- Early kingdoms
- Khmer & Srivijaya
- Sukhothai & Lan Na Thai
- Founding of the Chakri Dynasty
- 1932 revolution
- The return of the military
- Musical chairs & a new constitution
- Troubles in the Deep South
- 2006–2008 Political Crisis
Modern linguistic theory and archaeological evidence suggest that the first true agriculturists in the world, perhaps also the first metal workers, spoke an early form of Thai and lived in what we know today as Thailand. The Mekong River valley and Khorat Plateau in particular were inhabited as far back as 10, 000 years ago, and rice was grown in the Ban Chiang and Ban Prasat areas of northeastern Thailand as early as 4000 BC (China, by contrast, was growing and consuming millet at the time). The Ban Chiang culture began bronze metallurgy before 3000 BC; the Middle East’s Bronze Age arrived around 2800 BC, China’s a thousand years later. Ban Chiang bronze works were stronger than their Mesopotamian or Chinese counterparts, mainly due to Ban Chiang’s access to the abundant tin resources of the Thai-Malay Peninsula.
Early Thais, often classified with the broader Austro-Thai group, were nomadic and their original homeland a matter of academic debate. While most scholars favour a region vaguely stretching from Guangxi in southern China to Dien Bien Phu in northern Vietnam, a more radical theory says the Thais descended from an ocean-based civilisation in the western Pacific. The oceanic proponents trace the development of symbols and myths in Thai art and culture to arrive at their conclusions.
This vast, non-unified zone of Austro-Thai influence spread all over Southeast Asia at various times. In Thailand, these Austro-Thai groups belonged to the Thai-Kadai and Mon-Khmer language families.
The Thai-Kadai is the most significant ethno-linguistic group in all of Southeast Asia, with 72 million speakers extending from the Brahmaputra River in India’s Assam state to the Gulf of Tonkin and China’s Hainan Island. To the north, there are Thai-Kadai speakers well into the Chinese provinces of Yunnan and Guangxi, and to the south they are found as far as the northern Malaysian state of Kedah. In Thailand and Laos they are the majority populations, and in China, Vietnam and Myanmar (Burma) they are the largest minorities. The predominant Thai half of the Thai-Kadai group includes the Ahom (Assam), the Siamese (Thailand), the Black Thai or Thai Dam (Laos and Vietnam), the Thai Yai or Shan (Myanmar and Thailand), the Thai Neua (Laos, Thailand and China), the Thai Lü (Laos, Thailand and China) and the Yuan (Laos and Thailand). The less numerous Kadai groups (under a million) include such comparatively obscure languages in southern China as Kelao, Lati, Laha, Laqua and Li.
A linguistic map of southern China, northeastern India and Southeast Asia clearly shows that the preferred zones of occupation by the Thai peoples have been river valleys, from the Red (Hong) River in the south of China and Vietnam to the Brahmaputra River in Assam, India. At one time there were two terminals for movement into what is now Thailand. The ‘northern terminal’ was in the Yuan Jiang and other river areas in China’s modern-day Yunnan and Guangxi provinces, and the ‘southern terminal’ along central Thailand’s Mae Nam Chao Phraya (Chao Phraya River). The human populations remain quite concentrated in these areas today, while areas between the two were merely intermediate relay points and have always been less populated.
The Mekong River valley between Thailand and Laos was one such intermediate zone, as were river valleys along the Nan, Ping, Kok, Yom and Wang Rivers in northern Thailand, plus various river areas in Laos and also in the Shan State of Myanmar. As far as historians have been able to piece together, significant numbers of Austro-Thai peoples in southern China or northern Vietnam probably began migrating southward and westward in small groups as early as the 8th century AD – most certainly by the 10th century.
These migrant Thais established local polities along traditional social schemata according to meuang (roughly ‘principality’ or ‘city-state’), under the rule of chieftains or sovereigns (jâo meuang). Each meuang was based in a river valley or section of a valley and some were loosely collected under one jâo meuang or an alliance of several.
Wherever Thais met indigenous populations of Tibeto-Burmans and Mon-Khmers in the move south and westward (into what is now Myanmar, Thailand and Laos), they were somehow able to displace, assimilate or co-opt them without force. The most probable explanation for this relatively smooth assimilation is that there were already Thai peoples indigenous to the area.
