The history of the geographical area now known as Thailand reaches far back into 'hoary antiquity'. World-renowned scholar Paul Benedict (author of Austro-Thai Language & Culture) found that modern linguistic theory, which ties numerous key items in ancient Chinese culture to an early Thai linguistic group, taken together with recent archaeological finds in Thailand, enable us to establish South-East Asia 'as a focal area in the emergent cultural development of homo sapiens. It now seems likely that the first true agriculturists anywhere, perhaps also the first true metal workers, were Austro-Thai speakers'. These proto-Thais seem to have proliferated all over South-East Asia, including the islands of Indonesia, and some may have settled in south and south-west China, later to 're-migrate' to northern Thailand to establish the first Thai kingdom in the 13th century.
With no written records or chronologies it is difficult to say with certainty what kind of cultures existed in Thailand before the Christian era. However, by the 6th century AD an important network of agricultural communities was thriving as far south as modern-day Pattani and Yala, and as far north and northeast as Lamphun and Muang Fa Daet (near Khon Kaen). Theravada Buddhism was flourishing and may have entered the region during India's Ashokan Period, in the 2nd or 3rd centuries BC, when Indian missionaries were said to have been sent to a land called Suvarnabhumi - 'Land of Gold'. Suvarnabhumi most likely corresponds to a remarkably fertile area stretching from southern Burma, across central Thailand, to eastern Cambodia. Two different cities in the central river basin have long been called Suphanburi, 'City of Gold', and U Thong, 'Cradle of Gold'.
This loose collection of city-states was given the Sanskritic name Dvaravati, or 'place having gates', the city of Krishna in the Indian epic Mahabharata. The French art historian George Coedes discovered the name on some coins excavated in the Nakhon Pathom area, which seems to have been the centre of Dvaravati culture. The Dvaravati Period lasted until the 11th or 12th centuries AD and produced many fine works of art, including distinctive Buddha images (showing Indian Gupta influence), stucco reliefs on temples and in caves, some architecture (little of which remains intact), some exquisite terracotta heads, votive tablets and other miscellaneous sculpture.
Dvaravati may have been a cultural relay point for the pre-Angkor cultures of ancient Cambodia and Champa to the east. The Chinese, through the travels of the famous pilgrim Xuan Zang, knew the area as T'o-lopo-ti, located between Sriksetra (North Burma) and Tsanapura (Sambor Prei Kuk-Kambuja). The ethnology of the Dvaravati peoples is a controversial subject, though the standard decree is that they were Mons or Mon-Khmers. The Mons themselves seem to have been descended from a group of Indian immigrants from Kalinga, an area overlapping the boundaries of the modern Indian states of Orissa and Andhra Pradesh. The Dvaravati Mons may have been an ethnic mix of these people and people indigenous to the region (the original Thais). In any event, the Dvaravati culture quickly declined in the 11th century under the political domination of the invading Khmers who made their headquarters in Lopburi. The area around Lamphun, then called Haripunchai, held out until the late 12th century or later, as evidenced by the Dvaravati architecture of Wat Kukut in Lamphun.
The Khmer conquest brought Khmer cultural influence in the foam of art, language and religion. Some of the Sanskrit terms in Mon-Thai vocabulary entered the language during the Khmer or Lopburi Period between the 11th and 13th centuries. Monuments from this period located in Kanchanaburi, Lopburi and many locations throughout the northeast, were constructed in the Khmer style and compare favourably with architecture in Angkor. Elements of Brahmanism, Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism intermixed, as Lopburi became a religious centre, and some of each remains to this day in Thai religious and court ceremonies.
