Up until recently it was thought that the first settlers in Thailand were immigrants from southern China, who migrated in the early part of the second millennium. However, the discovery of archaeological artefacts at Ban Chiang only 20 years ago, suggests that the history of Thailand is one of the longest known in the world, with proof of civilisation dating back to prehistoric times.
It was, however, the migrants from southern China who formed the first city states in the northern regions of present-day Thailand. Known from the beginning as Thais, meaning ‘free’, these first settlers included minority groups of Mon, Khmer and Chinese. They also gave inspiration for the present day name which was changed from Siam to Thailand in 1932 – meaning ‘land of the free’.
Dvaravati and Khmer
The earliest distinguishable organised states formed in the fertile central plains during a period known now as Dvaravati, which declined in the 11th century as the Khmer influences arose from the powerful kingdom of Angkor in present day Cambodia. The land of the Mons, who defined the earliest culture of the area gradually came to be known as Syam – meaning golden land in Sanskrit. The moniker was responsible for both Siam, and the popular term Suvarnabhumi, which has a similar meaning.
Lanna and the North
Meanwhile kingdoms were forming in the North; with Lanna developing into a well organised and powerful state based out of Chiang Saen – a trading town on the Mekhong that survives to this day. The capital was later moved to Chiang Mai in 1296, but the nearby town of Lamphun pre-dates this settlement as the centre of the Hariphunchai kingdom.
As a result some of oldest preserved ruins and temples are found in these two towns. Lanna continued as an independent kingdom until the early 20th century despite 200 years under Burmese occupation. Even today visitors gets a real sense of the history as the old town is surrounded uniquely by the original moat, bastions and gates that date back 700 years. The city is a living museum with scores of temples that are 500 or more years old.
At the same time the Sukhothai period (1238-1350) saw the establishment of the first widespread kingdom in the region, at its height regarded as one of the most important periods in the history of Thailand. It was a time of great cultural formation, with the birth of characteristics that are still strongly respected and upheld to this day. Theravada Buddhism was established, having been brought over from Sri Lanka centuries earlier.
Moreover, written Thai language was formed and the distinctive Thai techniques in painting, sculpting and architecture made their first marks during this era. The ruins of Sukhothai and nearby Sri Satchanalai remain in a well preserved state. Not surprisingly, Thai historians consider it to be the Golden Age in the nation’s historical development.
Despite the short-lived prominence of the Sukhothai Kingdom, its traditions were upheld and used throughout the reign of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, beginning in 1350. Over a 417 year period, 34 Kings sat on the throne of Ayutthaya making it one of the longest standing capitals in the history of Thailand. This period brought about further and more fervent formation of traditional Thai values, while diplomacy with many Asian and European powers was fostered.
Situated up river from present day Bangkok, it became a powerful trading kingdom that ruled a vast areas through vassal states and was described by resident foreign diplomats as the largest and most advanced city in Asia at the time. At its zenith the Ayutthaya Kingdom spanned the length of Southeast Asia including Laos, Cambodia, parts of Burma and northern Malaysia.
Rattanakosin era and the Chakris
However, this celebrated era was abruptly ended in 1767 with a Burmese invasion and take over. The city was sacked and the Siamese fled to set up a new capital further south. The Burmese could not consolidate their hold and within a year were expelled by forced led by the self-proclaimed King Thaksin, beginning the Thonburi period, which lasted a mere 15 years. Thaksin became delusional with his power, claiming to be a living prophet, and was despensed of by his generals.
Following this, in 1782, the present Chakri dynasty was founded and the capital moved to the East bank of the river Chao Phraya. The city came to be known internationally as Bangkok meaning ‘village of the wild plums’. In fact the official name is rather lengthy and ostentatious but is widely abbreviated by all Thais as Krung Thep or ‘City of Angels’. Since then it has expanded into a vast metropolis over the history of Thailand’s Rattanakosin period.
Under the reign of King Chulalongkorn, Fifth Rama of the dynasty, Bangkok and Siam enjoyed its most prosperous and influencial period thanks to his half-century rule of stability. He continued reforms initiated by his father, King Mongkut, who is best known to Westerners from his role in the tale The King and I.
With his Westernised education, Rama V courted European influences and toured the continent on a diplomatic offensives that cleverly kept his large Kingdom from being colonised by either the French or British. Neo-baroque buildings in Bangkok are some of the results. However, his successors proved to be less effective as Siam and its monarchy faded from its halcyon days.
In the second half of the twentieth century the monarchy has maintained a powerful role in Thailand thanks to the long reign of the over-achieving and much loved King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), who has served more than 60 years as King of Thailand.
He is one of the most respected Kings in Thailand’s modern history. During his reign there have been more than a dozen coups and a turbulent transition to democracy through a series of military run governments. While politicians have bickered and been overthrown by countless military junta, the King has remained above politics but generated enormous goodwill as the central character in an effective palace-sponsored charity program.
