part of Thailand.
The capital of Thailand became Ayuthaya for a few hundred years. Ayuthaya was also a major trading center in southeast Asia, and in fact a city with one of the largest populations in the world at the time, with some estimates exceeding a million people. It was known as a very cosmopolitan place, and even the royal court was known for its absorption of foreign advisers and positions of influence, including westerners.
That came to an end when a large Burmese army waged a series of attacks in the 1750s and 1760s, eventually surrounded the city to cut it off from the outside world, and finally invaded, looted its valuables, damaged its structures, and burned the city to the ground before taking its loot back to Burma. The carnage was awesome, and the city remained abandoned immediately afterwards. The sheer destruction was longreaching.
Thailand does not have a long history of conflict with enemies except with Burma, since the Bamar warriors took over that country. Thailand has had its battles and wars, but no other enemy comparable to the Burmese, with warfare ongoing for centuries, on and off, before Ayuthaya was eventually attacked and destroyed by the Burmese. The ruthlessness and destructiveness of the Burmese was horrendous.
Bangkok was a downstream customs post at the time, but the new line of kings turned it into the new capital city with better defenses, starting in 1769. Being located near the mouth of the river, which was advantageous for trade and immigration, it could try to pick up where Ayuthaya left off to some degree, as best it could.
So that brings us to the late 1700s, around the same time as the independence of the United States of America and the French Revolution.
The new series of kings welcomed immigrants to Thailand, a huge percentage of whom were Chinese, which helped rebuild the economy.
The Thais have long been known as a hospitable culture which peacefully absorbs foreign ideas and people, unlike many other countries whose resistance to foreigners led to rifts and conflicts. You can still see these traits to this day, but 200 years ago it made a subtle but huge difference in the success of the nation.
The 1800s were a period of continued western colonization of southeast Asia, which saw Burma and Malaya come under British control, and Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos fall to the French. Laos was particular problematic because the Lao people are very close to the Thais and Laos had been under Thai influence.
King Rama 4 (1804-1868) and King Rama 5 (-1910) kept the western powers at bay by careful diplomacy and modernization, but also by ceding huge tracts of land to the British and the French. Thailand established as close a relationship with the United States as it could, to be an ally against the colonial powers.
King Rama 5, the modernizer, ascended to the throne at the age of 18 in when his astronomer father, King Rama 4, died of malaria after calculating and boating out to observe an eclipse of the Sun. The reforms and modernizations of King Rama 5 were the most extensive. You will see many portraits of King Rama 5 in Thailand. He traveled the world, abolished slavery in Thailand, and led many cultural and institutional developments.
A treaty with the British in 1909 to formalize the borders gave Thailand control of its southernmost provinces which had previously been part of the Malay kingdom, and is the root of secessionist conflict in southern Thailand to this day. However, on the eastern border with Laos and Cambodia, Thailand ceded vast tracts of territory to the French, especially to Laos.
The influence of waves of Chinese immigrants should be weighed heavily in the economic development of Thailand. Unlike some other countries, Thailand welcomed and assimilated the Chinese, though it wasn't always pleasant at first on the street level everywhere they came. Many were very poor and never left their DNA in the local pool. However, the Chinese were generally very hard working and entrepreneurial, and intermarriages with indigenous Thais proliferated, whereby many became a nice blend of hard working yet polite, peaceful and cooperative individuals like the predominant Thai society around them, taking the best of both cultures and dropping some of the less desirable cultural traits. The offspring, even of pure Chinese ancestry, usually identified as "Thai" rather than Chinese.
These people are referred to as "Chinese Thais", and you will find them at the tops of banks, major companies, and many positions in politics. The economic and cultural influences of Chinese Thais has far exceeded their actual percentage of DNA.
The 20th century saw huge transformations in the world, and of course Thailand was no exception.
In 1932, modernizing forces pushing for democracy resulted in the creation of a constitutional monarchy, making Thailand one of the first democratic countries in Asia. However, this began a seesaw battle between military and civilian governments which has flip-flopped countless times thru 2007.
After World War 2 broke out in Europe, the Thais took advantage of the situation to militarily regain the territories they had lost to the French and the British. Later, Japan entered the war by bombing Pearl Harbor and immediately attacking countries in Asia in their own colonial efforts, including Thailand the day after Pearl Harbor.
After fighting the Japanese for just 8 hours, the Thai military commander saw the hopelessness of it and entered an armistice with the Japanese. This essentially allowed the Japanese to use Thailand as a base and to gain free passage to attack the surrounding colonies, which allowing Thailand to stay autonomous on paper. Thailand was required to declare war on Japan's adversaries, but the Thai ambassador to the USA secretly never delivered the declaration, something overlooked by the Japanese.
