History of Thailand


Stone Wheel of Law, Dvaravati Period (sixth-ninth centuries AD), found at Phra Pathom Chedi, Nakhon Pathom Province.

LITTLE IS KNOWN of the earliest inhabitants of what is now Thailand, but 5,000-year-old archaeological sites in the northeastern part of the country are believed to contain the oldest evidence of rice cultivation and bronze casting in Asia and perhaps in the world. In early historical times, a succession of tribal groups controlled what is now Thailand. The Mon and Khmer peoples established powerful kingdoms that included large areas of the country. They absorbed from contact with South Asian peoples religious, social, political, and cultural ideas and institutions that later influenced the development of Thailand’s culture and national identity.

The Tai, a people who originally lived in southwestern China, migrated into mainland Southeast Asia over a period of many centuries. The first mention of their existence in the region is a twelfth-century A.D. inscription at the Khmer temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which refers to syam, or "dark brown" people (the origin of the term Siam) as vassals of the Khmer monarch. In 1238 a Tai chieftain declared his independence from the Khmer and established a kingdom at Sukhothai in the broad valley of the Mae Nam (river) Chao Phraya, at the center of modern Thailand. Sukhothai was succeeded in the fourteenth century by the kingdom of Ayutthaya. The Burmese invaded Ayutthaya and in 1767 destroyed the capital, but two national heroes, Taksin and Chakkri, soon expelled the invaders and reunified the country under the Chakkri Dynasty.

Over the centuries Thai national identity evolved around a common language and religion and the institution of the monarchy. Although the inhabitants of Thailand are a mixture of Tai, Mon, Khmer, and other ethnic groups, most speak a language of the Tai family. A Tai language alphabet, based on Indian and Khmer scripts, developed early in the fourteenth century. Later in the century a famous monarch, Ramathibodi, made Theravada Buddhism the official religion of his kingdom, and Buddhism continued into the twentieth century as a dominant factor in the nation’s social, cultural, and political life. Finally, the monarchy, buttressed ideologically by Hindu and Buddhist mythology, was a focus for popular loyalties for more than seven centuries. In the late twentieth century the monarchy remained central to national unity.

During the nineteenth century, European expansionism, rather than Thailand’s traditional enemies, posed the greatest threat to the kingdom’s survival. Thai success in preserving the country’s independence (it was the only Southeast Asian country to do so) was in part a result of the desire of Britain and France for a stable buffer state separating their dominions in Burma, Malaya, and Indochina. More important, however, was the willingness of Thailand’s monarchs, Mongkut (Rama IV, 1851-68) and Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868-1910), to negotiate openly with the European powers and to adopt European-style reforms that modernized the country and won it sovereign status among the world’s nations. Thailand (then known as Siam) paid a high price for its independence, however: loss of suzerainty over Cambodia and Laos to France and cession of the northern states of the Malay Peninsula to Britain. By 1910 the area under Thai control was a fraction of what it had been a century earlier.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, Thailand’s political system, armed forces, schools, and economy underwent drastic changes. Many Thai studied overseas, and a small, Western-educated elite with less traditional ideas emerged. In 1932 a bloodless coup d’etat by military officers and civil servants ended the absolute monarchy and inaugurated Thailand’s constitutional era. Progress toward a stable, democratic political system since that time, however, has been erratic. Politics has been dominated by rival military-bureaucratic cliques headed by powerful generals. These cliques have initiated repeated coups d’etat and have imposed prolonged periods of martial law. Parliamentary institutions, as defined by Thailand’s fourteen constitutions between 1932 and 1987, and competition among civilian politicians have generally been facades for military governments.