With no written records or chronologies it is difficult to say with certainty what kind of cultures existed in Thailand before the middle of the first millennium AD. However, by the 6th century an important network of agricultural communities was thriving as far south as modern-day Pattani and Yala, and as far north and northeast as Lamphun and Muang Fa Daet (near Khon Kaen).
Theravada Buddhism was flourishing and may have entered the region during India’s Ashoka period, in the 3rd or 2nd century BC, when Indian missionaries are said to have been sent to a land called Suvannabhumi (Land of Gold). Suvannabhumi most likely corresponds to a remarkably fertile area stretching from southern Myanmar, across central Thailand, to eastern Cambodia. Two different cities in Thailand’s central river basin have long been called Suphanburi (City of Gold) and U Thong (Cradle of Gold).
Nakhon Pathom in central Thailand seems to have been the centre of Dvaravati culture. The main ethnicity of the Dvaravati peoples was Mon, whose culture quickly declined in the 11th century under the political domination of the invading Khmers, who made their regional headquarters in Lopburi. A Mon kingdom – Hariphunchai – in today’s Lamphun Province, held out until the late 12th or early 13th century, when it was annexed by northern Thais.
Dvaravati is a Sanskrit name meaning Place of Gates, referring to the city of Krishna in the Indian epic poem Mahabharata. The French art historian Georges Coedès discovered the name on some coins that were excavated in the Nakhon Pathom area. The Dvaravati culture is known for its art work, including Buddha images (showing Indian Gupta influence), stucco reliefs on temple walls and in caves, architecture, exquisite terracotta heads, votive tablets and various sculptures.
Dvaravati may have also been a cultural relay point for the Funan and Chenla cultures of ancient Laos and Cambodia to the northeast and east. The Chinese, through the travels of the famous pilgrim Xuan Zang, knew the area as Tuoluobodi, between Sriksetra (Myanmar) and Isanapura (Laos-Cambodia).
The Khmer kingdom, with its capital in present-day Cambodia, expanded westward into a large swath of present-day Thailand between the 9th to 11th centuries. Much of Thailand made up the Khmer frontier with administrative capitals in Lopburi, Sukhothai and Phimai. Roads and temples were built linking these centres to the capital at Angkor. As a highly developed society, Khmer culture infused the border regions with its art, language, religion and court structure. Monuments from this period located in Kanchanaburi, Lopburi and many northeastern towns were constructed in the Khmer style, most notably found in Angkor.
Elements of the Khmer religions – Brahmanism, Theravada Buddhism and Mahayana Buddhism – were intermixed as Lopburi became a religious centre, and some elements of each Buddhist school – along with Brahmanism – remain in Thai religious and court ceremonies today.
A number of Thais became mercenaries for the Khmer armies in the early 12th century, as depicted on the walls of Angkor Wat. The Khmers called the Thais ‘Syam’, and this was how the Thai kingdom eventually came to be called Syam, or Sayam. In Myanmar and northwestern Thailand the pronunciation of Syam became ‘Shan’.
Meanwhile southern Thailand – the upper Malay Peninsula – was under the control of the Srivijaya empire, the headquarters of which is believed to have been located in Palembang, Sumatra, between the 8th and 13th centuries. The regional centre for Srivijaya was Chaiya, near modern Surat Thani. Remains of Srivijaya art can still be seen in Chaiya and its environs.
Several Thai principalities in the Mekong River valley united in the 13th and 14th centuries, when Thai princes wrested the lower north from the declining Khmer empire to create Sukhothai (Rising of Happiness). They later took the capital Hariphunchai from the Mon to form Lan Na Thai (Million Thai Rice Fields).
In 1238 the Sukhothai kingdom declared its independence under King Si Intharathit and quickly expanded its sphere of influence, taking advantage not only of the declining Khmer power but the weakening Srivijaya domain in the south. Sukhothai is considered by the Thais to be the first true Thai kingdom. Under King Ramkhamhaeng, the Sukhothai kingdom extended from Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south to the upper Mekong River valley (Laos) and to Bago (Myanmar). For a short time (1448–86) the Sukhothai capital was moved to Phitsanulok. It was annexed by Ayuthaya in 1376, by which time a national identity of sorts had been forged.
