|THAILAND COAT OF ARMS|
Location of Thailand within the continent of Asia
Map of Thailand
Flag Description of Thailand: five horizontal bands of red (top), white, blue (double width), white, and red; the red color symbolizes the nation and the blood of life; white represents religion and the purity of Buddhism; blue stands for the monarchy
note: similar to the flag of Costa Rica but with the blue and red colors reversed
Official name Ratcha Anachak Thai (Kingdom of Thailand)
Form of government constitutional monarchy with a 200-member interim legislature1])
Head of state King: Bhumibol Adulyadej
Head of government Prime Minister: Prayuth Chan-ocha (interim)
Official language Thai
Official religion none
Monetary unit baht (THB)
Population (2013 est.) 66,777,000COLLAPSE
Total area (sq mi) 198,117
Total area (sq km) 513,120
- Urban: (2011) 36.1%
- Rural: (2011) 63.9%
Life expectancy at birth
- Male: (2012) 70.9 years
- Female: (2012) 77.6 years
Literacy: percentage of population age 15 and over literate
- Male: (2007) 95.9%
- Female: (2007) 92.6%
GNI per capita (U.S.$) (2013) 5,370
1Appointed July 31, 2014, by the ruling council of military leaders.
Background of Thailand
Thailand, country located in the centre of mainland Southeast Asia. Located wholly within the tropics, Thailand encompasses diverse ecosystems, including the hilly forested areas of the northern frontier, the fertile rice fields of the central plains, the broad plateau of the northeast, and the rugged coasts along the narrow southern peninsula.
Until the second half of the 20th century, Thailand was primarily an agricultural country, but since the 1960s increasing numbers of people have moved to Bangkok, the capital, and to other cities. Although the greater Bangkok metropolitan area remains the preeminent urban centre in the country, there are other sizable cities, such as Chiang Mai in the north, Nakhon Ratchasima (Khorat), Khon Kaen, and Udon Thani in the northeast, Pattaya in the southeast, and Hat Yai in the far south.
Siam, as Thailand was officially called until 1939, was never brought under European colonial domination. Independent Siam was ruled by an absolute monarchy until a revolution there in 1932. Since that time, Thailand has been a constitutional monarchy, and all subsequent constitutions have provided for an elected parliament. Political authority, however, has often been held by the military, which has taken power through coups. During the last two decades of the 20th century and the first decade of the 21st, parliamentary democracy steadily gained wider popular support. Although a crisis emerged in 2006, when the military, aligned with the monarchy, overthrew an elected government, new parliamentary elections were held—as promised by the interim government—in 2007.
Geography of Thailand
Thailand, which has about the same land area as Spain or France, consists of two broad geographic areas: a larger main section in the north and a smaller peninsular extension in the south. The main body of the country is surrounded by Myanmar (Burma) to the west, Laos to the north and east, Cambodia to the southeast, and the Gulf of Thailand to the south. Peninsular Thailand stretches southward from the southwestern corner of the country along the eastern edge of the Malay Peninsula; Myanmar extends along the western portion of the peninsula as far as the Isthmus of Kra, after which Thailand occupies the entire peninsula until reaching its southern border with Malaysia at roughly latitude 6° N.
Thailand’s landscapes vary from low mountains to fertile alluvial plains dotted with rice paddies to sandy beaches set amid the equatorial latitudes of the Asian monsoons. The country is divided into five distinct physiographic regions: the folded mountains in the north and west, the Khorat Plateau in the northeast, the Chao Phraya River basin in the centre, the maritime corner of the central region in the southeast, and the long, slender peninsular portion in the southwest.
The northern mountains, the southeastern continuation of the uplift process that formed the Himalayas, extend southward along the Thai-Myanmar border and reach as far south as northern Malaysia. Long granitic ridges were formed when great masses of molten rock forced their way upward through the older sedimentary strata. Peaks average about 5,200 feet (l,600 metres) above sea level. Mount Inthanon, at 8,481 feet (2,585 metres) the highest in the country, is in northwestern Thailand, near the historical city of Chiang Mai. The city is overshadowed by Mount Suthep, site of a famous Buddhist shrine and the royal summer palace. Some of the rugged limestone hills contain caves from which remains of prehistoric humans have been excavated.
The northeast is coterminous with the Khorat Plateau, a vast tableland bounded by the Mekong River on the north and east. It was formed by uplifting along two perpendicularly arranged crustal faults—one trending north-south in the west and the other east-west in the south. As a result, the underlying sedimentary rocks were tilted rather than uniformly uplifted. This tilting created ranges of low hills and mountains along the western and southern edges of the plateau: the Phetchabun and Dangrek (Thai: Dong Rak) mountains, respectively. The escarpments of these uplands overlook the plain of the Chao Phraya basin to the west and the Cambodian plain to the south. Surface elevations on the Khorat Plateau range from about 650 feet (200 metres) in the northwest to some 300 feet (90 metres) in the southeast. The terrain is rolling, and the hilltops generally slope to the southeast in conformity with the tilt of the land.
Situated between the northern and western mountain ranges and the Khorat Plateau is the extensive Chao Phraya River basin, which is the cultural and economic heartland of Thailand. The region, sometimes called the Central Plain, consists of two portions: heavily dissected rolling plains in the north and the flat, low-lying floodplain and delta of the Chao Phraya in the south. It was formed by the outwash of immense quantities of sediment brought down from the mountains by the Chao Phraya’s tributaries, which produced vast fan-shaped alluvial deposits.
The generally rolling countryside of the southeast has high hills in the centre and along the eastern boundary with Cambodia. Notable peaks are Mount Khieo, which rises to 2,614 feet (797 metres), and Mount Soi Dao, which attains a height of 5,471 feet (1,668 metres). The hills, reaching nearly to the sea, create a markedly indented coastline fringed with many islands. With their long stretches of sandy beach, such coastal towns as Chon Buri and Rayong and some of the islands have become popular year-round tourist resorts.
The southwestern portion of the country consists of a peninsula with a mountainous spine and a gently sloping sandy coastline. Higher mountains reaching about 4,900 feet (1,500 metres) line the peninsula on the west and contain narrow passes linking Thailand and Myanmar. These ranges separate the Andaman and South China seas as the peninsula narrows near the Malaysian border. Off the rugged and much-indented west coast lie numerous large islands, including tin-rich Phuket Island, which, with other islands such as Samui and Phiphi, have become tourist destinations, surpassing in popularity Hua Hin, the old coastal resort located in the northern part of the peninsula.
Thailand is drained largely by two river systems: the Chao Phraya in the west and the Mekong in the east. Three major rivers in the northern mountains—from west to east, the Ping (and its tributary the Wang), the Yom, and the Nan—flow generally south through narrow valleys to the plains and then merge to form the Chao Phraya, Thailand’s principal river. The delta floodplain of the Chao Phraya is braided into numerous small channels and is joined by other rivers—notably the Pa Sak—as the river flows toward its mouth in the Gulf of Thailand. The flooding of the flat delta in the wet season is an asset to rice cultivation, although higher ground on the extreme eastern and western edges of the plain requires irrigation. The entire delta was once part of the Gulf of Thailand, but over time the sediment carried down from the north has filled it in. Such silting is a continuing obstruction to river navigation, but it also extends the river’s mouth into the gulf by several feet each year.
The rivers of the Khorat Plateau flow generally southeastward and empty into the Mekong. Floodwaters from these rivers have been important sources of water for rice production in the area. However, the floods have long been unpredictable, in terms of both quantity and frequency, and flooding problems have worsened as more land has been deforested and put under cultivation. The region also has a high water table that contains mostly brackish, unpotable water. Much of the Mekong itself, which lies on the boundary between Thailand and Laos, is either studded with islands or broken up by impassable rapids.
The southeast and the peninsula are drained by short streams and rivers. In the southeast the rivers in the north flow into the Chao Phraya delta, while those in the west and south run directly into the sea, where they have built up small alluvial basins and deltas along the coast. The mouths of the rivers along the southern coast consist of tidal flats and mangrove swamps. Nearly all the rivers on the peninsula drain into the Gulf of Thailand.
Between the 1950s and ’80s, a number of dams were built, mainly in the north and northeast of the country, that have improved flood control and made it possible to increase the production of hydroelectric power and to expand agricultural areas that can be irrigated.
The great alluvial deposits in the river valleys contain the most fertile soils in Thailand and are replenished annually with sediment washed down by rivers swollen with the annual monsoon rains. Chief among these areas is the delta floodplain of the Chao Phraya, but the relatively flat basins in the northern mountains, scattered lands along the Mun and Chi rivers on the Khorat Plateau, and much of the coast also have rich alluvial soils. Soils elsewhere tend to be relatively infertile, highly leached laterites. Near the Mekong, a high salt content in some soils limits crop production, although salt deposits there are mined commercially.
The major influences on Thailand’s climate are its location in the tropical monsoon zone of mainland Southeast Asia and certain topographic features that affect the distribution of precipitation. Beginning in May, the warm, humid air masses of the southwest monsoon flow northeastward over the region from the Indian Ocean, depositing great quantities of precipitation; rainfall reaches a maximum in September. Between November and February the winds reverse direction, and the northeast monsoon brings cool, relatively dry air in a southwesterly flow to create cooler temperatures for much of the country. Stagnant air in March and April produces a distinct hot-and-dry intermonsoonal period.
Uplands cause local variations in the general weather patterns, especially on the peninsula: Ranong on the west coast receives approximately 160 inches (4,000 mm) of precipitation annually, while Hua Hin on the east coast receives less than 40 inches (1,000 mm). Similar but less-pronounced rain-shadow effects occur along the western margins of the Central Plain and on the Khorat Plateau. Songkhla, at the southern end of peninsular Thailand, has its rainy period during the cool season, the result of moisture picked up by the northeast monsoon winds while passing over the Gulf of Thailand.