While all this was taking place, a distinctly Thai state called Nan Chao (650 to 1250) was flourishing in what later became Yunnan and Sichuan in China. Nan Chao maintained close relations with imperial China and the two neighbours enjoyed much cultural exchange. The Mongols, under Kublai Khan, conquered Nan Chao in 1253, but long before they came, the Thai people began migrating southward, homesteading in and around what is today Laos and northern Thailand. They 'infiltrated' South-East Asia in small groups, assimilating the peoples they encountered. Some Thais became mercenaries for the Khmer armies in the early 12th century, as depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat. The Thais were called 'Syams' by the Khmers, possibly from the Sanskrit syam meaning 'swarthy', because of their relatively deeper skin colour. This may have been how the Thai kingdom eventually came to be called Syam or Siam.
Southern Thailand, the upper Malay Peninsula, was under the control of the Srivijaya Empire, the headquarters of which were in Sumatra, between the 8th and 13th centuries. The regional centre for Srivijaya was Chaiya, near the modern town of Surat Thani. Srivijaya art remains can still be seen in Chaiya and its environs.
Several Thai principalities in the Mekong Valley united in the 13th and 14th centuries, and Thai princes took Haripunchai from the Mons to form Lan Na, and the Sukhothai Region from the Khmers, whose Angkor government was declining fast. The Sukhothai Kingdom declared its independence in 1238 and quickly expanded its sphere of influence, taking advantage not only of the declining Khmer power but the weakening Srivijaya domain in the south. Sukhothai is considered by the Siamese to be the first true Thai kingdom. It lasted until Ayuthaya annexed it in 1376, by which time a national identity of sorts had been forged.
The second Sukhothai king, Ram Khamheng, organised a writing system that became the basis for modem Thai, and also codified the Thai form of Theravada Buddhism, as borrowed from the Singhalese. Many Thais today view the Sukhothai Period with sentimental vision, seeing it, as a golden age of Thai politics, religion and culture - an egalitarian, noble period when everyone had enough to eat and the kingdom was unconquerable. Under Ram Khamheng, Sukhothai extended as far as Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south, to Vientiane and Luang Prabang in Laos, and to Pegu in southern Burma. For a short time (1448-86) the Sukhothai capital was moved to Phitsanulok.
The Thai kings of Ayuthaya became very powerful in the 14th and 15th centuries, taking over U Thong and Lopburi, former Khmer strongholds, and moving east in their conquests until Angkor was defeated in 1431. Even though the Khmers were their adversaries in battle, the Ayuthaya kings incorporated Khmer court customs and language. One result of this was that the Thai monarch gained more absolute authority during the Ayuthaya Period and assumed the title devaraja (god-king) as opposed to the then traditional dhammaraja (dharma king).
In the early 16th century Ayuthaya was receiving European visitors, and a Portuguese embassy was established in 1511. The Dutch in 1605, the English in 1612, the Danes in 1621 and the French in 1662 followed the Portuguese.
In the mid-16th century Ayuthaya and the independent kingdom in Chiang Mai came under the control of the Burmese, but the Thais regained rule of both by the end of the century. Ayuthaya was one of the greatest and wealthiest cities in Asia, a thriving seaport envied not only by the Burmese but also by the Europeans who, by their early accounts, were in great awe of the city. It has been said that London, at the time, was a mere village in comparison.
A rather peculiar episode unfolded in Ayuthaya when a Greek, Constantine Phaulkon, became a very high official in Siam under King Narai from 1675 to 1688. He kept out the Dutch and the English but allowed the French to station 600 soldiers in the kingdom. The Thais, fearing a takeover, forcefully expelled the French and executed Phaulkon. Ironically, the word for a 'foreigner' (of European descent) in modern Thai is farang, an abbreviated form of farangset, meaning 'French'. Siam sealed itself from the west for 150 years following this experience with farangs.
The Burmese again invaded Ayuthaya in 1765 and the capital fell after two years of fierce battle. This time the Burmese destroyed everything sacred to the Thais, including manuscripts, temples and religious sculpture. The Burmese, despite their effectiveness in sacking Ayuthaya, could not maintain a foothold in the kingdom, and Phya Taksin, a Thai general, made himself king in 1769, ruling from the new capital of Thonburi on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, opposite Bangkok. The Thais regained control of their country and further united the disparate provinces to the north with central Siam. Taksin eventually came to regard himself as the next Buddha and was deposed and executed by his ministers who did not approve of his religious fanaticism.