Ramkhamhaeng also supported two northern Thai jâo meuang – Phaya Mengrai of Chiang Mai and Phaya Ngam Meuang of Phayao – in the 1296 founding of Lan Na Thai (or Lanna). Lanna extended across northern Thailand to include Wiang Chan along the middle reaches of the Mekong River. In the 14th century Wiang Chan was taken from Lanna by Chao Fa Ngum of Luang Prabang, who made it part of his Lan Xang (Million Elephants) kingdom. Wiang Chan later flourished as an independent kingdom for a short time during the mid-16th century and eventually became the capital of Laos in its royal, French and now socialist incarnations. During the French era it got its more popular international spelling ‘Vientiane’. After a period of dynastic decline, Lanna fell to the Burmese in 1558.
The Thai kings of Ayuthaya grew very powerful in the 14th and 15th centuries, taking over U Thong and Lopburi, former Khmer strongholds, and moving east in their conquests until Angkor was defeated in 1431. Even though the Khmers were their adversaries in battle, the Ayuthaya kings adopted large portions of Khmer court customs and language. One result of this acculturation was that the Thai monarch gained more absolute authority during the Ayuthaya period and assumed the title devaraja (god-king; thewárâat in Thai) as opposed to the dhammaraja (dharma-king; thammárâat) title used in Sukhothai.
Ayuthaya was one of the greatest and wealthiest cities in Asia at the time, a thriving seaport that entertained emissaries and traders from Europe, China and beyond. In 1690 Londoner Engelbert Campfer proclaimed, ‘Among the Asian nations, the Kingdom of Siam is the greatest. The magnificence of the Ayuthaya Court is incomparable’. It has been said that London, at the time, was a mere village in comparison. The kingdom sustained an unbroken 400-year monarchical succession through 34 reigns, from King U Thong (r 1350–69) to King Ekathat (r 1758–67).
In the mid-16th century Ayuthaya and the independent kingdom of Lanna came under the control of the Burmese, but the Thais regained rule of both by the end of the century. Later attempts by the Burmese were successful in invading Ayuthaya in 1765 and the capital fell after two years of fighting. This time the invaders destroyed everything sacred to the Thais, including manuscripts, temples and religious sculpture. But the Burmese were unable to maintain a foothold in the kingdom, and the military leader Phraya Taksin, a half-Chinese, half-Thai general, re-established order in the kingdom, claimed the vacated monarchy for himself in 1769, and began ruling from the new capital of Thonburi on the banks of the Mae Nam Chao Phraya, opposite Bangkok. Taksin eventually came to regard himself as the next Buddha; his ministers, who did not approve of his religious fantasies, deposed and then executed him.
One of Taksin’s key generals, Chao Phraya Chakri, came to power and was crowned in 1782 as Phra Yot Fa. He moved the royal capital across the river to Bangkok and ruled as the first king of the Chakri dynasty. In 1809 his son, Loet La, took the throne and reigned until 1824. Both monarchs assumed the task of restoring the culture, which had been severely damaged by the Burmese decades earlier.
The third Chakri king, Phra Nang Klao (r 1824–51), went beyond reviving tradition and developed trade with China, while increasing domestic agricultural production. He also established a new royal title system, posthumously conferring ‘Rama I’ and ‘Rama II’ upon his two predecessors and taking the title ‘Rama III’ for himself. During Nang Klao’s reign, American missionary James Low brought the first printing press to Siam and produced the country’s first printed document in Thai script. Missionary Dan Bradley published the first Thai newspaper, the monthly Bangkok Recorder, from 1844 to 1845.
Commonly known as King Mongkut (Phra Chom Klao to the Thais), Rama IV was a colourful and innovative Chakri king. He originally missed out on the throne in deference to his half-brother, Rama III, and lived as a Buddhist monk for 27 years. During his long monastic term he became adept in Sanskrit, Pali, Latin and English, studied Western sciences and adopted the strict discipline of local Mon monks. He kept an eye on the outside world and, when he took the throne in 1851, immediately courted diplomatic relations with a few European nations, taking care to evade colonisation.
In addition, he attempted to demythologise Thai religion by aligning Buddhist cosmology with modern science, and founded the Thammayut monastic sect, based on the strict discipline he had followed as a monk.
King Mongkut loosened Thai trade restrictions and many Western powers signed trade agreements with the monarch. He also sponsored Siam’s second printing press and instituted educational reforms, developing a school system along European lines. Although the king courted the West, he did so with caution and warned his subjects, ‘Whatever they have invented or done which we should know of and do, we can imitate and learn from them, but do not wholeheartedly believe in them’. Mongkut was the first monarch to show his face to Thai commoners in public.