Nationwide, temperatures are relatively steady throughout the year, averaging between 77 and 84 °F (25 and 29 °C). The greatest fluctuations are in the north, where frost occasionally occurs in December at higher elevations; conversely, maritime influences moderate the climate in the south. The cooler, drier air of the northeast monsoon produces frequent morning fogs that generally dissipate by midday in the north and northeast regions. Humidity is extremely high during the rainy season.
- Plant and animal life
Thailand is a country of forests, shrub-studded grasslands, and swampy wetlands dotted with lotuses and water lilies. Since the mid-20th century, the total land area covered by forests has declined from more than half to less than one-third. Forest clearing for agriculture (including for tree plantations), excessive logging, and poor management are the main causes of this decline. Forests consist largely of such hardwoods as teak and timber- and resin-producing trees of the Dipterocarpaceae family. As elsewhere in Southeast Asia, bamboo, palms, rattan, and many kinds of ferns are common. Where forests have been logged and not replanted, a secondary growth of grasses and shrubs has sprung up that often limits land use for farming. Lotuses and water lilies dot most ponds and swamps throughout the country.
The Thai people traditionally used water buffalo, oxen, horses, and elephants for plowing and harrowing fields, transporting goods and people, and moving heavy loads. By the 1980s, however, draft animals had been replaced by machines, and, except in remote areas of the country, animals used for transportation had been replaced by motorcycles, trucks, cars, and buses. The demand for work elephants almost completely disappeared after the logging ban in 1989, and domesticated elephants were absorbed into the tourist industry.
Rapid deforestation coupled with a marked rise in demand for exotic animals has been detrimental to wildlife. Rhinoceroses and tapirs, once found in many parts of the country, have all but disappeared, as have herds of wild elephants. A similar fate has befallen gibbons and some species of monkeys and birds. Although serious efforts have been made to prevent the illegal sale of endangered species, they have met with only limited success. Like other conservation legislation, which has a long history in Thailand, the laws have been difficult to implement and enforce.
Thailand’s once abundant freshwater and marine fish have been rapidly depleted by overfishing and disruption of their natural habitats, as have shrimp, prawns, and sea crabs. Many of the shrimp and prawns now sold in both domestic and export markets come from shrimp farms. Snakes, including the king cobra and several species of poisonous water snakes, while still common in the wild, are today more likely to be seen at snake farms. The same is true for crocodiles, although they still exist in the wild in the south.
Mosquitoes, ants, beetles, and other insects—as well as the lizards that eat them—are always in evidence, even in urban environments. The silkworm has contributed much to the silk industry, for which Thailand has become famous.
Demography of Thailand
When the modern political boundaries of Thailand were fixed at the end of the 19th century and in the first part of the 20th, the country included peoples of diverse cultural, linguistic, and religious backgrounds. This diversity is characteristic of most Southeast Asian countries, where shifting political boundaries have done little to impede the centuries-long migrations of people. Thailand’s central position on the mainland has made it a crossroads for these population movements.
- Ethnic groups
Although the vast majority of the inhabitants of Thailand are descendants of speakers of Tai languages who have been dominant in the area since the late 13th century, the population also includes numerous non-Tai peoples. Members of the largest indigenous minority speak a dialect of Malay. Other significant indigenous minorities include speakers of Mon, Khmer, and other Mon-Khmer languages of the Austroasiatic family. In the uplands of western and northern Thailand are found peoples who speak languages belonging to several other language families. Thailand is also home to large numbers of immigrants and their descendants, most from China but some from South Asia. Most members of indigenous and immigrant communities in Thailand identify strongly with Thai national culture and are speakers of Thai.
The ancestors of the Thai first entered the central part of the Southeast Asian mainland about 1000 ce and began establishing independent principalities in the 13th century. It was once thought that the ancestors of the Thai came from southwestern China, but strong linguistic evidence has emerged that places the original home of Tai-speaking peoples in what is today northwestern Vietnam. The Tai who settled in the area now belonging to Thailand brought with them cultural characteristics shaped by contact with the Chinese. In their new home, they were influenced by Khmer and Mon peoples, whose traditions largely originated in India. The Tai who became dominant in the 13th century ultimately combined the linguistic, cultural, and sociopolitical heritage of their Tai ancestors with the Buddhism of the Mon and the statecraft of the Indianized Khmer to form what would become a distinctive Thai culture. In contemporary Thailand, those who accept a national identity as Thai include not only the Tai-speaking people of central Thailand but also several other Tai-speaking groups, the largest of which are the Lao-speaking peoples of northeastern Thailand and the Kammüang-speaking peoples of the northern part of the country.
The remnants of the autochthonous communities of present-day Thailand live in the northeastern part of the country and are closely related to the Khmer of Cambodia. They constitute the largest percentage of Mon-Khmer speakers in Thailand. The Kuy (whom are called Suai by most Thai) of the northeastern region were once known as elephant hunters; today they are recognized as skilled trainers of elephants for work. There are also small numbers of upland-dwelling peoples such as the Lawa or Lua in the north, and a somewhat larger population of Mon in the west. Most of the Mon are descendants of migrants from Burma in the 17th to the 19th century, but some are more recent refugees from Myanmar. Mon-Khmer-speaking peoples have long been bilingual, also speaking Thai or other locally prominent languages. Because most follow the same Buddhist traditions as others in Thailand, they are well integrated into the country’s social fabric.
Thailand has attracted large numbers of immigrants from neighbouring countries since the mid-19th century, owing to the expansion of the Thai economy and political upheavals elsewhere in Asia. The largest number of immigrants by far have come from China, and they constitute a significant minority in Thailand. In the commercial centres of Bangkok and other cities, people of Chinese descent operate both large and small commercial enterprises and work as middlemen and storekeepers.
In the early 1900s about one-seventh of the population of the country was identifiable as Chinese, but by the early 21st century roughly one-tenth of the population still recognized its Chinese ancestry. The overwhelming majority of people of Chinese descent (Thai: luk cin) in contemporary Thailand have assimilated to Thai culture, largely by adopting Standard Thai as their primary, or even exclusive, language and by becoming Theravada Buddhists. These assimilated Chinese are known in English as Sino-Thai. There remains, however, a smaller number of people who are still recognizably “Chinese” by virtue of the languages they speak and occupations they follow. Although there was discrimination against Chinese in the first half of the 20th century, the Sino-Thai have come to play a preeminent role not only in the economy but also in politics. Since the 1990s several prime ministers and a majority of members of parliament have had Chinese ancestors.
- MALAYS, UPLAND PEOPLES, AND NEW IMMIGRANTS
Not all peoples living within the borders of Thailand have been fully integrated into the national community. Malay-speaking peoples form the vast majority of the population in the four southernmost provinces of the country. Because this region constituted a separate Malay sultanate until the late 19th century, and because its inhabitants have a distinct linguistic identity and religious heritage (as practitioners of Islam), some of the residents of the area have supported movements seeking greater autonomy or even independence from the predominantly Buddhist and Tai-speaking rest of the country.
Upland-dwelling peoples (also known as “hill tribes”) such as the Karen, Hmong, Yao, Lahu, Lisu, and Akha also follow distinctive traditions that set them apart from the country’s Tai-speaking majority. In the past such peoples were considered by the Thai to be peoples of the forest, and this association has continued to shape the popular image of upland communities in the 21st century. Most upland peoples at one time followed local religious traditions. While some have become Buddhists, more have converted to Christianity, a feature that further distinguishes them from the majority of the population.
A number of stigmas have plagued the upland peoples, including a history of growing opium poppies and engaging in swidden (slash-and-burn) agriculture—both banned in the 1950s—as well as a widespread inability or failure to obtain national identification cards. A more positive role for Thailand’s upland peoples has been fostered by King Bhumibol and other members of the royal family, who have not only made many visits to these areas but also have established projects that replaced opium cultivation with other products that have improved the livelihoods of upland peoples. Cultural tourism has also contributed to improving the image of the upland communities. In addition, several nongovernmental organizations have worked to gain citizenship for upland peoples and to protect their rights to land without being displaced.
Until the mid-20th century most permanent immigrants to Thailand were allowed—even encouraged—to become citizens. However, the situation changed for later immigrants, many of whom entered Thailand as political refugees from neighbouring countries. The first significant group of refugees arrived from Vietnam just after World War II, and most were eventually granted Thai citizenship. Thailand was inundated with a much larger wave of refugees in the 1970s following the establishment of communist governments in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. Although the majority of these refugees were ultimately resettled in other countries, some Hmong from Laos remained in refugee centres in Thailand. In the late 1980s an even greater number of refugees began to enter the country from Myanmar in search of employment and political asylum. This influx has continued into the 21st century, and although some of the immigrants have been accorded guest-worker status, tens of thousands of refugees from Myanmar, as well as Cambodia, Laos, and China, have continued to live and work illegally throughout the country.
Most of the languages spoken in Thailand belong to one of four major language families: Tai (a subfamily of Tai-Kadai languages), Mon-Khmer (a subfamily of Austroasiatic languages), Austronesian, and Sino-Tibetan. In addition, English is widely used in Thailand for commercial and many official purposes. It is a required school subject from the primary grades on up, although only children who go beyond those grades, and especially those who attend elite schools, gain significant competence in the language.
The national language of Thailand, known as Standard Thai, is based on the language spoken in central Thailand. Nearly every person in the country is able to speak and write Standard Thai, having learned the language from government schools and through its use in print and broadcast media. While Standard Thai has strongly influenced all the languages of Thailand, a number of distinct Tai languages continue to be spoken. Most people living in Bangkok and surrounding urban areas as well as in up-country towns and cities use Standard Thai as both their domestic and public language, while people in rural areas speak languages in a domestic setting that are sharply different from Standard Thai. Dialects related to the Lao language of Laos are spoken by nearly one-fourth of the population, primarily by those living on the Khorat Plateau, in northeastern Thailand near the border with Laos. Speakers of other Tai languages—notably Kammüang (also known as Northern Thai, or Yuan in its written form) in northern Thailand and Pak Tai (Southern Thai) in the south—account for about another one-sixth of the population. Tai-speaking peoples are found not only in Thailand but also in Laos, where a Tai language is also the national language, as well as in Myanmar, Vietnam, northern Malaysia, and southern China.