Another general, Chao Phya Chakri, came to power and was crowned in 1782 under the title Rama I. He moved the royal capital across the river to Bangkok and ruled as the first king of the Chakri Dynasty - the present king of Thailand is Rama IX and it has been prophesied that this dynasty will only have nine kings. In 1809, Rama II (son of Rama I) took the throne and reigned through to 1824. Both monarchs assumed the task of restoring the culture so severely damaged by the Burmese decades earlier. Rama III, or Phra Nang Klao (1824-51), went beyond reviving tradition and developed trade with China while increasing domestic agricultural production.
Rama IV, commonly known as King Mongkut (Phra Chom Klao to the Thais), was one of the more colourful and innovative of the early Chakri kings. He originally missed out on the throne in deference to his half-brother Rama III and lived as a Buddhist monk for 27 years. During his long monastic term he became adept in the Sanskrit, Pali, Latin and English languages, studied western sciences and adopted the strict discipline of local Mon monks. He kept an eye on the outside world and when he took the throne in 1851 he immediately courted diplomatic relations with European nations, while avoiding colonisation.
In addition he attempted to align Buddhist cosmology with modern science to the end of demythologising the Thai religion (a process yet to be fully accomplished), and founded the Thammayut monastic sect, based on the strict discipline he had followed as a monk. The Thammayut remains a minority sect in relation to the Mahanikai, who comprise the largest number of Buddhist monks in Thailand.
King Mongkut loosened Thai trade restrictions and many western powers signed trade agreements with the monarch. He also established Siam's first printing press and instituted educational reforms, developing a school system along European lines.
His son, King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868 to 1910), continued Mongkut's tradition of reform, especially in the legal and administrative realm. Thailand further benefited from relations with European nations and the USA; railways were designed and constructed, a civil service established and the legal code restructured. Though Siam still managed to avoid colonisation, it lost some territory to French Laos and British Burma around this time. King Vajiravudh (Rama VI, 1910-25), during his rather short reign, introduced compulsory education as well as other educational reforms and further 'westernised' the nation by making the Thai calendar conform to western models.
While Vajiravudh's brother, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII, 1925-35), ruled, a group of Thai students living in Paris became so enamoured of democratic ideology that they mounted a successful coup d'état against absolute monarchy in Siam. This bloodless revolution led to the development of a constitutional monarchy along British lines, with a mixed military-civilian group in power. Phibul Songkhram, a key military leader in the 1932 coup, maintained an effective position of power from 1938 until the end of WWII. Rama VIII (Ananda Mahidol), a nephew of Rama VII, ascended the throne in 1935 but was assassinated under mysterious circumstances in 1946. His brother Bhumibol Adulyadej succeeded him as Rama IX.
Under the influence of Phibul's government, the country's name was officially changed from Siam to Thailand in 1949 - rendered in Thai as Prathet Thai. ('Prathet' is derived from the Sanskrit pradesha or 'country'; 'thai' is considered to have the connotation of 'free', though in actual usage it simply refers to the Tai races, which are found as far east as Tonkin, as far west as Assam, as far north as south China, and as far south as north Malaysia.)
World War II & Post War
The Japanese outflanked the Allied troops in Malaya and Burma in 1941 and the Phibul government complied with the Japanese in this action by allowing them into the Gulf of Thailand; consequently the Japanese troops occupied Thailand itself. Phibul then declared war on the USA and Great Britain (in 1942) but Seni Pramoj, the Thai ambassador in Washington, refused to deliver the declaration. Phibul resigned in 1944 under pressure from the Thai underground resistance and after V-J Day in 1945, Seni became premier.