Mongkut’s son King Chulalongkorn (known to the Thais as Rama V or Chula Chom Klao; r 1868–1910) continued his father’s tradition of reform, especially in the legal and administrative realms. Educated by European tutors, Rama V abolished prostration before the king as well as slavery and corvée (state labour). Siam further benefited from relations with European nations and the USA: railways were built, a civil service was established and the legal code restructured. Although Siam still managed to avoid European colonisation, the king was compelled to concede territory to French Indochina (Laos in 1893 and Cambodia in 1907) and British Burma (three Malayan states in 1909) during his reign.
Rama V’s son King Vajiravudh (Mongkut Klao or Rama VI; r 1910–25), was educated in Britain and during his reign he introduced educational reforms, including compulsory education. He further ‘Westernised’ the nation by conforming the Thai calendar to Western models. His reign was clouded by a top-down push for Thai nationalism that resulted in strong anti-Chinese sentiment.
Before Vajiravudh’s reign Thai parents gave each of their children a single, original name, with no surname to identify family origins. In 1909 a royal decree required the adoption of Thai surnames for all Thai citizens – a move designed to parallel the European system of family surnames and to weed out Chinese names.
In 1912 a group of Thai military officers unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the monarchy, the first in a series of coup attempts that have plagued Thai history. As a show of support for the Allies in WWI, Vajiravudh sent 1300 Thai troops to France in 1918.
While Vajiravudh’s brother King Prajadhipok (Pokklao or Rama VII; r 1925–35) ruled, a group of Thai students living in Paris became so enamoured of democratic ideology that in 1932 they mounted a successful coup d’état against absolute monarchy in Siam. This bloodless revolution led to the development of a constitutional monarchy along British lines, with a mixed military-civilian group in power.
A royalist revolt in 1933 sought to reinstate absolute monarchy, but it failed and left Prajadhipok isolated from the royalist revolutionaries and the constitution-minded ministers. One of the king’s last official acts was to outlaw polygamy in 1934, leaving behind the cultural underpinnings that now support Thai prostitution.
In 1935 the king abdicated without naming a successor and retired to Britain. The cabinet promoted his nephew 10-year-old Ananda Mahidol, to the throne as Rama VIII, although Ananda didn’t return from school in Switzerland until 1945. Phibul Songkhram, a key military leader in the 1932 coup, maintained an effective position of power from 1938 until the end of WWII.
Under the influence of Phibul’s government, the country’s English name was officially changed in 1939 from Siam to Thailand (pràthêt thai in Thai). ‘Thai’ is considered to have the connotation of ‘free’, although in actual usage it refers to the Thai, Tai or T’ai peoples.
Ananda Mahidol came back to Thailand in 1945 but was shot dead in his bedroom under mysterious circumstances in 1946. Although there was apparently no physical evidence to suggest assassination, three of Ananda’s attendants were arrested two years after his death and executed in 1954. No public charges were ever filed, and the consensus among historians today is that the attendants were ‘sacrificed’ to settle a karmic debt for allowing the king to die during their watch. His brother, Bhumibol Adulyadej, succeeded him as Rama IX. Nowadays no-one ever speaks or writes publicly about Ananda’s death – whether it was a simple gun accident or a regicidal plot remains unclear.
During the Japanese invasion of Southeast Asia in 1941, the Phibul government sided with Japan and Phibul declared war on the USA and Britain in 1942. But Seni Pramoj, the Thai ambassador in Washington, refused to deliver the declaration. Phibul resigned in 1944 under pressure from the Thai underground resistance (known as Thai Seri), and after V-J Day in 1945, Seni became premier. Seni changed the English name of the country back to ‘Siam’ but kept ‘Prathet Thai’ as the official Thai name.
In 1946 Seni was unseated in a general election and a democratic civilian group took power under Pridi Phanomyong, a law professor who had been instrumental in the 1932 revolution. Pridi’s civilian government survived long enough to create the 1946 Constitution of the Thai Kingdom, only to be overthrown by Phibul, then a field marshal, in 1947.
Phibul suspended the constitution and reinstated ‘Thailand’ as the country’s official English name in 1949. He took an extreme anticommunist stance, refusing to recognise the newly declared People’s Republic of China, and also became a loyal supporter of French and US foreign policy in Southeast Asia. Pridi, meanwhile, took up exile in China.