Prior to the 13th century the major languages spoken in what is today Thailand belonged primarily to the Mon-Khmer language group of the Austroasiatic language family rather than to the Tai language family. The peoples speaking these languages were displaced by the arriving Tai speakers and driven into the hills. Later, wars pitting Thailand against the Burmese and Khmer kingdoms brought more speakers of Mon and Khmer languages into Thailand as refugees and prisoners of war. The Mon settled in the north, centre, and west, although they are now concentrated in an area just west of the country, while the Khmer settled in the east along the Cambodian border.
Most speakers of Mon-Khmer languages were subsequently assimilated into the Tai peoples who became politically dominant after the 13th century; there remain, however, a few communities in western Thailand that continue to speak Mon (although their numbers have rapidly declined since the beginning of the 20th century). Significant numbers of Khmer speakers remain in northeastern and eastern Thailand. Small numbers of upland-dwelling speakers of Mon-Khmer languages are also found in northern and northeastern Thailand. The Lua, for instance, speak Lawa, an Austroasiatic language, possibly of the Mon-Khmer subfamily. According to some historians, these people inhabited the delta plain until they were driven into the hills by the invading Tai speakers.
A dialect of Malay, which belongs to the Austronesian language family, is widely spoken in the far southern provinces of the country. In contrast to the speakers of Mon-Khmer languages, speakers of Malay have been very resistant to assimilation to Thai national culture. Their resistance, however, has been as much a consequence of their adherence to Islam as it has been of their speaking a different language.
- SINO-TIBETAN AND OTHER LANGUAGES
Descendants of migrants from southern China constitute the largest portion of the population of Thailand who speak Sino-Tibetan languages. Some of these migrants still speak such diverse Chinese languages as Teochew, Hokkien, Hainanese, and Cantonese. These languages, which were once spoken by a considerable portion of the population in Thailand, have steadily been abandoned by the descendants of Chinese migrants in favour of Standard Thai. Those who decide today to learn Chinese choose Mandarin because of its utility in international trade.
In addition to those who continue to speak dialects of Chinese, a small number of people, mostly living in the highlands of northern and western Thailand, speak languages belonging to other subfamilies of the Sino-Tibetan language family. These peoples include the Karen (Karennic subfamily) and the Lahu and Lisu (Tibeto-Burman subfamily). Thailand is also home to speakers of languages from the Hmong-Mien family, including the Hmong (Hmongic subfamily) and Iu-Mien or Yao (Miennic subfamily). Of all these minority groups, the Karen, originally from Myanmar, have been in the region for centuries, while others, such as the Hmong and Lahu, have migrated from Myanmar, Laos, and southern China only since the beginning of the 20th century.
The vast majority of people in Thailand are adherents of Buddhism. The Theravada tradition of Buddhism came to Thailand from Sri Lanka and is shared by peoples in Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and parts of southern China and southern Vietnam. The community of monks (sangha) is central to this tradition. In Thailand almost every settlement has at least one temple-monastery (wat), where monks in their distinctive yellow robes reside and where communal rituals take place.
When Thailand was still primarily an agrarian society, rituals held according to the Buddhist calendar at the wat were central to communal life. At most of these rites, laypeople offered various combinations of food, clothing, medicine, and shelter to monks. Laypeople acquired Buddhist merit (bun) from these gifts, which would improve their chances for a good rebirth. Monks also conveyed the teachings of the Buddha through sermons and actions that exemplified the lessons. The Buddhist ritual cycle continues to be followed in villages, but in urban settings it has become less pronounced.
There has long been a tradition among the Thai for young men to ordain as monks for at least one period of phansa (the Buddhist Lent), which lasts for three months during the rainy season. With the expansion of secular schooling and increased opportunities for nonagricultural work, however, fewer men have adhered to the tradition. In the 21st century, many young men have chosen not to enter the monkhood, or they have spent a much shorter period of time as members of the sangha.
Thai religion has incorporated beliefs and practices from local religion as well as from Hinduism. Although there are only a small number of Hindus in Thailand, largely the descendants of immigrants from India, Hindu religious elements are common. Since the 16th century the Thai court has engaged court Brahmans to oversee some of the most elaborate rites associated with the monarchy. Shrines to Hindu deities are found throughout the country, and the shrine to Brahma at the Erawan Hotel in Bangkok attracts hundreds of people each day who seek the help of this deity in confronting the vicissitudes of urban life.
A number of distinct and competing movements have developed among Thai Buddhists since the late 20th century. These include fundamentalist and evangelical Buddhists, some of whom are considered heterodox by establishment Buddhists. Others take their inspiration from Buddhadasa Bhikkhu (1906–93), considered to have been the most outstanding Thai monk of the 20th century in promoting a socially engaged Buddhism. Both lay and clerical leaders in this movement advocate the alleviation of social injustice, protection of the environment, and dialogues with those of other faiths. There has also been a significant revival of spirit mediumship among nominal Buddhists, particularly in urban areas.
While Buddhism is the dominant religion, other religions are also found in the country. A small but significant minority of Muslims lives primarily in southern Thailand, but also in and around Bangkok. Although Christian missionaries first came to the country in the 16th century, only a tiny fraction of Thai have converted to Roman Catholicism or Protestantism, and most Christians are members of ethnic minorities, mainly Sino-Thai. The influence of Christianity is not, however, limited to those who have converted to the religion, since many of the non-Christian elite attended Christian schools. Although several of the hill tribes have converted to Buddhism or Christianity, most follow local religions.
- Settlement patterns
Thailand can be divided into four major regions—the north, northeast (also known as Isan), centre, and south (southern peninsula). Two additional subregions are the eastern seaboard, which straddles the central and northeast regions, and the west, which is part of the southern peninsula. These regions (phak) were formally recognized as distinct cultural, linguistic, and administrative entities during the process of building a unified country in the late 19th century, and the northern and northeastern ones, as well as part of the far southern peninsula, correspond to what had been semiautonomous domains within the Siamese empire prior to the reign of King Chulalongkorn (reigned 1868–1910). The two subregions have distinct characteristics.
The mountainous provinces located in the upper part of the northern region are often referred to collectively as Lan Na Thai, from the name for the loosely structured federation of principalities, with its capital at Chiang Mai, that existed in the area until the end of the 19th century. The people of Lan Na Thai speak the Kammüang (Northern Thai) dialect and follow Buddhist traditions akin to those practiced in Myanmar. The mountains of the north are also home to many upland minority groups.
The provinces of the lower north include the heartland of the first Thai kingdom, Sukhothai, which was named for its capital city. Peoples in this subregion speak dialects related to Standard Thai, rather than Kammüang, and follow cultural traditions similar to those of the Thai living in the central region.
- NORTHEAST (ISAN)
The majority of peoples living in the northeast region, which corresponds to the Khorat Plateau, share linguistic, cultural, and religious traditions with the Lao living across the Mekong River. Until the late 19th century this region was made up of relatively independent realms. In the early 20th century the region was officially designated as Isan, a term derived from Sanskrit meaning “northeast.” The Lao-speaking people of this region, who constitute the large majority of the population, differentiate themselves not only from the Lao of Laos but also from the central Thai by referring to themselves as Khon Isan.
The Khmer and Kuy (Suai) living in the southernmost part of the northeast region speak languages and follow traditions more closely related to those of Cambodia than to those of either the Thai or the Lao. The large province of Nakhon Ratchasima, also known as Khorat, in the southwestern part of the northeast, was long an outpost of the Siamese empire and includes peoples known as Thai Khorat, who speak dialects closely related to central Thai. Although the northeast remains home to much of the country’s rural population, it also includes a burgeoning urban society. Among the fastest growing cities are Khorat, Khon Kaen, Ubon Ratchathani, and Udon Thani.
The Central Plain, occupying most of the Chao Phraya basin, is the political, economic, and cultural core of old Siam and present-day Thailand, and it is home to those who speak dialects closely related to Standard Thai. Historically, the people of central Thailand have followed a Buddhist tradition closely linked to that of the Khmer of Cambodia. Commercial and industrial activity is heavily concentrated in the region, especially in Bangkok, and economic growth has been faster there than elsewhere. This rapidly growing economic heartland continues to be a strong magnet, attracting people from other parts of the country, particularly from the northeast, who seek greater economic and social opportunities. Thus, while Standard Thai is the dominant language of Bangkok, Chinese and Isan (Lao) dialects are also spoken by a substantial number of people in the city.
- SOUTHERN PENINSULA
The upper part of the southern-peninsula region, also called Pak Tai, has a distinctive identity linked to the historical role of towns such as Nakhon Si Thammarat, once known as Ligor. Because of the region’s historical ties to the later Siamese kingdoms, the language and customs of the southern Thai are similar to those of the Thai of central Thailand. The lower part of the southern region is inhabited by Malay-speaking Thai, most of whom are Muslims. The southern region has also attracted a large number of Chinese migrants, especially to work in the tin industry. Today the largest city in the south, Hat Yai, which serves as the centre of trade with Malaysia, is populated primarily by Sino-Thai.
The western and southwestern region, consisting mostly of hilly to mountainous terrain along the Myanmar border, is still sparsely populated. The upland Karen, who have long lived in the dense forests of the region, continue to engage in shifting cultivation. The western region became politically significant in the last decades of the 20th century as environmental groups pressured the government to ensure that old-growth forests in the area be preserved rather than cut by logging companies or inundated by the reservoirs created by hydroelectric dams. The region has also long been the locus of overland connections to Myanmar. During World War II the Japanese forced Allied prisoners of war to build a rail line in the region to connect Thailand and Burma (Myanmar), as dramatized in the 1957 British movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. In the 1990s the construction of a pipeline through the region to carry natural gas from Myanmar to Thailand was strongly protested by both environmentalists and those opposed to the military regime in Myanmar.
