<<<   Home     THAI HISTORY    >   Researched by Eugen with care, but accuracy is not guaranteed.
2. Sukhothai and Ayutthaya  >   3. Early Years of Chakri Dynasty  >   4. Colonialism Averted  >  
5. Revolt of 1932 and Aftermath  >   6. World War 2  >   7. Domestic Instability  >   8. Vietnam War

1. Early History

It is natural to think that the history of Thailand is the history of the Thai people, but in fact it is much more than that. The Thai were relative latecomers on the scene, becoming the majority of the region's population only 700 or 800 years ago. The lands now included in Thailand have been inhabited for 4,000 or 5,000 years. Even long ago, people of the region were good at adopting new technologies and absorbing new populations.The society and economy of Thailand's earliest inhabitants, in prehistoric times, went through a long evolution. As is demonstrated by archaeological discoveries at Ban Chiang and other sites, these early people were among the first in the world to make and use bronze tools and weapons, to which they later added iron. They domesticated pigs and chickens, cultivated rice and caught fish, and produced fabrics from bark and fibrous plants. They lived in small villages scattered over a broad area. In early historic times, the people living in what is now central Thailand probably spoke Mon-Khmer languages (a group of languages of the Austro-Asiatic language family) and were absorbed into a number of local states that developed in the area. Especially between the 6th and 9th centuries, the kingdom of Dvaravati dominated the central plain of the Chao Phraya river system and the Khorat Plateau to its east. The most enduring legacy of this period was Theravada Buddhism, which was strongly influenced by the Buddhism of Sri Lanka (then Ceylon). Many of the region's inhabitants embraced Buddhism. Many also were exposed regularly to foreign trade by traders passing through the region when traveling between China and India by sea.Between the 9th and 13th centuries the central plain and the Khorat Plateau were incorporated into the Khmer (Cambodian) Kingdom of Angkor, centered on the ancient city of Angkor in what is now western Cambodia. This added a Khmer element to a population that already included indigenous and Dvaravati elements.The Thai people began to incorporate themselves into this mixture of peoples from the 10th or 11th century onwards. The Thai had been moving steadily southwestward from the border region between Vietnam and China, usually occupying the mountainous areas between major lowland states. They may have founded tiny upland principalities in the upper Mekong River region near present-day Chiang Saen as early as the 7th century. However, only in the early 13th century did they suddenly burst upon the scene in the Dvaravati and Angkor domains.
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2. Sukhothai and Ayutthaya.

Beginning in about 1220 a number of states, most of them Buddhist, arose in the region. In general, the southernmost states tended to assimilate the broadest range of cultures and languages, while those to the north tended to be more heavily Thai. By the end of the 1200s the most important such states were Sukhothai, Phayao, Chiang Mai, and Nakhon Si Thammarat. Of these, Sukhothai was the largest. Under King Ramkhamhaeng, who ruled in the late 1200s, Sukhothai prospered, gaining tributary territories that extended the kingdom's territory to the Andaman Sea to the west, into present-day Laos to the east, and to the southern Malay Peninsula to the south. The acquisitions were opposed by the Kingdom of Angkor, whose western outpost at Lopburi (the preeminent Khmer city of the central plain) contested control of the Chao Phraya valley and seaborne international trade.The Thai people continued moving southward onto the central plain. This movement brought about the establishment of a new center of Thai power, the kingdom of Ayutthaya, founded by King Ramathibodi I in 1351. Ayutthaya was on an island in the Chao Phraya, located at a point reachable by seagoing vessels. Thus the kingdom was visited regularly by trading ships from Japan, the Ryukyu Islands, China, India, and Persia. International trade was a significant source of Ayutthaya's strength, but so was its relative cosmopolitanism and the fact that its people were so varied and their skills and outlooks so diverse. The first century of Ayutthaya's existence was filled with warfare, which culminated in its defeat of its main rivals, Angkor (in 1434) and Sukhothai (in 1438). When Ayutthaya's next ruler, King Borommatrailokanat, or Trailok, came to the throne in 1448, he focused his efforts on reforming the kingdom's laws and strengthening his administration. Trailok also extended the wars of conquest farther afield, beginning a long series of wars with the kingdom of Lan Na, centered on Chiang Mai in the far north. The Burmese kingdom (present-day Myanmar) conquered Ayutthaya in 1569 after virtually annexing Lan Na in 1558, inaugurating a period of warfare that persisted throughout the century. Ayutthaya did not reestablish its independence until the 1590s, under the great warrior king Naresuan. Naresuan and subsequent kings worked to strengthen the state by further developing its international trade with the Dutch East India Company, the English East India Company, and, somewhat later, with China. Meanwhile, Ayutthaya increasingly became known to visitors as Siam. In the mid-1700s the Burmese monarchy under King Alaunghpaya became jealous of Ayutthaya's wealth and its success in attracting the sympathies of the Mon populations of Burma's southeast coast. In 1760 Burma launched an invasion against Ayutthaya. The military effort lasted until 1767, when the Thai capital finally fell following a two-year siege that resulted in many deaths and widespread famine and destruction.The Burmese might have remained to colonize Siam, but a series of Chinese invasions of Burma forced them to beat a hasty retreat. In the immediate aftermath of Ayutthaya's fall, a competition ensued for the Siamese throne. The prize fell to a former governor who came to be known as Taksin. Taksin was an excellent general who had fled Ayutthaya to the southeast and built up an army. After defeating his kingly rivals, he abandoned the ruined Ayutthaya and established a new capital farther south at Thon Buri, on the western shore of the Chao Phraya. Taksin sent his forces far afield, south along the Malay Peninsula, east to Cambodia and Laos, and north against Lan Na. In the last years of his reign, Taksin's successes went to his head. He became arbitrary and dictatorial, even requiring Buddhist monks to pay homage to him. Such actions infuriated Taksin's contemporaries, who deposed him and brought to the throne his chief general, known as the Chakri (in reference to his function) or as Chaophraya Mahakasatsuk (his title, meaning "Great King of Warfare"). This marked the beginning of the Chakri dynasty, which continues to rule the Thai state.
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3. Early Years of the Chakri Dynasty.