The Japanese and the Thais never had a trusting relationship, and the Seri Thai (Free Thai) movement was widespread, and supported by the United States in various ways. Fortunately, Thailand was able to avoid most of the fighting during the World War. The main exception was the famous Death Railway, the effort to build a railroad from the Gulf of Thailand into Burma thru Kanchanaburi, in which vast numbers of Asian laborers died as well as many British, Australian, American, and other Allied prisoners of war.
After the Japanese lost the war, the British and French tried to gain the upper hand over Thailand based on Thailand being a formal ally of Japan, but the Americans stepped in and an agreement was made whereby Thailand would just give up the land it had taken from the British and the French so that the borders returned to what they were before World War 2.
With the rise of Communism, the United States and Thailand became close allies.
During the Vietnam War (also known as The American War in Vietnam and some other places), Thailand allowed the United States to create major air bases along its eastern border for attacks of North Vietnamese targets, as well as major logistics centers inland. However, the war was not entirely popular, and after the Americans withdrew from Vietnam, and its subsequent fall, there was tremendous pressure for the Thai government to terminate air base agreements with the Americans, whereby American military presence fell dramatically.
However, during this time, some Communist sympathizing groups arose in Thailand in the 1960s, and continued until sometime in the 1980s, at about the same time most everybody in the world had become disillusioned with Communism.
Thailand had maintained a close relationship with the United States for about 150 years, and Thai people also followed American culture like so many others in the world, so there was never any major anti-American sentiment.
After the end of the era of western colonization in the 1950s and 1960s, Thais also warmed up to other westerners.
As a free market economy all that time, western companies and western people became well established in Thailand, and this established the basis for the modern Thai economy.
From 1987 to 1996, Thailand's economy was one of the fastest growing in the world. However, vast overbuilding of office highrise buildings and speculation in the real estate market led to a severe liquidity problem in the Thai banking system, and Thailand took down Asia in the Asia Economic Crash of 1997, as discussed elsewhere on this website.
Within about 5 years, the economy had recovered and was chugging along again.
In the year 2000, a new party founded by the richest businessman in Thailand, Dr. Thaksin Shinawatra, won the most seats of Parliament in an election based on a populist platform. After barely surviving a corruption court case, "Thaksin" (as he's usually referred to) became Prime Minister, and indeed the first Prime Minister to serve a full term in office. His party became the first to win an absolute majority in the subsequent election of 2004 with a whopping 75% of the seats in parliament, gaining support from both the poor masses and also much of the educated and business elite.
Things started to unravel from there as Thaksin and his party were repeatedly accused of using their majority to erode the checks and balances political system. Thaksin's political base increasingly shifted towards relying on the poor masses of voters, and rifts started to develop between the economic classes, as well as regions of Thailand -- northeast/north for Thaksin vs. central and south against Thaksin.
Despite his party having 75% of Parliament, in early 2006 Thaksin dissolved parliament and called a new election in a controversially short time. The election turned into a mess, as it could not be completed due to a boycott in some anti-Thaksin districts, and some Election Commission irregularities (in which some high officials eventually went to jail). Annulled, another election was called for about half a year later while a caretaker government would stay on.
However, while at the United Nations in September 2006, the military staged a coup and took over, trying to cleanse Thailand of Thaksin, and court cases against Thaksin and his party resulted in criminal convictions and dissolution of the party, with over 100 of its executives banned from politics for 5 years. (Did not seem fair to me...)
A new election in late 2007 saw Thaksin's proxy party win the most seats in Parliament, again based on populist policies for the poor and the voting block of the mainly rural northeastern Thailand voters. However, 2008 was a tumultuous year with increasing protests in Bangkok against the government, culminating in a takeover of the international airport in November by the Yellow Shirts (themselves having some extremely questionable leaders), which crippled tourism and a lot of businesses. However, these extreme measures also thoroughly discredited the Yellow Shirts in the eyes of so many Thais, and they have faded out dramatically.
Another court case dissolved the new proxy party, which convinced the Yellow Shirts to claim victory at that time and leave the airport (not really a true victory, but the timing was right and pressure was on the judiciary), but still another proxy party was ready to become Thaksin's next vehicle with the same members of Parliament, though in a subsequent Parliamentary session there were enough deserters switching sides to put the opposition into power and Thaksin's party back out of power for the first time since the coup. This raised Abhisit Vejajiva to the position of Prime Minister.
In 2009, a protest movement called the Red Shirts which is closely associated with Thaksin organized counter protests in Bangkok.
Then, in 2010, a massive Red Shirts rally closed down most of the Bangkok Central Business District starting in March, culminating in the military dispersing them in May, at the end of which the rampaging crowd started major fires around Bangkok and Thailand. However, just like the Yellow Shirts discredited themselves with the airport seizure, there has also been a backlash and increased apprehension towards the Red Shirts.