- EASTERN SEABOARD
The eastern seaboard subregion, stretching along the eastern side of the Gulf of Thailand, is undulating and hilly and extends eastward from Bangkok to the Cambodian border. The region contains significant numbers of people living along the border with Cambodia who speak Khmer or Khmer-related languages and follow cultural traditions related to the Khmer. Starting in the late 19th century, the region began to attract large numbers of Sino-Thai. This new migration was associated with the development of sugarcane and fruit plantations, sugarcane and lumber mills, and fish-sauce factories. A number of deepwater ports were developed in the 1970s. One of these, established by the U.S. Navy at Sattahip, has continued to be a major naval base, while another, at Laem Chabang, has become one of the largest commercial ports in the country. As the region developed into the most important port and industrial area of Thailand behind Bangkok, it, like the Greater Bangkok Metropolitan Area, attracted significant numbers of migrants from northeastern Thailand. The resort town of Pattaya has become the major urban area in this region.
- RURAL SETTLEMENT
The dominant settlement pattern in Thailand remains the rural village, where the primary occupation is wet-rice cultivation. Migration to urban areas has increased significantly since the mid-20th century, but the majority of the country’s people still consider their principal place of residence to be the village, even when they live and work for extended periods in urban environments.
There are a number of settlement types that vary depending on location. Villagers in the northeast live in houses clustered together on higher ground, surrounded by rice fields. In the north, by contrast, where most villages are found in the alluvial basins of major rivers, population growth and improvements in transportation have tended to disperse the villages away from the rivers and toward the main railroads and highways, reducing the amount of land available for growing rice. The north also contains the majority of the country’s hill settlements, which are similar to, though smaller than, the nucleated villages of northeastern Thailand.
The Chao Phraya delta is densely settled along areas of high ground that are free from flooding. A vast network of irrigation canals has modified the pattern of settlement and transportation. The mobility offered by small motorboats utilizing the canals has made it possible to establish villages to the east and west, away from the rivers. New highways have also modified settlement patterns, especially at river crossings and canals where new towns have appeared.
In the south and southeast, plantations, especially those producing fruit, rubber, and palm oil, are scattered along the fertile slopes, alternating with the low and narrow rice fields; the villages are interspersed among these plantations and fields. Most are linked by good roads and highways. Alluvial deposits containing tin, no matter how remote, can be reached by road and waterway. Settlement is almost continuous along both sides of the peninsula. Many people living in coastal settlements have long been fishermen, taking their boats out into the Andaman Sea or Gulf of Thailand.
- URBAN SETTLEMENT
Urbanization in Thailand, as in many other developing countries, has proceeded rapidly since World War II, but growth has been highly uneven. The Greater Bangkok Metropolitan Area, which generally includes Bangkok proper and its twin city, Thonburi, and the contiguous cities of Samut Prakan to the southeast and Nonthaburi to the north, remains the dominant and only major urban centre in the country. The total population of this area is some 30 times larger than that of Udon Thani, the next largest city, and several times larger than that of the next 10 largest cities combined. Nonetheless, cities such as Khon Kaen, Ubon Ratchasima, Udon Thani, and Nakhon Ratchasima in the northeast; Chiang Mai in the north; Hat Yai, Surat Thani, and Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south; and Pattaya on the eastern seaboard grew quite significantly since the last decades of the 20th century and have assumed some of the urban characteristics of Bangkok.
- Demographic trends
Thailand’s population rose rapidly in the 20th century, especially during the period between 1950 and 1970, when the government supported such growth. Since then, however, official policies and private family-planning programs have slowed this growth dramatically, making the country a model for other countries seeking to reduce their high population growth rates. The population profile that resulted from the earlier increase has nonetheless placed demands on the country’s education, housing, health, and employment systems.
From the mid-19th century to World War II, immigration, primarily from China, contributed markedly to the growth of the population. In the postwar period immigration has been restricted, and most of the refugees from Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam who obtained asylum in Thailand after the wars ended in those countries were not allowed to become permanent residents of Thailand. Some of the refugees were resettled in other countries, and a small number were repatriated to their own countries. Since the late 1980s hundreds of thousands of people from Myanmar have entered Thailand as refugees, as illegal immigrants, or, in a small number of cases, as legal guest workers. Although only a few of these people have been granted the right to remain permanently in Thailand, many have lived in the country for years or even decades.
Internal migration, notably the movement of people from the countryside to Bangkok, has produced major changes in the society. Bangkok has received a major share of all interregional migrants, most from the central and northeast regions. Although roughly one-third of Thailand’s total population is classified as urban, the figure does not take into account the large number of people who work primarily in urban areas while still retaining official residence in their villages. As in most other regions of the world, these migrants are mainly young adults less than 30 years of age.
Economy of Thailand
Prior to the 1960s the Thai economy was based primarily on the production of rice and other foods and goods for domestic consumption and of rice, rubber, teak, and tin for export. The government then began to promote a shift from agriculture to the manufacture of textiles, consumer goods, and, eventually, electronic components for export. By the 1980s Thailand had embarked on a solid path of industrialization; even the economic crisis of the late 20th century only slowed, but did not halt, this economic transformation.
From 1963 until 1997 the Thai economy was one of the fastest growing in the world. The adoption of the first national development plan in 1963 spurred the shift from agriculture to industry. During the 1980s and ’90s numerous export-oriented industries emerged, primarily in the areas surrounding Bangkok. The large-scale migration of young women and men from rural communities to the greater Bangkok area drained labour from the countryside. Those continuing to pursue agriculture turned increasingly to machines to make up for the shortage of workers, bringing about a shift in the rural economy from subsistence to market-oriented agriculture. Most of the investment in new technology in the agricultural sector came from the savings of family members who had gone to work in the cities.
Hydroelectric complexes needed to sustain the growth of the industrial economy have displaced thousands of villagers from their homes and fields, inundated large areas of forest, transformed flood patterns, and reduced the supply of fish, on which many depend for their livelihood. By the 1980s villagers were organizing mass demonstrations to protest the inadequate compensation given to those displaced; they were joined by environmentalists and social activists mobilized by the negative impact of these projects. Other large protests have been mounted against government policies promoting the commercial exploitation of forests. These protests, together with rising concerns among the middle class about the environment, spurred governments of the late 20th and early 21st centuries to undertake projects with greater sensitivity to environmental issues than had been shown by previous governments.
Export-oriented industries and financial institutions, especially those created in the 1980s and ’90s, have relied heavily on foreign capital, making the Thai economy more vulnerable to changes in global economic conditions. In 1997 a sudden and rapid decline in the value of the Thai currency, the baht, triggered a financial crisis that quickly spread to other Asian countries. The crisis not only exposed the overdependence of Thailand on foreign capital but also focused attention on the consequences of unequal development and on weaknesses in several sectors of the economy. By the beginning of the 21st century, the economy had begun to recover, but the economic crisis and the emergence of a more democratic political order caused economic policies to become the object of intense public debate. A coup in September 2006 rekindled uncertainties about the future of the Thai economy. While announcing, rescinding, and subsequently reimposing various restrictions on foreign investment, the interim government promoted the king’s philosophy of “sufficiency economy,” an ideal emphasizing self-reliance and moderation in consumption, without rejecting capitalist investment.
- Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
Rice is not only the main staple crop of the country but also the primary agricultural export. Thailand has for decades been one of the world’s largest rice exporters. Although high-yield varieties of rice were adopted in the 1960s, rice yields are much lower than in East Asia, owing primarily to less-efficient labour inputs. The main commercial rice-producing areas of Thailand are the Chao Phraya basin and the Khorat Plateau. Agricultural production has diversified significantly to meet domestic and world market demand. Among the crops produced for the market are cassava, corn (maize), kenaf (a jutelike fibre), longans, mangoes, pineapples, durians, cashews, vegetables, and flowers. Cash crops such as rubber, coffee, sugarcane, and many fruits are produced mostly on large holdings owned by the agribusinesses that began to emerge in the last decades of the 20th century. Tobacco was once an important cash crop, but it declined considerably as demand dropped.
The northeast of Thailand has long been known for its water buffalo and cattle. As agriculture became increasingly mechanized, the demand for water buffalo, once used for plowing and harrowing, decreased markedly. However, cattle production in the northeast increased because of a significant rise in demand for beef in urban areas. The northeast is also a major producer of pigs, to meet a growing demand for pork. Chicken production expanded dramatically since the mid-20th century, but increasingly it has been undertaken in central Thailand by companies rather than by smallholders. The outbreak of bird flu (avian influenza) in Southeast Asia in the early 21st century prompted the government on several occasions to order the destruction of large numbers of chickens, leading to an overall decline in poultry production and heavy revenue losses for producers. Chickens and smaller numbers of ducks continue to be raised for the domestic market.
Thailand was once one of the major exporters of hardwoods, especially teak and Dipterocarpus alatus, known in Thai as yang. In 1989 the government imposed a ban on logging following a catastrophic landslide in the southern part of the country that was largely blamed on the deforestation caused by excessive logging in the region. Some cutting for local uses has continued, and, although other types of timber from Thai forests have been exported illegally, the ban has generally been successful. Concerted efforts have also been mounted to conserve existing forests and to expand forest reserves, but those actions led to conflicts with peoples who have long lived in the areas affected.
Fish and other aquatic life have been the major source of protein in the Thai diet since ancient times. As deforestation and pollution of streams and rivers led to a decline in freshwater wild fish, there has been a marked increase in the raising of fish in ponds, especially in northeastern Thailand. Since the 1970s, Thailand has been one of the world’s major exporters of shrimp, fish, and fish products. However, the creation of shrimp farms and the overfishing of the Gulf of Thailand sparked disputes between commercial interests and villagers who depend on fish and shrimp as basic foodstuffs. Many traditional marine fishing areas have become polluted, and shrimp farms have been especially damaging to coastal mangrove forests. Some recovery efforts are under way.