The Chakri took the throne as King Rama I (Phraphutthayotfa) in 1782. It was natural that at a time of ongoing, bitter warfare with Burma, an exceptionally able general should have been chosen as king. However, Rama I was much more than that. He was highly intelligent and a natural leader. He also was related by blood or marriage to all the leading families of the kingdom and thus had strong connections with Thai trading interests, including China and India.The new king moved the capital across the river to the eastern shore because the main Burmese military threat to the Thai came from the west. The new capital came to bear the name of the village it supplanted (Bang Kok, or Bangkok), although the Thai state continued to be known abroad as Siam. Rama I was not free of the Burmese threat until 1805; nevertheless, he devoted effort to laying the foundations for a modern kingdom. He undertook fundamental legal and administrative reforms as well as extensive cultural, religious, and artistic activities. When his son succeeded him as King Rama II (Phraphutthaloetla) in 1809, the Thai kingdom was stronger and more extensive than ever, encompassing all of present-day Laos as well as portions of northeastern Burma, western Cambodia, and the northern Malay Peninsula. Rama II died in 1824, and one of his sons succeeded him as King Rama III (Nangklao). By this time, the world seemed a more threatening place to the Thai. The British were beginning their colonial involvement in the Malay Peninsula and entering into war with Burma. Rama III faced increasing pressure from the British to open up Siam's trade. Following the British victory over Burma in 1826, the Thai government agreed to sign a treaty with Britain that allowed British merchants some trade concessions in Siam. The Thai signed a similar treaty with the United States in 1833. In the 1830s and 1840s Siam went to war with the Vietnamese over Cambodia and Laos, emerging with its dominant position grudgingly recognized. As the end of Rama III's reign approached around 1850, Siam faced a renewed threat from the West. Both Britain and the United States sent missions to Siam demanding free trade, extraterritorial rights (which allowed the people of these foreign nations to live in Siam under the laws of their own countries), and other reforms. The royal court refused the demands quietly, explaining that progressives in the Thai government could not afford to appear too lenient with the West. However, the foreigners were encouraged to return once the progressives had managed the accession of a new king who would be more receptive to concessions.
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4. Colonialism Averted.

