Thailand History

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Ayutthayan style bronze Buddha in royal attire, Monastery of the Fifth King (Pencamapabitra), Bangkok.

Busy street scene in Bangkok
Courtesy United Nations

NEITHER A STATIC nor a revolutionary society, Thailand has always been able to harness the talents of its people, make effective use of its natural environment, and progress at an evolutionary pace. The tendency of the Central Thai--for centuries the controlling group in Thai society--to eliminate or suppress ethnic or religious differences was tempered by the Chakkri Dynasty, which had, for the most part, fostered toleration since assuming the monarchy in 1782.

Although Thai society appeared homogeneous, it actually represented a compromise among various groups, which, in order to preserve their own identity, accepted certain aspects of general Thai identity, or Ekkalak Thai. As in the past, in modern Thailand the basic social and communal structure was controlled by a power elite system comprising the monarchy, the military, and upper level bureaucrats. These groups had a symbiotic relationship with the economic and business community that strongly influenced decision making. As a result of modern education and international influences, however, the composition of all parts of the elite system was changing in the late 1980s.

As Thailand became more active in world trade and the international community in general, the traditional practice of measuring status by the extent of landholdings became less meaningful. Although the Buddhist sangha (monastic community) and the royal family remained the largest landholders, they were no longer the richest elements in society. Their wealth was often surpassed by that of members of the business community and the bureaucracy (including the military), who derived their growing affluence from diverse sources.

Commerce and other economic endeavors had always had a place in Thai society, but it was only in the late twentieth century that income derived by means other than landholding became socially acceptable. In modern Thailand, entrepreneurs, educated civil servants, and career military officers were all accepted into the elite ranks. This expansion of the ruling elite was reflected in the growing influence of elected members of the National Assembly. More kinds of people had the opportunity to participate in the shaping of Thai society after 1973; however, the gap continued to widen between rich and poor.

As it made the transition from less developed country to industrialized state, Thailand often was cited as one of the success stories of the Third World. Although Thailand benefited from modernization, being a rapidly developing nation was not without problems and costs. One problem related to increased urbanization and a growing market economy was the heightened desire for more consumer products at the expense of locally made goods, services, and recreational activities. The growing incidence of violent crime, divorce, prostitution, and drug addiction also could be attributed in part to increased urbanization. Modernization was also changing the traditional ways by which individual Thai improved their economic and social condition. A university education, for example, used to virtually guarantee financial betterment; by the late 1980s, however, large numbers of liberal arts graduates were either unemployed or underemployed. Modernization also hurt the rural Thai. Previously, their access to housing, forests, and usable water sources had been a given. By the 1980s, however, environmental destruction and a growing scarcity of arable land made it increasingly difficult for the rural Thai to be relatively independent of the government.

Another cost of modernization was loss of security by some, including the elderly and Thailand’s Buddhist monks, who previously had had an assured place in Thai society. Care of and respect for the elderly had once been the responsibility of the immediate or extended family, but by the 1980s Thailand was beginning to build public and private senior citizen centers. Before World War II, the local monks and the sangha had been the main source of advice and information; in the 1980s, civil servants were often better equipped to attend to the needs of the people in an increasingly urban society.

One of the greatest changes in society following World War II was the emergence of a middle group that included affluent bureaucrats, medium-scale entrepreneurs, educated professionals, and small shopkeepers. The lower class included steadily employed wage workers and unskilled laborers who worked intermittently, if at all. Those in the middle and lower groups had not traditionally constituted self-conscious classes; those categories were relatively new and just beginning to develop common interests. Labor unions, for example, hopelessly divided over political differences in the past, made active attempts to unite on a number of issues, such as basic health and social benefits, in their negotiations with the government and the private sector.

The peasants still comprised the majority of the population. They were, however, much more differentiated than in the past. The peasantry could be defined in terms of its desire for or ownership of land or other agricultural resources, such as teak forests. The issue of landlessness in the central plain arose in the early twentieth century but was soon resolved by the opening of previously untilled areas in the northern part of the country. As a result of rapid population growth in the 1960s and 1970s, international competition in a number of Thailand’s traditional agro-economic industries, and migration to the city, landlessness was again on the rise in the 1980s. The number of rural Thai remained large and continued to increase. As Thailand’s economy continued to grow in the service areas of banking and tourism, more young adults were attracted to city jobs, thus reducing the ability of families to continue labor-intensive rice farming. At the same time, land increased in value, and absentee landlords bought up small family farms because there were no legally enforceable limits on the amount of land that could be acquired.

Cutting across rural and national strata was the system of patron- client relationships that tied specific households or individuals together as long as both patron and client saw benefits in the arrangement. In many respects, the dynamics of political and economic life were comprehensible only in terms of patron-client relations.

Another traditional system of complex values and behaviors that the majority of Thai shared through the 1980s was Theravada Buddhism. Complementing the religion were beliefs and practices assuming the existence of several types of spirits (thailand/th_glos.asp#phi"> phi--see Glossary) whose behavior was supposed to affect human welfare. The Buddhism of the Thai villagers, and even of poorly educated monks, often differed substantially from the canonical religion.

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