- Resources and power
Tin, mined mostly in the peninsula, has long been among Thailand’s most valuable mineral resources, and the country has become one of the world’s largest producers. Fluctuations in the world tin market, however, have caused output to be reduced. Other important mining and quarrying operations produce coal (lignite), zinc, gypsum, fluorite, tungsten, limestone, and marble. Rubies and sapphires are mined along the east coast of the peninsula.
Industrial expansion has increased demand for electricity and fossil fuels. Electricity in Thailand comes primarily from hydroelectric plants in the central plains, the north, the northeast, and Laos, with supplementary power coming from thermal plants using natural gas and lignite. Thailand has significant offshore natural gas reserves and less-abundant onshore oil resources. In the 1990s a controversial pipeline was constructed to transport natural gas from Myanmar to Thailand, but domestic production also expanded rapidly. By the early 21st century, Thailand’s dependency on imported petroleum and natural gas for energy had decreased markedly.
The growth in manufacturing since 1970 has been especially dramatic, reflecting the large investments made by private firms. Although growth was initially spearheaded by the garment industry, electronic products assumed the vanguard in the mid-1980s, propelled by investment and transfer of production from Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore. Since the late 1990s, Thailand has been a notable exporter of motor vehicles and, more recently, telecommunications equipment. While industrial development has been concentrated in and around Bangkok, production has also expanded along the eastern seaboard and, more recently, into northern, especially northeastern, Thailand, where much of the labour for all industries originates.
The Bank of Thailand, established in 1942, issues the baht, acts as central banker to the government and to the commercial banks, and serves as the country’s financial agent in dealing with international financial markets, international monetary organizations, and other central banks. Together with the Ministry of Finance, it is at the pinnacle of the government’s economic technocracy and plays the key role in managing the economy. Three other government financial agencies are also important: the Board of Investment, which offers financial incentives to domestic and foreign entrepreneurs; the National Economic and Social Development Board, which formulates the government’s five-year plans; and the Budget Bureau, which compiles the annual national budget. These government bodies focus primarily on creating the proper financial conditions for business to grow and prosper, leaving business decisions themselves to the private sector.
Commercial banks grew out of business syndicates established in the 1940s by business families with Chinese roots. In the post-World War II era, these banks have not only controlled the financing of trade; they have also played a key role in industry by channeling loans to business sectors and enterprises with high growth potential and by cultivating close working relationships with foreign investors. A restructuring of Thai commercial banking took place as a result of the economic crisis of the late 1990s; foreign holdings significantly increased, while the number of family-controlled banks dropped sharply. Some of the original family interests and leadership, however, persisted despite foreign ownership. Close ties between commercial banks and political leaders and government officials have been important for coordinating economic policy, but they have also been a breeding ground for corruption. In addition to banks, other important private-sector financial institutions include finance companies, which have become major sources of loans for the real estate market, and the securities firms active in the Securities Exchange of Thailand, the country’s stock exchange.
In the mid-20th century foreign investment emerged as one of the most important factors in the rapid growth of the national economy. As part of the liberalization of the country’s financial markets in the early 1990s, the government established the Bangkok International Banking Facility (BIBF), an offshore banking entity that became a major conduit for international capital. Originally envisioned as a means to establish Bangkok as a major financial centre rivaling Hong Kong and Singapore and serving all of Southeast Asia, the BIBF in fact became a channel by which foreign funds (primarily in the form of short-term loans) could enter Thailand’s domestic economy.
Thailand’s trade patterns have changed dramatically from the early 1980s, when more than two-thirds of export earnings came from agriculture and less than one-third from manufacturing. By the early 21st century, agriculture contributed roughly one-eighth of export earnings and about one-tenth of gross domestic product, while manufacturing accounted for virtually all the rest; the share of import expenditures for machinery, components, and raw materials, moreover, had increased from less than half to more than three-fourths.
The country’s main trading partners are Japan, the United States, China, Singapore, and Malaysia. The most important import categories by value are machinery; chemicals and related products; petroleum; iron, steel, and other metals; and raw materials of various types. Machinery is also an important manufactured export, along with chemicals and chemical products, telecommunications equipment, road vehicles, and clothing and accessories. The United States is among Thailand’s largest export markets, and Japan is among the country’s biggest sources of imports. In the 1990s Thailand’s trade deficit grew markedly until the last part of the decade, when a trade surplus was achieved largely as a result of a contraction in imports. Foreign debt declined until the last part of the decade, when it jumped substantially, peaking in 2000, before beginning a descent in the early 21st century.
Bangkok remains the centre of all retailing in the country, but many regional cities, such as Khorat and Khon Kaen in the northeast, Chiang Mai in the north, and Hat Yai in the south, have become significant subcentres. In those cities, as in many other towns throughout the country, large stores and shopping malls charging fixed prices have been established alongside the smaller shops and traditional markets where bargaining still takes place.
Thailand has been one of the most popular tourist destinations in Southeast Asia since the 1960s. The government actively began to promote tourism in the early 1980s, and tourism subsequently became the country’s single largest source of foreign exchange and an important counterbalance to the country’s frequent annual trade deficits. The number of tourists visiting the country each year almost tripled between the early 1960s and the early 21st century, helping to make the service sector more significant than manufacturing as a source of employment. Part of this activity was the result of a highly visible (though illegal) sex trade during those decades. However, by the end of the 20th century the increasing number of AIDS cases in Thailand and other factors had caused the trade to decline.
Thailand places great emphasis on providing quality service at its leading hotels and restaurants, which has helped to attract many foreign visitors. The most popular tourist destinations outside of Bangkok are the beach resorts of Pattaya, Phuket, and Koh Samui and the historical cities of Sukhotai, Ayutthaya, and Chiang Mai. Resort areas such as Phuket and Kho Lak were heavily damaged by the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but they recovered quickly.
- Labour and taxation
The growth of an industrial export economy has been predicated on the existence of a large labour force that can be paid relatively low wages. For this reason, governments during the period of accelerated growth have imposed severe restrictions on unionization. These restrictions, however, have not prevented thousands of workers, beginning in the late 1980s, from staging periodic strikes and demonstrations in protest over low wages and occupational hazards.
The Labour Relations Act of 1975 provided a legal foundation for the establishment of unions. By the late 1990s there were more than 1,000 unions gathered together into labour federations. The main labour federations include the Labour Congress of Thailand, the National Congress of Thai Labour, and the Thai Trade Union Congress. Union participation, however, has remained low.
Women comprise nearly half of the total workforce. Although the Thai constitution guarantees equal rights for men and women, women still receive unequal treatment in the workplace in terms of pay, promotion, and benefits. International and local nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have issued reports about the exploitation of women in sweatshop labour and in the sex industry.
Taxes generate the great bulk of the national revenue. The tax system relies on a combination of personal and corporate income taxes and a value added tax (VAT; a type of sales tax). The VAT was introduced in 1992 as part of a major restructuring of the tax system that also reduced personal and corporate income tax rates. The VAT was supposed to be applied only to the price retailers paid for certain goods and services, but in many cases retailers have also applied it to the price they charge consumers. In addition, excise taxes are levied on tobacco, petroleum products, alcoholic beverages and soft drinks, and other products. A national lottery is also a major source of revenue for the government. Additional tax revenue comes from tariffs on imported products and certain exports.
- Transportation and telecommunications
Bangkok is the centre of Thailand’s water, land, and air transport systems. The rivers of the Chao Phraya delta have been used since antiquity, and modern irrigation canals have added to the waterway transportation network. The rail system, constructed from early in the 20th century and essentially completed in the 1950s, still remains important. It has, however, been overshadowed by a system of highways and all-weather roads built with the support of the United States beginning in the 1950s. By the end of the 20th century, roads had been extended into even the remote upland areas of the north.
Premodern Siam was long involved in international trade, and the choice of Bangkok as the capital in the late 18th century was based partially on its attraction as a port. The port of Bangkok, at Khlong Toei, is the largest and busiest in the country, handling nearly all imports and exports. Newer port facilities on the eastern seaboard have become increasingly important, especially for the movement of goods to and from the northeastern region of the country.
Don Muang International Airport, north of Bangkok, was the hub of Thailand’s air network until late 2006, when much of its commercial air traffic was then redirected to Suvarnabhumi, a large new international airport about 20 miles (30 km) east of the city. However, cracks in its runways and crowded conditions at the new facility led to the temporary reopening of Don Muang for both international and domestic flights. Several smaller provincial airports, mostly located at such popular tourist centres as Chiang Mai, Phuket, and Koh Samui, also handle international flights. Numerous other airports and airfields accommodating domestic flights are scattered throughout the country.
Telecommunications have developed rapidly in Thailand, although regionally the country has lagged behind Singapore and Malaysia. Government policies aimed at privatizing and opening the sector to greater domestic and international competition accelerated growth in the 1990s. Wireless phone service has expanded rapidly, owing to the inadequacy of the landline telephone infrastructure and to the greater flexibility of wireless phones. By the early 21st century almost every family, including those in rural areas, owned a wireless phone. Internet use has also grown rapidly since the 1990s, although it has been hindered to some extent by the high cost of line rental.
Government and Society of Thailand
- Constitutional framework
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with the monarch as the head of state. While almost every government since 1932 has accepted constitutional authority, the country has had 17 constitutions, the most recent drafted in 2007. All of these documents have provided for a National Assembly with a prime minister as head of government. Power is exercised by the bicameral National Assembly, the Council of Ministers, and the courts in accordance with the provisions of the constitution and laws passed by the National Assembly. The constitution of 2007 (largely based on that of 1997) provides for the direct election of members of the lower house of the Assembly, the House of Representatives, to four-year terms, five-sixths from single-member districts and the remainder based on proportional representation from the political parties. It also requires the prime minister to be a member of the House of Representatives. Members of the upper house, the Senate, are directly elected to six-year terms. Legislation originates in the House of Representatives, but it can be modified or rejected by the Senate.