In the election of 2011, the Thaksin derived populist Pheu Thai Party again won, with the political landscape again being red (Pheu Thai) in the poorer northern regions and blue (Democrat) and other in the southern parts. Thaksin's younger sister Yingluck became Prime Minister.
Due to various events, friction ensued. A key event was the rice pledging scheme whereby the government bought rice from farmers at above market prices, which cost the government huge amounts of money, and the operation developed a lot of questionable issues ... Further political events, including a proposed amnesty bill to benefit Thaksin, resulted in more protests and eventually a dissolution of parliament. An election was scheduled, but the Constitution Court ruled some things invalid. With society at loggerheads, another bloodless coup and military government was installed in 2014.
The main aim of the military governments has been to try to minimize the power of money in politics, such as reducing the maximum donation by any one individual or entity to 10 million baht (roughly US $ 300,000). (This is a very good thing, in my opinion.)
The military government has cracked down hard on corruption, but over the years its own budget has become highly questionable, as have things like buying an expensive submarine, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the military government also drafted a new Constitution which basically gives a limited civilian government, and the last election was controversial in its implementation.
There is actually a lot to cover here, but in short it should be noted that society has become less satisfied about the military government. While it was popular in many circles at the time, that has been eroded by some decisions by the military government and some events.
It has been a relatively peaceful time since 2014, but a lot of this is simply the nature of Thai people. New protests started growing in 2020, organized over internet, and these appear unstoppable. The military government seems to have one more chance to amend the Constitution and then must let go.
The events since the advent of Thaksin Shinawatra in politics have caused conflicts in Thai society unlike ever before. Thais normally resolve their conflicts by compromise and as peaceful as possible, but the politics of divide and conquer have polarized society, whereby new rifts have formed along class and regional lines. How strong and serious they are has yet to be seen, but for the moment, Thailand seems to have reverted back to its peaceful ways.
The rifts are similar to what has been seen in the USA and some other places -- populist politics, divide and conquer, and one populist party trying to impose its extremist will on the entire population, more interested in their own power and self-aggrandizement than the benefit of the nation. The politics of division and polarization can be very damaging. It is a weakness of democracy.
While the military government has been able to keep the peace, it must eventually return the country to a true democracy in order continue keeping the peace, which means letting go with a system of laws and regulations which can counter "money politics" and maintain a good system of checks and balances.
There are extremists in every political group, and Thai people seem to be recognizing this and maturing a lot politically, including coming to understand all the ramifications of extremism and how it affects the economy, their own livelihood, and the peacefulness of the nation.
A culture does not change a lot in a year or in a decade. Pendulums swing from one side to the other, and right now the pendulum seems to be swinging back towards the center.
Normally, in Thailand, since 1932 there have been countless swings back and forth between military and civilian governments, coups and counter coups, elections resulting in changes in power groups, and protests, but the economy and vast majority of the country keep on going as if nothing had happened. Even the coup of 2006 didn't affect the vast majority of business.
However, that changed first with the 2008 airport shutdown by the Yellow Shirts, and the shutdown of the Bangkok central business district by the Red Shirts was also unprecedented.
It seems that the general public has gotten fed up with both extremes from these two experiences, but only time will tell.
(Some things I have no plans to discuss here. There are many other news sources.)
Other sections of this website expand upon several of the topics above.
In response to an academic inquiry about the origin of the word "Siam":
There is not complete academic agreement on the origin of the name Siam, but I think it's fairly certain that the prevailing school of thought is correct: It comes from a Chinese word "sian" (or hsien) which meant "gold". The Chinese words for "sian" and "Siam" are spelled identically. (Chinese is not a phonetic language, e.g., the same spelled word in Chinese in two different parts of China can have two entirely different pronounciations, as I found out from a Chinese associate during a visit to China.) Chinese records going back centuries before westerners arrived refer to what's present day Thailand as well as the Thai people as "Sian". There is also the Shan state and Shan people in Myanmar (Burma) along the northern Thai border between Thailand and China, and it is also thought by many of these scholars that the name Shan also came from Sian / Hsien. You can find Thai language in some parts of southern China. It's also notable that Indians called old Siam "Suvarnabhumi" which means "Land of Gold", and Suvarnabhumi (pronounced like "Suwannapoom") is the name of the new international airport in Bangkok. There is considerable historical literature referring to places in modern day Thailand which in early recorded history were centers for gold trade and perhaps the origin of some gold. In later recorded history, the Siamese were known for adorning religious icons and structures with gold in large quantities (which attracted Burmese invaders), and the Thais still rub on small, thin foil leafs of gold onto Buddha statues as everyday rituals.
Thailand was previously known as Siam, and the Thai people as Siamese, until 1939 when a constitution amendment changed it to Thailand and Thai people.
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