The new monarch was King Mongkut (Rama IV), the younger son of Rama II, who assumed the throne in 1851. Mongkut had spent 27 years as a Buddhist monk and had used the time in intellectual pursuits, learning Western languages and science. He was well acquainted with the few British and Americans in Bangkok and had much more experience of the lives of common people than had any of his predecessors. Mongkut and his son Chulalongkorn (Rama V), who reigned from 1868 to 1910, are given much credit for Siam's conciliation of the West during the next half-century. While this is justified, much credit also is due to their ministers. Together they blunted the force of Western imperialism, which swept over much of the rest of the world during this period. In 1855 Siam signed the Bowring Treaty, which yielded free trade, extraterritorial rights, and some special privileges to Britain. The treaty served as a model for subsequent treaties with the United States, France, Japan, and many other nations. These treaties were known as unequal treaties, because they placed Thailand in a subordinate diplomatic position. However, by upholding these treaties, avoiding offending the imperial powers, and playing those powers against one another, Siam managed to secure its own independence while working to earn the respect of the West. As modern as King Mongkut might have been in the eyes of the West, he undertook no fundamental reforms during his reign. Such reforms would have been bitterly resisted by Siam's entrenched noble and bureaucratic families. His successor, Chulalongkorn, was unable to undertake real reform until the leading members of the old families began to retire from public life in the 1880s. Cambodia had come under French control in 1863, and in 1885 France completed its conquest of Vietnam. Britain took the last remaining portion of Burma the same year. When in 1893 Siam mounted a resistance against French troops sent to Laos to press Vietnam's claims there, France sent gunboats to Bangkok. The Thai capitulated and had to yield to France their sovereignty over Laos and also pay a large indemnity. Most of Laos then became part of French Indochina, France's colony in the region. France gained additional territories in Laos and Cambodia from Siam by treaty in 1904 and 1907. In 1909 Siam ceded to Britain the four northern Malay states (Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan, and Terengganu), while the British agreed to assist in financing a Bangkok-Singapore rail line and to yield some of their extraterritorial rights. Meanwhile, between about 1890 and 1910 Chulalongkorn's government launched a major administrative reform, establishing virtually all of Siam's modern government. The existing departments were reorganized into twelve ministries, including ministries of war (for a new army), justice, education, interior (for administration of the countryside), and public works, as well as specialized departments for such things as postal services, railroads and hospitals. Chulalongkorn also established new, modern schools and encouraged study abroad. The kingdom's new administration made tax collection possible. The government used the tax revenues to finance reforms and to create jobs for the many modern educated people emerging from the kingdom's new schools. In 1910 Chulalongkorn was succeeded by his son Vajiravudh (Rama VI), who had been educated in England. King Vajiravudh was an active proponent of the idea of the nation, and he popularized the idea of sacrificing, and even dying, for Siam. In July 1917 he entered Siam in World War I on the side of the Allies, winning for the kingdom a seat at the Versailles peace conference. Vajiravudh hoped to gain a sympathetic hearing for Siam's wishes to end extraterritoriality. His strategy worked, and in the early 1920s the Western nations and Japan agreed to end their unequal treaties with Siam as soon as Siam completed modernizing its laws and courts. But King Vajiravudh wastefully spent the nation's budget on his favorites and on personal pursuits, forcing his younger brother and successor, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII), to institute a massive cutback of expenses. The worldwide economic slump known as the "Great Depression", which hit Siam by 1930, intensified the country's financial troubles. Although Prajadhipok favored modest democratization, he was overruled repeatedly by his elderly uncles. Dissatisfaction grew within the kingdom, especially among young Siamese educated abroad who objected to the tight political control maintained by their country's rulers.
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5. The Revolt of 1932 and Its Aftermath

On June 24, 1932, a small revolutionary group, including European-educated civilians and discontented army officers, overthrew the absolute monarchy in a bloodless coup. The leaders of the coup and their associates -a group that became known as the Promoters- persuaded the king to accept the introduction of a constitutional monarchy. However, they argued that the country was not yet ready for true democratic government and thus kept the army in control. The Promoters were divided into leftist and rightist factions. In 1933 Pridi Phanomyong, the most influential civilian Promoter and an intellectual who had been influenced by French socialism, proposed an economic plan with an emphasis on nationalization of land and elimination of private trade. The rightist factions denounced the plan as communist. They were supported by monarchists, who mounted a rebellion against the new regime that year. The monarchist forces were soon overcome, and in 1935 King Prajadhipok abdicated in favor of his young nephew, Prince Ananda Mahidol. The prince was, at the time, studying in Europe, so a regency was appointed to carry out the functions of the monarchy until he returned. The 1930s brought about a more strident and assertive Thai nationalism, an increased role for the military in national life, and a sharp decline in the role of the monarchy and of royalty in general. By 1937 the unequal treaties and extraterritorial rights of the imperialist era had finally been eliminated, and the Thai government obtained complete autonomy over its internal and external affairs. During this period, public education improved dramatically, and industrialization and urbanization grew. In 1938 Siam came under the prime ministership of Phibun Songkhram, a field marshal who had helped lead the revolt of 1932. In 1939 Phibun changed the name of the country from Siam to Thailand in an effort to popularize the idea of its leadership of all speakers of the “Tai” languages, not just those inhabiting Siam's narrow bounds. In changing the country's name, Phibun also wished to emphasize Thai identity and distinctiveness against the country's Chinese minority, which by this time amounted to more than 10 percent of the population.
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6. World War 2