In May 2014, following a military coup, the 2007 constitution was suspended (except provisions pertaining to the monarchy), and a council of military leaders took power. That council appointed a 200-member single-chamber interim legislature in late July. The leader of the council was named interim prime minister in late August.
The execution of laws is carried out by the civil service, whose members are known as kharatchakan, “servants of the king.” The bureaucracy, particularly the Ministry of Interior, has always enjoyed a significant degree of autonomy in administering the country. The number of elective offices and senior civil-service positions occupied by women is small, though increasing slowly.
- Local government
For most people in Thailand, government is experienced primarily through centrally appointed officials who hold posts in local administration, the main units of which are provinces (changwat) and districts (amphur). In the 1990s three new provinces were carved out of the existing ones, resulting in a total of 76.
A marked devolution of power has taken place since the 1980s. By far the most significant of the local governing bodies are those in the major cities, including Bangkok, Chiang Mai, and Pattaya. Locally elected provincial assemblies have little power, but they serve as incubators for local politicians who may later be elected to the National Assembly. In 1997, communes (tambon), units consisting of several villages, were given increased powers and the authorization to elect members of tambon administrative organizations. With new administrative and financial authority, these bodies have become the most important local democratic units in Thailand. Headmen of villages (muban) are also elected, but their authority is circumscribed by centrally appointed district officers and the tambon administrative organizations.
Thailand had a sophisticated legal system before Western influences led it to adopt a system of jurisprudence based on European models. The first law codes—dating from as early as the 15th century—were based on the Indian code of Manu, which arrived by way of the Mon and the Khmer. As part of the modernizing reforms of the late 19th century, a new legal system was developed, based primarily on the French (Napoleonic) model. The modernizing government of King Chulalongkorn also received legal advice from British advisers. A significant aspect of the legal reforms of the late 19th century was the creation of an independent judiciary. This ideal proved difficult to realize, however, because of interference by politicians and the continuing presence of corruption within the system. As part of a series of judicial reforms initiated at the end of the 20th century, the Supreme Court, with justices appointed by the monarch, was declared the final court of appeal for both civil and criminal cases; a system of intermediary appeals courts was established to handle cases from courts of first instance scattered throughout the country.
- Political process
Prior to the 1980s the political process in Thailand was usually controlled by elites whose power was derived from the military. However, the idea of parliamentary government, first enshrined in the constitutions of the 1930s, never totally disappeared. Thailand has had universal suffrage since 1932, and the minimum voting age is 18. Although no laws have prevented women from involvement in politics, few women have stood for election to the legislature.
Elected parliaments began to gain influence over the political process in the 1980s, and since 1992 governmental power has been exercised through an elected National Assembly, except for a 15-month period in 2006–07, when the military took control.
The role the military has played in the Thai political process reflects an often enunciated principle by leaders of the armed forces that only a well-disciplined military can preserve public order and protect the monarchy. This principle has been challenged both inside and outside of the legislature by those who see laws developed and passed by an elected National Assembly as the basis for a diverse yet orderly society. Like military politicians, however, elected officials often have used their power to advance their own private interests rather than those of the society as a whole.
Major political parties since the 1990s have included the New Aspiration Party, Democrat Party, National Development Party, Thai Rak Thai (“Thais Love Thais”), Thai Nation, Social Action Party, and Thai Citizens’ Party. Following a parliamentary election, the parties with the most legislative seats typically form a coalition government. In 2007 Thai Rak Thai, the party of the ousted prime minister, was dissolved, and a new party, People Power Party, was formed; it was widely viewed as the reincarnation of Thai Rak Thai.
The creation of a technically trained professional military was a notable achievement of the modernizing reforms adopted at the end of the 19th century. By the 1920s the military, which had emerged as the most powerful institution of the government, included many officers who had risen by virtue of their training and ability, not because of kinship ties to the monarch or high-ranking members of the aristocracy. These officers played a critical role in overthrowing the absolute monarchy in 1932 and establishing a constitutional monarchy. The military includes army, navy, and air force branches, although the army has always been the dominant one.
All male citizens in Thailand are required to register for a draft at the age of 18. Only a small number are actually chosen for two years of required military service, beginning at age 21. Most of those inducted into the army are from rural communities.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, the Royal Thai Army, Thailand’s largest military unit, has been combating a violent insurgency in the far southern provinces, where the people are mainly Malay-speaking Muslims. The army also has continued to confront incursions on the western and northern frontiers by insurgents fighting the government in Myanmar and by the military forces from Myanmar that sometimes pursue those insurgents across the border.
The army has played a dominant role in Thailand’s politics, especially since the end of absolute rule by the monarch in 1932; it has often taken power through a coup. Strong public protests against a coup in 1991, the resignation following royal intervention of a government headed by a general in 1992, and the subsequent moves to ensure democratic government that culminated in the constitution of 1997 initially seemed to have ended army dominance of the Thai political system. However, the military coup of September 2006 proved that the pattern was indeed persistent.
- Health and welfare
The rapid growth of the Thai economy since the mid-20th century has enabled the government to improve health and welfare services significantly, but this economic growth also has produced marked inequalities in standards of living. A combination of public and private investment has made it possible for the upper and middle classes in Thailand to have access to some of the best medical care in the world. Public investments in health care for people living in rural areas culminated in the early 21st century in a national plan allowing most people access to health care at nominal costs. Such health-care initiatives have led to major reductions in infant mortality, advances in the control of infectious diseases, and more reproductive health care. Nonetheless, the disparity between rural and urban communities in the quality and availability of health care has widened since the 1960s.
The dramatic drop in birth rates beginning in the late 1960s, coupled with the rapid expansion of the economy, has made it possible for most people to improve their quality of life. At the same time, severe poverty continues to exist, particularly in rural areas where land quality is poor or where people do not own the land they work. Governments since the 1970s have instituted programs to alleviate poverty, but their policies relating to dam construction, logging, and fishing, combined with inadequate support for their poverty-reduction programs, have left a large segment of the rural population impoverished. The quality of life for many citizens actually declined in the 1990s owing to problems created by unregulated development and the AIDS epidemic. The situation was further exacerbated by the economic crisis that began in 1997.
A new welfare problem has been emerging in Thailand since the start of the 21st century, as the growing number of people employed in the country’s many factories face serious risks because of poor regulation of occupational hazards. Deaths and injuries from industrial accidents have risen rapidly, prompting increased pressure for better enforcement of industrial safety laws. Moreover, the drop in birth rate and greater longevity have amounted to a shrinking workforce that must support a growing population of senior citizens.
While instances of traditional infectious diseases such as cholera, smallpox, malaria, and even leprosy have been greatly reduced, the number of cases of sexually transmitted diseases has increased exponentially. Because of cultural tolerance, the rise in disposable income, and a lack of political will to control the sex industry (which has attracted many tourists), Thailand has one of the highest per capita rates of prostitution in the world. The country was, therefore, particularly vulnerable when HIV infections began to spread across the globe. For some years Thailand had the highest rate of HIV and AIDS infection of any country in Asia. Aggressive programs launched by the government to promote safe sex practices, however, have reduced the rate of increase in new HIV infections significantly. Nonetheless, AIDS has continued to claim the lives of several tens of thousands of people each year, mostly working-age adults.
While the magnitude of the crisis has placed great strains on medical and community resources, many new types of community-based organizations have emerged, and the government has dedicated a higher percentage of its health budget to medical care for those afflicted with AIDS or HIV than have most other Asian countries. The government has also overcome resistance from foreign pharmaceutical companies in its efforts to make inexpensive drugs available to a broader segment of the afflicted population.
By the late 20th century, Thailand had established a noteworthy medical-service sector, which continued to develop in the 21st century. The high standards of medical care at the best private hospitals in Bangkok and other major cities began to attract attention not only from well-to-do Thai but also from increasing numbers of foreign patients, especially from the Middle East and Europe. Other health-care fields for which Thailand has been gaining recognition include cosmetic surgery and spa treatments.
Most Thai living outside of the Greater Bangkok Metropolitan Area occupy houses that their families own. The rapid growth of the Thai economy since the mid-1980s, the emergence of a prosperous middle class seeking better housing, and the lowering of mortgage interest rates spurred private-sector developers to construct new housing in urban areas. Beginning with low-cost row houses and town houses, developers gradually shifted to moderately priced condominiums aimed at middle-class urban families and luxury condominiums for the wealthy. Increasingly, middle-class urban Thai have chosen to live in condominiums while they save money to purchase single-family homes in the suburbs. Many villagers, using earnings from working in Thailand’s cities or abroad, in turn have built new houses based on urban and suburban models. The older style of Thai house, constructed from a combination of hardwood and bamboo materials and set on piles, is rapidly disappearing.
Compulsory education was instituted in the 1920s for the purpose of ensuring that all citizens—female as well as male—would share the national language and identify with the national heritage. Prior to that time, education had consisted primarily of males being taught by monks at Buddhist temples. By the late 1930s almost all children of school age in the country attended schools established by the government, although few went beyond the four years of basic primary education. Those who did attend secular secondary and tertiary institutions, monastic schools, or military and police academies typically entered government service after completing their schooling.
The linking of government-sponsored education to economic development goals in the 1960s precipitated a radical transformation in Thailand’s educational system in the last decades of the 20th century. By the early 21st century, education had been made compulsory for nine years or until a person reached the age of 16, and three years of high school were provided by the government. Since 2004 two years of preschool have also been provided free of charge. Perhaps the most-dramatic changes have taken place in higher education. Universities have proliferated from the first one founded in Bangkok in 1917 (Chulalongkorn University) to dozens of state and private institutions spread across the country. There are also numerous teachers’ colleges, as well as open universities, military and police academies, and universities for monks that offer bachelor’s degrees. Some postsecondary students who do not attend university obtain further education in business and technical schools. Compared to other countries in the region, Thailand has one of the highest literacy rates: nearly universal for both men and women.
