Central Thailand’s vast network of canals serves as a
means of transportation and irrigation.
Courtesy United Nations
Homeless people living under bridge in Bangkok
Courtesy United Nations
The rural areas, where most Thai live, have been affected by change for many decades, especially since the mid-nineteenth century, when the impact of European economic and political activity was first felt. The full effects of change started to become manifest in the 1930s. Among the factors reflecting and creating change in local social patterns was the coup of 1932, which brought military and bureaucratic elites into power and extended the power of the central government more effectively than before into rural areas. More important in its cumulative effect, however, was the rapid growth of the population and the consequent shortage of land, which led to the development of occupations outside agriculture and the emergence of a rural and small-town bourgeoisie.
At the national level, society was stratified at the beginning of the twentieth century into three classes--kin of the reigning king and his immediate predecessors, government officials (often nobles granted their particular status by the king), and, by far the largest group, the peasantry. These classes comprised a social system in which those who had political power and status also had prestige and access to wealth. Buddhist monks had a special status outside this system. Also outside the system were the Chinese, who were largely laborers and small traders in the early twentieth century.
As the twentieth century progressed, the government bureaucracy proliferated. A growing number in the higher ranks had their origins outside the hereditary nobility, as did the upper ranks of the expanding armed forces. By the 1960s, the military and the bureaucracy included persons from several levels of the social and economic hierarchy. Directly or indirectly, the military and bureaucratic elites disposed of power and economic resources, the latter often in combination with those Chinese who controlled the major business enterprises of Thailand. Hereditary nobles retained high status, but they no longer wielded power and did not match some of the members of the military oligarchy in wealth. Monkhood remained a source of special status and was an avenue of social mobility for persons of rural origin with talent and a willingness to give part or all of their lives to the sangha; but monkhood was less and less attractive to urbanites or to those who had access to other avenues to power, wealth, and status. After World War II, an incipient urban middle class and an urban proletariat also emerged, particularly in Bangkok, partly in response to a commercial and tourist boom generated by the presence of large numbers of foreigners, particularly Americans.
Still outside the social system, in the sense that their direct access to political power was restricted and that their sense of a worthwhile career differed from that of most Thai, were the Chinese. Members of other non-Thai ethnic groups could occasionally make a place for themselves in the middle or upper reaches of Thai society by assimilating Thai culture. The Chinese were less able to do so until the 1960s and 1970s, when they began to move into the upper bureaucracy in larger numbers.
More significant in the daily life of many Thai than differences in status was the relationship between patron and client. This link between two specific persons required the client to render services and other kinds of support in return for protection, the use of the patron’s influence on the client’s behalf, and occasional favors or financial aid. The basic pattern was old, but the relationship had evolved from a social one with economic overtones to one in which economic transactions and political support were more important.