International Disputes

Separatist violence in Thailand's predominantly Muslim southern provinces prompt border closures and controls with Malaysia to stem terrorist activities; Southeast Asian states have enhanced border surveillance to check the spread of avian flu; talks continue on completion of demarcation with Laos but disputes remain over several islands in the Mekong River; despite continuing border committee talks, Thailand must deal with Karen and other ethnic rebels, refugees, and illegal cross-border activities, and as of 2006, over 116,000 Karen and other refugees and asylum seekers from Burma; Cambodia and Thailand dispute sections of boundary; in 2011 Thailand and Cambodia resorted to arms in the dispute over the location of the boundary on the precipice surmounted by Preah Vihear temple ruins, awarded to Cambodia by ICJ decision in 1962 and part of a planned UN World Heritage site; Thailand is studying the feasibility of jointly constructing the Hatgyi Dam on the Salween river near the border with Burma; in 2004, international environmentalist pressure prompted China to halt construction of 13 dams on the Salween River that flows through China, Burma, and Thailand; 140,000 mostly Karen refugees fleeing civil strife, political upheaval and economic stagnation in Burma live in remote camps in Thailand near the border.

Historical Events in Thailand

Year Thailand Events in History
-600 Chinese T’ai migration recorded
-300 Indian settlements, bringing the Hindu religion.
1000 The Mons, from Burma, establishes themselves in Central Thailand.
1350 Monarchy established
A unified Thai kingdom is established under the rule of King Ramathibodi. A series of kings follow, ruling what was then known as Siam.
1516 Portuguese envoy
Portuguese send an envoy to the Thai Court and sign a treaty.
1529 War with Burma
1782 Chakri dynasty
Beginning of the Chakri dynasty under King Rama I.
1833 First American envoy to the Thai Court
The United States and Siam (now Thailand) concluded a commercial treaty in Bangkok.
1833 Thai-Vietnam war
1905 Slavery was abolished
1896 British-French treaty guarantees independence
A British-French treaty guarantees independence for the new country.
1917 Siam becomes ally of Great Britain in World War I.
1939 Siam changes its name to Thailand (“Land of the Free”).
1941 Japan invades Thailand
Japan invades Thailand in World War II, forcing Thailand to fight with Japan in the war.
1942 Ambassador declares war on Britain and US.
Thailand declares war on Britain and the United States, but the Thai ambassador in Washington refuses to deliver the declaration to the U.S. government.
1944 Thailand takes back a declaration of war
Thailand takes back a declaration of war against the United States and Britain. After the war, it becomes an ally of the U.S.
1945 End of World War II.
End of World War II. Thailand is compelled to return territory it has seized from Laos, Cambodia, and Malaya. Exiled King Ananda returns.
1946 Thailand becomes the 55th member of the United Nations.
1962 United States sends troops to Thailand.
Thailand permits the United States to use bases there during the Vietnam War. Thai troops fight in South Vietnam.
1973 Free elections are held
Student riots in Bangkok bring about the fall of the military government. Free elections are held but the resulting governments lack stability.
1976 Military takes over again.
1978 New constitution promulgated.
1946 King Ananda assassinated.
1782 The new capital, Bangkok, is founded.
2006 Thaksin Shinawatra
Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra accuses several army officers of plotting to kill him after police find a car containing bomb-making materials near his house.
2007 Martial law is lifted in more than half of the country.
2008 Thai troops shoot two Cambodian soldiers
Thai troops shoot two Cambodian soldiers in a firefight on the disputed border, near the Preah Vihear temple.
2010 Mass protest
Tens of thousands of Thaksin supporters - in trademark red shirts - paralyze central Bangkok with a month-long protest calling for Prime Minister Abhisit's resignation.
2011 Pheu Thai party
The pro-Thaksin Pheu Thai party wins a landslide victory in elections.
2013 Rice prices
Government cuts the guaranteed price for rice, provoking an angry reaction from farmers and protests in Bangkok.
2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami:
On December 26, 2004, a massive earthquake and resulting tsunami struck the coasts of Thailand and several other countries in Southeast Asia. More than 8,000 people in Thailand lost their lives, and the disaster caused widespread damage to infrastructure and the economy.
2018 2018 cave rescue
In June and July 2018, the world watched as a team of international rescuers worked to save a group of young soccer players and their coach who were trapped in a flooded cave in northern Thailand. The dramatic rescue mission involved a complex network of divers, engineers, and volunteers, and captured the attention of people around the globe.
2020 Anti-government protests
Thailand saw a wave of anti-government protests led by young activists calling for democratic reforms and an end to military influence in politics. The protests were met with a crackdown by the authorities, including arrests and charges of lese majeste (insulting the monarchy), which carries severe penalties in Thailand.
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