Culture Life of Thailand
History of Thailand
Like other countries of Southeast Asia, Thailand in prehistoric times was peopled through successive migrations from central Asia into territory already inhabited by the Negrito peoples. Although a few Thai groups (ethnically related to the Shan of Myanmar and the Lao of Laos) migrated to the northern hill country of Thailand, the main body of Thais remained in Yunnan, China, where by A.D. 650 they had organized the independent kingdom of Nanchao. By 1000, however, the Chinese had overrun Nanchao and made it a tributary state. With the destruction of the kingdom of Nanchao by the Mongols under Kublai Khan in 1253, the slow infiltration of Thailand from the north turned into a mass migration. By that time the Khmer Empire was well established in the Chao Phraya valley and on the Korat plateau.
The Thais captured the Khmer town of Sukhothai, in N central Thailand, and a new Thai nation, with its capital at Sukhothai, soon developed. During this period (c.1260–1350), King Rama Kamheng, whose 40-year reign began c.1275, borrowed from the Khmers of Cambodia the alphabet that the Thais still use. He extended Sukhothai power southward to the sea and down the Malay Peninsula, and contact was made with India. After the death of Rama Kamheng, Sukhothai declined and was absorbed by Rama Tibodi, prince of Utong, who established (c.1350) a new capital at Ayutthaya. The kings of Ayutthaya consolidated their power in S Siam and the Malay Peninsula, then launched a long series of indecisive wars against the Lao state of Chiang Mai and against Cambodia, which did not end until the 19th cent. The 16th cent. saw the beginnings of warfare with the Burmese; in 1568 the Burmese captured Ayutthaya and dominated the country until c.1583, when King Naresuan (1555–1605) drove them from Siam. He captured Tanintharyi and Dawei in S Myanmar and the major port of Myeik.
- Contacts with Europe
Siam's relations with the West commenced after 1511, when Portuguese traders and missionaries began to arrive. Adroit diplomacy, developed during this time, enabled Siam to remain independent of European colonization, the only country in Southeast Asia able to do so. In the early 17th cent. the Dutch and British broke Portugal's monopoly. Siam became, so far as Europe was concerned, the most consequential kingdom in Southeast Asia, and the brilliance of its court under King Narai (reigned 1657–88) was proverbial. The French, aided by the Greek adventurer Constantine Phaulkon, who had risen to power at the Siamese court, launched a bid for dominance in Siam that provoked an antiforeign coup (1688). Phaulkon was executed, and Siam was closed to most foreigners for over a century.
- The Building of a Modern State
In 1767 the Burmese, after several attempts, finally destroyed Ayutthaya. Gen. Phya Tak, or Taksin, however, quickly rallied the Thai forces, and within a decade he drove (c.1777) the Burmese from the country and established his capital at Thon Buri. His successor, General Chakkri (reigned 1782–1809), later known as Rama I, moved the capital from Thon Buri across the river to Bangkok and founded the Chakkri dynasty, thereafter the ruling house of Siam. In the 19th cent. the authority of Bangkok was at last established over N Siam, and relations with the West were resumed; Siam signed commercial treaties with Great Britain (1826) and the United States (1833). The independence of the kingdom was threatened, however, when Great Britain extended its sway to Malaya and Burma, and France carved out an empire in Indochina.
By opening their posts to European trade, by bringing in Western advisers, by strengthening the central administration as against the hereditary provincial chieftains, and by playing off British against French interests, the Siamese managed to stay free. Even so, the establishment of Siam's boundaries meant the surrender of its claims to Laos (1893) and parts of Cambodia (1907) and of its suzerainty over Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, and Terengganu (1909), on the Malay Peninsula. The Pattani sultanate (now Thailand's three southern provinces), however, was annexed in 1902. The Westernization of Siam took place under an absolute monarchy and was chiefly the work of Mongkut (reigned 1851–68), or Rama IV, and his son Chulalongkorn (reigned 1868–1910), or Rama V. Siam became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, when a bloodless coup forced Prajadhipok (reigned 1925–35), Rama VII, to grant a constitution.
- Pibul and Pridi
The two young leaders of the coup, Pibul Songgram and Pridi Phanomyang, both educated in Europe and influenced by Western ideas, came to dominate Thai politics in the ensuing years. In 1934 the first general elections were held; a year later Prajadhipok abdicated, and a council of regency chose Ananda (reigned 1935–46) as Rama VIII. Pibul Songgram, a militarist, became premier in 1938. He changed the country's name to Thailand and instituted a program of expansion. Taking advantage of the initial French defeat (1940) in World War II, he renewed Thai claims in Cambodia and Laos. Japanese "mediation" resulted (1941) in territorial concessions to Thailand. In Dec., 1941, Pibul, despite the objections of Pridi Phanomyang, permitted the Japanese to enter Thailand, and in 1942 the government, under Japanese pressure, declared war on Great Britain and the United States.
With the help of the United States, Pridi formed a militant anti-Japanese underground. In 1943, Japan "granted" to Thailand territory in N Malaya and in the Shan states of Myanmar, but after the war Thailand was forced to return these territories and those acquired in 1941 to French and British control. Pridi Phanomyang became premier in the postwar government, while Pibul was briefly jailed as a war criminal. Pridi restored the name Siam as a repudiation of Pibul's policies. Inflation, corruption in government, and the mysterious death (1946) of King Ananda all contributed to the overthrow (1947) of Pridi's government by Pibul. Pridi fled the country and in 1954 appeared in Beijing as the professed leader of the Communist "Free Thai" movement, allegedly representing numerous Thais still in Yunnan, China.
Under Pibul's military dictatorship, the name Thailand was again adopted. Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, was crowned king in 1950 after a four-year regency. Thailand signed (1950) a technical and economic aid agreement with the United States and sent troops in support of the United Nations action in Korea. Thailand has received huge military grants from the United States and was the seat (1954–77) of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. The country, apprehensive over its proximity to China, remained consistently pro-Western in international outlook.
- Modern Thailand
In 1957 a military coup led by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat overthrew Pibul Songgram and made Gen. Thanom Kittikachorn premier. In 1958, however, with the stated purpose of combating Communism, Sarit deposed his own premier, suspended the constitution, and declared martial law. King Bhumibol Adulyadej proclaimed an interim constitution in 1959 and named Sarit premier. When Sarit died in 1963, Thanom Kittikachorn was returned to power. A new constitution was finally promulgated in 1968. Under Sarit and Thanom the country's economy in the 1960s continued to boom, spurred by a favorable export market and considerable U.S. aid. Thailand strongly supported the U.S. policy in South Vietnam, providing bases for U.S. troops and airfields for strikes against the North Vietnamese; thousands of Thai troops were sent in support of South Vietnam. The nation's foreign policy was closely geared to the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia and its economy became increasingly dependent upon U.S. military spending and subsidies. Thailand became one of the founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967.
Economic reversals came in 1970 when the international demand for rice dropped substantially (due in part to improved farming techniques in other countries) and the prices of tin and rubber fell; for the first time since 1933, Thailand suffered a trade deficit. In addition, the security of the country appeared threatened by the spread of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and Laos and by growing insurgencies, chiefly Communist led, in three separate areas within Thailand itself: in the south, where Malaysian Communists used Thailand as a staging base for operations in Malaysia and Thai Malay separatists mounted an insurgency that continued into the 1980s; in the north, where Communists trained in North Vietnam were believed to be organizing the hill peoples; and, most significantly, in the economically backward northeastern provinces, where a discontented minority had been active since the mid-1950s.
The increasing economic and security problems prompted a coup in Nov., 1971, by Premier Thanom Kittikachorn and three military aides, in which they abolished the constitution and the parliament and imposed military rule. Guerrilla raids against both Thai government forces and U.S. air bases continued. Economic conditions improved throughout 1972 as large numbers of U.S. military personnel were transferred from South Vietnam to bases in Thailand; by June of that year there were more U.S. forces in Thailand than in South Vietnam.
In Oct., 1973, the military regime of Thanom was toppled after a week of student demonstrations and violence in Bangkok. King Bhumibol Adulyadej appointed Sanya Thammasak as Thanom's successor, giving Thailand its first civilian premier in twenty years. The new premier promised to complete a constitution and to hold general elections. In May, 1974, citing the heavy burden of the office and the sharp criticism directed against the government, Sanya resigned, but he was soon persuaded to form a new government. In June he was sworn in as the head of a revamped, all-civilian cabinet. A new constitution was promulgated in Oct., 1974. Over the next few years the civilian government made little headway in establishing its authority. In 1976, the military took control of the government once again. After that, the military held power almost continuously until the early 1990s.
From the late 1970s, Thailand's political concerns were dominated by pressures resulting from warfare in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and serious unrest in Myanmar (Burma); Thailand also experienced a massive influx of refugees from these countries. From 1975 onward, Thailand was a way station for Hmong refugees immigrating to the United States under its resettlement program. The Khmer Rouge used Thailand as a staging area after they were driven out of Cambodia by the Vietnamese, and internal fighting within the Cambodian government in 1997 sent a new flow of refugees into Thailand.
In 1992 there were signs of popular opposition to continued military rule and, after antigovernment demonstrators were killed, King Bhumibol Adulyadej appointed a civilian as interim prime minister. In the Sept., 1992, elections, parties opposed to the military won a majority, and Chuan Leekpai became prime minister of a coalition government. In Jan., 1995, parliament approved a package of constitutional reforms that lowered the voting age to 18, guaranteed equal rights for women, and reduced membership in the military-dominated senate. New elections were held in July, 1995, after Chuan's government fell because of a land-reform scandal; the Chart Thai (Thai Nation) party won a slight plurality, and Banharn Silpa-archa became prime minister, heading a seven-party coalition. His government collapsed in Dec., 1996, and he was succeeded by Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. However, Chavalit resigned under pressure in Nov., 1997, and Chuan Leekpai once again became prime minister. A new constitution was approved in Sept., 1997.