Over the decades he has toured the country tirelessly attending to the problems of the poor and setting up agricultural systems, that include world patents on hydrology. He’s also noted for playing his saxophone, photography and competitive sailing. Celebrations in 2006 to mark his 60 years on the throne was one of Thailand’s proudest moments, and he is universally admired as seen by the ubiquitous pictures a billboards throughout the Kingdom of him. More on the Thai monarchy.
First of the coups
The first of Thailand’s 18 coups started off after a group of European-based and educated intellectuals took advantage of a weak monarchy to pull off a revolutionary coup in 1932. King Rama VII abdicated and left the monarchy rudderless while various factions jockeyed for control over the new Thailand for the next 10 years, until a puppet government capitulated voluntarily to the invading Japanese in the Second World War.
After the war Thailand paid a huge price for siding with the Japanese, with hefty war crimes penalties. At the hands of Japanese masters the locals suffered too, the most famous example being the saga of the Death Railway construction in Kanchanaburi, in which hundreds of thousands of labourers and POWs lost their lives. The only other notable event was the accession to the throne of a young and unlikely US-born, Swiss-educated King who was thrust into the role when his 18-year-old brother was mysteriously assassinated. He would become Rama IX and go on to rule for more than 60 years to become the country’s greatest King.
The Bamboo curtain
Meanwhile Thailand had slipped behind without the benefit of foreign investment and was one of the region’s poorer countries. A series of coups and counter or failed coups continued to hamper its democratic advances, and the escalation of the Vietnam War in the region and threat of communism thrust the country to the forefront of the ‘Bamboo Curtain’. Successive military governments enjoyed hefty financial support from the US for supporting the West in their efforts, and this only served to maintain a dictatorial grip on the country by the ruthless General Sarit.
Other strongmen followed him, covering their corrupt excesses with generous financial injection from the US and palpable signs that Thailand was emerging to follow the tiger economy examples set elsewhere in Asia. But their time was soon up, and by 1973 students disgusted with their political repression stood up to be counted, demanding a real constitution. On October 14th, they were brutally put down and the resulting bloodshed forced the ruling pair of men in uniform to go into exile.
A shaky coalition took charge and lasted three years before more student protests – this time at the returning home of the exiled strongmen – again caused the army to turn their guns on their own people. Hundreds more where killed resulting in mass disillusionment among the youth, many of whom took to the hills of the north to join the Thailand communist movement. This event explains why modern day authorities are reluctant to take on protesters with the risk of bloodshed and loss of face, including the 2008 siege of the airport.
However, this did little to appease the elite class, who tacitly supported another military-backed pseudo-civilian government. More coups followed until the relatively stable eighties were ushered in under the royalist PM Prem Tinsulanonda.
Boom times and growing pains
By now, Thailand was an Asian tiger of its own, boasting one of the world’s fastest growing economies (at nearly 10 per cent for more than a decade) and Thais became more interested in money than politics. With the Vietnam War over, communism on the wane and Bangkok rapidly bursting at the seams due to migrant labour, Thailand had few problems to focus on. The communists were gradually reeled in with incentives and the country enjoyed unprecedented stability.
But Thai politics has a habit of shooting itself in the foot, and the country surprised the world in 1991 when the military emerged from the shadows of economic advancement to overthrow a government they accused of mass corruption. If their intentions were sound, they lost all credibility when a year later the promised elections installed the coup leader as the new Prime Minister with a heavy military influence on government.
Again the public didn’t stand for it, and massive street confrontation forced General Suchinda to step down after the King intervened to avoid more bloodshed. Finally a proper civilian government was installed and the rest of the decade saw a calamitous series of collapsed coalition governments while the rest of the country got on with making money. Corruption, scandals, allegiance swapping of minor coalition partners and vote buyer were all regular news, ensuring no government lasted more than 18 months.
But the biggest shock of the decade was the financial crisis in ’97, in which fiscally irresponsible management of the booming economy (corruption and grand larceny notwithstanding) precipitated an economic collapse that spread throughout Asia and devastating the fortunes of Thailand. Within months, against the advice of the IMF, a disastrous attempt to prop up the baht saw it lose 40 per cent of its value, as many went bankrupt and millions lost their jobs and mortgages. It would be eight years before the country had entirely recovered and to this day the unfinished skyscrapers around Bangkok have come to be symbols known as ‘ghosts of ’97’.
The Thaksin era
Finally, the new millennium ushered in stability in the form of a telecoms tycoon who had become exceedingly wealthy by cornering monopolies. Thaksin Shinawatra rose through the political ranks remarkably quickly and his new Thai Rak Thai party stormed to victory in 2001, promising hand outs to the poor. His CEO style of management was much admired and good for the economy, but his narrow avoidance of an assets concealment investigation shortly after taking office was an ominous sign of his tenure.