In 1940 Thailand fought a brief war with French Indochina, which had become cut off from France as a result of World War II. With Japanese mediation, the Thai government regained the territories in Laos and Cambodia that had been ceded to France in 1904 and 1907. On December 8, 1941, Japanese troops landed on Thailand's southern coast. This was around the same time that the Japanese launched attacks on Pearl Harbor, Midway, Guam, Manila, Hong Kong, and other sites. After tense meetings with the Japanese and his cabinet, Phibun agreed to allow the Japanese to move their troops through Thailand to invade and occupy the British-controlled Malay Peninsula, Singapore, and Burma. In January 1942 Thailand declared war against Britain and the United States. In 1943 Japan rewarded the Phibun government for its cooperation with the Japanese by awarding Thailand part of the territory that had been incorporated into British Burma in 1885 and the four Malay states that Siam had been forced to cede in 1909. Meanwhile, considerable anti-Japanese sentiment was developing in Thailand. With aid from the United States government, Pridi and M. R. Seni Pramoj, the wartime Thai ambassador to the United States, organized the underground "Free Thai Movement" to agitate against Japanese influence. In July 1944, as the war began to turn against Japan, Phibun was forced from office, and Khuang Aphaiwong, a civilian, took over as prime minister. Pridi continued to be a major power behind the scenes. When the war suddenly ended in August 1945, M. R. Seni Pramoj returned to become prime minister. He faced not only chaos and the disruption caused by nearly four years of Japanese presence but also extensive demands by European nations that threatened to turn Thailand into a Western colony. With strong American support, Thailand successfully resisted these pressures. However, the Thai government did restore to Britain and France the territories in Indochina, Burma, and the Malay Peninsula that it had gained during the war. After doing so, Thailand was admitted to the United Nations (UN) in December 1946. In June 1946 King Ananda died under mysterious circumstances, an event for which many irrationally blamed Pridi and others seen as opposing the monarchy. Ananda's younger brother succeeded to the throne as King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), but a regency council ruled until 1951 while Bhumibol completed his studies abroad.
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7. Domestic Instability.

The Thai government faced significant challenges in the immediate postwar period, including rampant inflation and shortages, widespread corruption, and inexperience among civilian officials. These conditions paved the way for a return to military rule, and in November 1947 a group of military officers seized the government. The new military regime was presided over by Phibun as prime minister. Phibun's government, like the military regimes that followed it, made close relations with the United States and other Western nations central to its foreign policy. The government sent a small force to assist UN forces in the Korean War in 1950 and accepted massive U.S. military aid, which further strengthened military rule. Thai representatives took part in the Geneva Conference of 1954, which temporarily ended the First Indochina War (see Geneva Accords). Later that year, Thailand became a founding member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), which established its headquarters in Bangkok. This alliance formed to provide defense and economic cooperation in Southeast Asia and the South Pacific. Increasingly shunted aside by his military lieutenants, Phibun attempted to win popularity and legitimacy by staging elections in 1957. However, the widespread accusations of corruption and ballot stuffing that followed the elections served to further discredit the government. When Phibun and his interior minister Phao Sriyanond attempted to defend their beleaguered regime, General Sarit Thanarat, backed by considerable popular support, staged a military coup that ended Phibun's rule. Sarit temporarily went abroad to seek medical attention, handing power over in early 1958 to a coalition government headed by his deputy, lieutenant-general Thanom Kittikachorn. In October Sarit returned to stage yet another military coup. He suspended the constitution, declared martial law, and banned all political parties. Sarit declared his intention to carry out a new "revolution"; in Thai society, restoring authority and discipline through measures such as improved public education and rural development. Both Sarit and Thanom (who became prime minister following Sarit's death in 1963) were alarmed by growing unrest and insurgency -mainly motivated by poverty- in rural Thailand, especially in the impoverished northeast and the south. Even more worrisome to them was the decline of pro-Western regimes in Cambodia and Laos, territories the Thai military considered natural wards of Thailand. The military believed these territories had to be saved from the Communism that was threatening to overcome Indochina with the Vietnam War, which had begun in 1959. This war pitted the Communist North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (a Vietnamese nationalist group based in South Vietnam) against the South Vietnamese, who were eventually assisted by the United States.
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8. The Vietnam War.

During the 1960s Thailand increasingly was drawn into the conflict in Indochina. The Thai government sent a military contingent to fight in South Vietnam, lent considerable covert military support to right-wing forces in Laos, and established Thailand as a major air power base. Numerous military bases were built in Thailand to house U.S. military contingents. New roads, improved railroad service, and telecommunications linked the bases. All of Thailand, but especially Bangkok, benefited economically from the heightened activity the war had produced. Thailand's increasing involvement in Indochina stimulated Vietnamese and Chinese Communists to support rebellion among rural Thai, which engulfed most of Thailand's outer provinces in the 1960s. As direct American involvement in Vietnam began to diminish beginning in about 1969, Thailand was left with considerable involvement in Indochina (especially in Laos) as well as persistent internal problems.

End of this overview, covering some 5000 years of Thai history up to about 1970.

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