Despite its unsteady political climate, Thailand appeared to have one of the strongest economies in SE Asia. However, following years of speculation in the real estate market and growing corruption in government, its currency plummeted in July, 1997, setting off a crisis in Asian financial markets and plunging the country into a deep recession. The International Monetary Fund pledged to provide Thailand with a $17 billion rescue package, and by 2000 the economy was experiencing a recovery, but the economic pain led in a loss of support for the government. Elections in Jan., 2001, resulted in a victory for the Thai Rak Thai party (Thais Love Thais; TRT) and its allies, the Chart Thai and Khwam Wang Mai (New Aspiration) parties. Thaksin Shinawatra of the TRT became prime minister, but an anticorruption commission accused him of concealing his assets, raising the possibility that he would be banned from politics for five years. Thailand's high court, however, cleared him in a close decision in August. The new government has privatized a number of state-owned companies, but it also has been marked by investigations into and disclosures of significant corruption.
In 2004 there were attacks by Muslim separatists in Thailand's three southern provinces. Muslims, who are in the majority in the provinces, complained of discrimination in education and employment. The situation there evolved into an ongoing conflict, exacerbated by the sometimes excessive response of the Thai police and military. Militant attacks against nonsecurity targets as the conflict became prolonged, however, also alienated many Muslims.
In Dec., 2004, areas of S Thailand along the Indian Ocean were devastated by a tsunami; an estimated 8,000 people, some of them foreign tourists, died. The government's response to the disaster and the nation's generally improved economic conditions resulted in strong support for the TRT and the prime minister in the Feb., 2005, parliamentary elections, and the governing coalition increased its majority in the lower house. The continuing attacks by Muslim separatists in the south led the prime minister to assume emergency powers in July, 2005.
Meanwhile, Thai publisher Sondhi Limthongkul, a former ally of the prime minister, began publicly criticizing Thaksin for corruption and poor government performance, first on his television program and, after being forced off the air in Aug., 2005, at public rallies. Thaksin responded with libel suits, and there were attacks on Sondhi's offices. In Dec., 2005, the king, in a rare criticism of the government, rebuked Thaksin for suing Sondhi, and the prime minister subsequently withdrew his lawsuits.
A controversial stock sale (Jan., 2006) by Thaksin's children, who sold a nearly 50% stake in the family communications business to a Singapore-government-owned company and legally avoided taxes on the deal, gave new life to anti-government protests. In February the prime minister called a snap election, but the opposition boycotted the April vote. The TRT won a majority of the seats, but 10% of the constituencies failed to elect a representative (all seats must be filled for a government to be formed) and there was a sizable number of abstentions. Thaksin announced he would step aside and "rest," but he did not resign as prime minister as demanded by the opposition. A second ballot in late April still failed to fill all the seats, leading the king to call on the courts to resolve the problem. In May the Constitutional Court ruled the election invalid.
Thaksin resumed his post later in the month, and a new election was tentatively scheduled for October. Meanwhile the late April election of the senate, intended to be independent but dominated by Thaksin supporters, was marred by vote-buying. In June Thaksin said he would support the proposals by a national commission for the three southern provinces; it recommended establishing a regional administrative body to oversee the provinces, using of Malay as a local "working" government language, and avoiding military responses in favor of resolving the problems that had produced the unrest. In mid-June there was a coordinated string of some 40 bombings in the south.
In mid-September the Thai election commission postponed the October parliamentary elections, but shortly thereafter, with Thaksin abroad, the military overthrew him. Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the head of the army and close to the king, led the coup. He was named head of the Council of National Security, which under the interim constitution became Thailand's most powerful body. A retired general, Surayud Chulanont, was appointed prime minister in October, and a hand-picked unicameral legislature was also appointed. The same month the new government agreed to talks with Muslim rebels in S Thailand, and then revived a former government agency for the region; the dissolution of the agency had contributed to the current unrest in the south. The policy changes did not, however, reduce rebel attacks, which continued into subsequent years and increased in frequency and brutality.
Meanwhile, in Mar., 2007, Thaksin's wife and others were charged with evading taxes in a 1997 share transfer, and the following month his children were order by a Thai anticorruption committee to pay $616 million in taxes and fines as a result of their 2006 sales of stock in the family telecommunications firm. The government moved in June to seize $1.5 billion in assets belonging to Thaksin and his wife, and also ordered him to return to face corruption charges; he remained in exile. The previous month a court had ordered the TRT party disbanded for breaking the electoral laws in 2006; Thaksin was barred from politics for five years. Warrants were subsequently issued for the arrest of Thaksin and his wife on corruption charges.
In Aug., 2007, Thai voters approved a new constitution in a referendum, which was subsequently endosed by the king. Air Chief Marshal Chalit Pukbhasuk succeeded Sonthi as national security council leader in Oct., 2007. In the parliamentary elections in December, the People Power party (PPP), led by an ally of Thaksin and drawing on Thaksin's rural support, won a plurality of the seats; the vote was seen as a repudiation of the coup. Thaksin's wife returned to Thailand from exile in Jan., 2008. In February the PPP formed a six-party coalition government, with PPP leader Samak Sundaravej as prime minister and many former Thaksin aides in key posts; later that month Thaksin returned to Thailand. In July, one party left the governing coalition because of the PPP's focus on constitutional reform. The opposition, known as Yellow Shirts (yellow being the color traditional associated with the monarchy), began mounting increasing confrontational protests against the government in mid-2008; beginning in August they occupied the grounds of the prime minister's office.
Thai government support for naming the Preah Vihear (Phra Viharn) temple a UNESCO World Heritage site stoked antigovernment demonstrations and led to tensions with Cambodia in July, 2008. Awarded to Cambodia in 1962, the temple is claimed by both nations. The nationalistic outpouring in Thailand, in which opposition groups asserted the government action had undermined Thailand's claim on the temple, led both nations to reinforce their troops along the border near the temple, creating concern about an outbreak of border fighting. In Aug., 2008, both nations agreed to reduce greatly their forces near the temple, but tensions continued. There were subsequent sporadic clashes over the site, most significantly in Feb., 2011, and in Apr., 2011, there were clashes there and at other disputed sites. In Dec., 2011, both governments agreed to withdraw their troops from the disputed areas around Preah Vihear, and a demilitarized zone was established there in July, 2012. Most of the disputed territory was awarded in 2013 to Cambodia by the International Court of Justice. Meanwile, in Aug., 2008, Thaksin and his wife fled Thailand for Great Britain after she was convicted of tax fraud; he had been charged with abuse of power and other crimes and was convicted in absentia of corruption in Oct., 2008.
In Sept., 2008, days of antigovernment protest in Bangkok sparked clashes between anti- and progovernment demonstrators; clashes also occurred in October and November. Prime Minister Samak was dismissed from office in September by the Constitutional Court; it ruled that Samak's hosting of a television cooking show violated Thailand's conflict of interest law. He was succeeded by Somchai Wongsawat, a former judge and Thaksin's brother-in-law. In late November antigovernment protesters also began a blockade of Bangkok's airports, with damaging consequences for Thailand's tourist industry and agricultural exports. Early the following month the Constitutional Court ruled that the PPP and two smaller coalition parties had engaged in vote buying in the last election; Somchai was barred from politics and the three parties dissolved. Yellow Shirt activists subsequently ended their protests and blockades. The opposition Democrat party succeeded in forming a governing coalition later in December; party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva became prime minister.
Thaksin supporters, known as "Red Shirts" for the color they used to distinguish themselves from the Yellow Shirts, subsequently mounted demonstrations against the new government. In late March the protests in Bangkok became significant, and in mid-April protestors forced the cancellation of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit; demonstrations were also reported in northern and northeastern provinces. Abhisit declared a state of emergency (which lasted two weeks), and used the military to suppress the protests in the capital. In Nov., 2009, Cambodia's naming of Thaksin as a government adviser strained relations between the two nations again.
In Mar., 2010, Thaksin supporters again mounted signficant demonstations in the capital against Abhisit in an attempt to force him to resign and call new elections; the government again declared a state of emergency. In April the ongoing protests erupted into fighting between the Red Shirts and security forces, and hundreds were injured. Abhisit subsequently placed the army commander in chief in charge of national security. In May, after increasing tensions, the government forcibly reestablished control over Bangkok; in response, protesters set fire to a number of buildings, and there were also riots in a number of cities in NE Thailand (a Red Shirt stronghold). The government subsequently also issued an arrest warrant for Thaksin, on terrorism charges relating to the two-month protest. Not until December was emergency rule lifted in all provinces.
In the June, 2011, elections for the House of Representatives, the pro-Thaksin For Thais party (Phuea Thai party, PTP), led by Thaksin's sister Yingluck Shinawatra, won a majority of the seats and subsequently formed a coalition government with a number of smaller parties; Yingluck became Thailand's first woman prime minister. In the 2011 monsoon season (August–October) unusually heavy rains resulted in weeks of significant flooding in three quarters of the country's provinces; it was the worst flooding in half a century. More than 750 persons died, and some areas continued to be affected into early 2012; the disruption to manufacturing caused an economic slowdown.
In Nov., 2013, the amendment of a political amnesty bill to include Thaksin led to a legislative walkout of opposition Democrats, and sparked demonstrations against the government that continued into 2014 despite the failure of the bill to pass the Senate. In December Yingluck dissolved parliament and announced new elections, which the PTP was expected to win; the Democrats announced a boycott of the elections, and demonstrators attempted to disrupt the preparations for them. In Jan., 2014, the government imposed a state of emergency in Bangkok and surrounding provinces.
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