With the country back on its financial feet, Thais had never had it so good as the charismatic and business-minded billionaire instilled confidence in investors and forced through a results-orientated agenda. But trouble was brewing as allegations of corruption, cronyism, bullying and suppression of the media began to emerge. In 2003, under the media shadow of the Iraq war, his ill-conceived ‘war on drugs’ turned into a human rights disaster as more than 2,000 people where executed without accountability among the police.
But he beguiled the poor rural masses with his populist policies and pulled off an unprecedented landslide victory in 2005, allegedly using his deep pockets. However, within a year it all began to unravel. Under pressure to wash his hands of his increasingly lucrative Shin Corp empire which was supposedly owned by his children, he sold out to the Singaporean government investment company Temasak in January 2006.
In doing so he made the critical mistake of undertaking tricky last minute ownership changes to avoid the hefty tax bill and it proved to be his undoing. Declared ethically unfit to rule by the increasing horde of critics, Thaksin came under heavy pressure as hundreds of thousands of Bangkokians took the streets demand he resign. He fought back, causing costly divisions among the people, effectively pitting the rural folk against the more informed city-dwellers. A snap poll was called in April to give him a fresh mandate but it was boycotted by the opposition and the sham was declared null and void by the supreme court.
Not another coup!
Finally, on September 19th as Thaksin was about to address the United Nations in New York City, the army stepped into politics once more and shocked the world with yet another coup – Thailand’s 18th in 75 years. It spoilt the 60th anniversary celebrations of the King’s reign, but almost everyone was generally relieved and supportive when not a single drop of blood was shed. Citing corruption and divisions in society, the military promptly appointed a new government, abrogated the much vaunted 1997 constitution, and promised a new and less porous one within a year, followed by new elections.
In early 2007, Thai Rak Thai was dissolved and 111 of its members banned from politics for five years after a lengthy trial on election fraud. The military, meanwhile, took the opportunity to reassert itself after suffering an increasingly diminishing role, at the same time encouraging the interim government to get tough on graft. The Assets Scrutiny Commission was given extensive powers, ostensibly to go after the exiled Thaksin and his wife whose assets were seized and corruption charges laid against them.
With a new constitution approved in Thailand’s first ever referendum, elections in December 2007 didn’t quite turn out as planned. The coup had derailed economic development and the poor decided they wanted Thaksin back. To the dismay of the military and elite, the People’s Power Party (PPP) – a self-confessed proxy of Thaksin, convincingly won the popular vote but still needed to cobble a coalition together.
As it became increasingly obvious that the PPP’s main agenda was to ram through constitutional amendments, designed to repeal the banning of the TRT executives from politics and dissolve the corruption investigations, the PAD protest group took to the streets once more. The Thaksin saga was by no means over.
With the judiciary moving forward independently, Thaksin and his wife were eventually found guilty in the first of several corruption trials. But the couple jumped bail while attending the Beijing Olympics and went into exile. Meanwhile, the PPP had been caught on numerous vote fraud counts in the election and a trial was moving rapidly towards their fate.
The airport siege
With the stakes high and time running out, the governing coalition tried to move their timetable forward to amend the constitution in favour of exonerating themselves and Thaksin. This culminated in an increasingly militant PAD occupying Government House and finally the busy Suvarnabhumi Airport. On the eve of the tourist season the economic fallout was critical, and the country teetered on the brink of civil unrest between the yellow shirted PAD and red shirted govt/Thaksin supporters. Meanwhile the army insisted this time it would not get involved.
Finally the courts offered a release valve, by bringing forward the verdict on the vote fraud trial in which the PPP and two other coalition parties were found guilty and dissolved under tough new vote-buying legislation. The government collapsed, the protest ended at the airport, and the opposition Democrats (ostensibly with behind the scenes lobbying from the army), managed to persuade mass defections that helped them set up a new coalition government.
It was generally agreed that this was the best short term option for stabilising the political situation and focusing on the fallout of the world economic crisis. However, with the exiled fugitive Thaksin refusing to exit the stage, and making regular phone-ins to stadium sized rallies, it seemed clear that a large group feel their democratic will had been cheated.
Seige of Bangkok
And indeed a well-organised, well-financed protest in April, 2010 – in an attempt to overthrow the government from the streets – dragged on for three months, involving bloodshed and a city under siege that made the front pages of newspapers worldwide. The military were eventually drawn in to clear the protest, leading to 90 fatalities and the burning of several prominent buildings in the capital by the retreating ‘Red Shirts’. However, the following general election on 3 July, 2011, saw the defeat of the coalition in favour of the opposition Pheu Thai Party, where Thaksin Shinawatra’s sister, Yinkluck, would become Thailand’s first female ‘PM’.