In 1946, the year King Ananda was assassinated, Seni and his brother Kukrit were unseated in a general election and a democratic civilian group took power for a short time, only to be overthrown by Phibul in 1948. In 1951 power was wrested from Phibul by General Sarit Thanarat, who continued the tradition of military dictatorship. However, Phibul somehow retained the actual position of premier until 1957 when Sarit finally had him exiled. Elections that same year forced Sarit to resign, go abroad for 'medical treatment' and then return in 1958 to launch another coup. This time he abolished the constitution, dissolved the parliament and banned all political parties, maintaining effective power until his death in 1963 of cirrhosis. From 1964 to 1973 the Thai nation was ruled by army officers Thanom Kittikachorn and Praphat Charusathien, during which time Thailand allowed the USA to develop several army bases within her borders in support of the American campaign in Vietnam.
Reacting to political repression, 10,000 Thai students publicly demanded a real constitution in June 1973. In October of the same year the military brutally suppressed a large demonstration at Thammasat University in Bangkok, but General Krit Sivara and King Bhumibol refused to support further bloodshed, forcing Thanom and Praphat to leave Thailand. An elected, constitutional government ruled until October 1976 when students demonstrated again, this time protesting the return of Thanom to Thailand as a monk. Thammasat University again became a battlefield and a new right-wing government was installed with Thanin Kraivichien as premier. This particular incident disillusioned many Thai students and older intellectuals not directly involved, the result being that numerous idealists 'dropped out' of Thai society and joined the insurgents in the forests. In October 1977 another coup ousted Thanin and installed Kriangsak. In 1980 the military-backed position changed hands again, leaving Prem Tinsulanonda at the helm.
If you get the idea that the coup d'état is popular in Thailand you're on the right track: There have been 15 successful or attempted coups since 1932 (an average of almost three per decade!), not counting election-forced resignations. There have also been 10 'permanent' constitutions enacted since the first. However, even the successful coups rarely have resulted in drastic change and the Thai commoner will tell you that things never change - it depends on how closely you observe politics. On the other hand, it's very difficult to observe Thai politics over the last ten years or so and not recognise some real, functional changes emanating from non-coup sources.
Prem served as prime minister through 1988 and is credited with the political and economic stabilisation of Thailand in the post-Vietnam war years (only one coup attempt in the '80s!). The major accomplishment of the Prem years was a complete dismantling of the Communist Party of Thailand through an effective combination of amnesty programmes (which brought the students back from the forests) and military action. His administration is also considered responsible for a gradual democratisation of Thailand that culminated in the 1988 election of his successor, Chatichai Choonhavan.
It may be difficult for new arrivals to Thailand to appreciate the distance Thailand has come in the last 10 to 15 years. Between 1976 and 1981, freedom of speech and press were rather curtailed in Thailand and there was a strict curfew in Bangkok. Anyone caught in the streets past 1 am risked spending the night in one of Bangkok's mosquito-infested 'detention areas'. Under Prem, the curfew was lifted and dissenting opinions began to be heard publicly more often.
Traditionally every leading political figure in Thailand, including Prem, has had to receive the support of the Thai military, who are generally staunch reactionaries. Considering Thailand's geographic position it was difficult not to understand, to some extent, the fears of this ultra-conservative group. But with Prime Minister Chatichai, who is widely recognised as a particularly 'business-oriented' leader, this has begun to change. Approximately 60% of his Cabinet was former business executives rather than ex-military officers, as compared to 38% in the previous Cabinet.
High-ranking military officers are naturally disappointed with this coup d'argent and complain that Thailand is now being run by a plutocracy. Whereas government leadership during the '60s and '70s exploited the threat of invasion from bordering Marxist countries, Chatichai's plan is to incorporate Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Burma in a grand economic scheme in which Thailand will serve as broker to the rest of the world. Whether this will come to pass remains to be seen. Without a doubt, however, Thailand is entering a new era in which an inter-relationship between the country's current economic boom and democratisation will be interesting to observe.
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