In 1951 power was wrested from Phibul by General Sarit Thanarat, who continued the tradition of military dictatorship. However, Phibul retained the actual title of premier until 1957 when Sarit finally had him exiled. Elections that same year forced Sarit to resign and go abroad for ‘medical treatment’; he returned in 1958 to launch another coup. This time he abolished the constitution, dissolved the parliament and banned all political parties, maintaining effective power until he died of cirrhosis in 1963.
From 1964 to 1973 the Thai nation was ruled by the army officers Thanom Kittikachorn and Praphat Charusathien. During this time Thailand allowed the USA to establish several military bases within its borders in support of the US campaign in Vietnam.
Reacting to the political repression, 10, 000 Thai students publicly demanded a real constitution in June 1973. On 14 October of the same year the military brutally suppressed a large demonstration at Thammasat University in Bangkok, but King Bhumibol and General Krit Sivara, who sympathised with the students, refused to support further bloodshed, forcing Thanom and Praphat to leave Thailand. Oxford-educated Kukrit Pramoj took charge of a 14-party coalition government and steered a leftist agenda past a conservative parliament.
Among Kukrit’s lasting achievements were a national minimum wage, the repeal of anticommunist laws and the ejection of US military forces from Thailand. Kukrit’s elected constitutional government ruled until 6 October 1976, when students demonstrated again, this time protesting against Thanom’s return to Thailand as a monk. Thammasat University again became a battlefield as border-patrol police and right-wing paramilitary civilian groups assaulted a group of 2000 students holding a sit-in. It is estimated that hundreds of students were killed and injured in the fracas, and more than a thousand were arrested. Using public disorder as an excuse, the military stepped in and installed a new right-wing government with Thanin Kraivichien as premier.
This bloody incident disillusioned many Thai students and older intellectuals not directly involved with the demonstrations. Numerous idealists ‘dropped out’ of Thai society and joined the People’s Liberation Army of Thailand (PLAT), a group of armed communist insurgents based in the hills who had been active since the 1930s.
In October 1977 the military replaced Thanin with the more moderate General Kriangsak Chomanand in an effort to conciliate antigovernment factions. When this failed, the military-backed position changed hands again in 1980, leaving Prem Tinsulanonda at the helm. By this time PLAT had peaked with around 10, 000 members. A 1981 coup attempt by the ‘Young Turks’ (a group of army officers who had graduated together from the Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy and styled themselves after a 1908 military movement at the heart of the Ottoman Empire) failed when Prem fled Bangkok for Khorat in the company of the royal family.
Prem served as prime minister until 1988 and is credited with the political and economic stabilisation of Thailand in the post-Vietnam War years (only one coup attempt in the 1980s!). The major success of the Prem years was a complete dismantling of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) and PLAT through an effective combination of amnesty programmes (which brought the students back from the forests) and military action. His administration is also considered to have been responsible for a gradual democratisation of Thailand that culminated in the 1988 election of his successor, retired general and businessman Chatichai Choonhavan. Prem continues to serve as a privy councillor and is a rátthàbùrùt (elder statesman) of the country.
It may be difficult for later arrivals to Thailand to appreciate the political distance Thailand covered in the 1980s. Under Prem, for example, a long-standing 1am curfew in Bangkok was lifted, and dissenting opinions were heard again in public.
Ever since 1932 every leading political figure in Thailand has needed the support of the Thai military to survive. Considering Thailand’s geographic position during the Cold War years, it’s not difficult to understand their influence. But as the threat of communist takeover (either from within or from nearby Indochinese states) diminished, the military gradually began loosening its hold on national politics.
Under Chatichai Thailand enjoyed a brief period of unprecedented popular participation in government. Around 60% of Chatichai’s cabinet members were former business executives rather than the ex-military officers in the previous cabinet. Thailand entered a new era in which the country’s double-digit economic boom ran concurrently with democratisation. Critics praised the political maturation of Thailand, even if they also grumbled that corruption seemed as rife as it ever was. By the end of the 1980s, however, certain high-ranking military officers had become increasingly dissatisfied, complaining that Thailand was being run by a plutocracy.
On 23 February 1991 the military overthrew the Chatichai administration in a bloodless coup and handed power to the newly formed National Peace-Keeping Council (NPKC), headed by General Suchinda Kraprayoon. Although it was Thailand’s 19th attempted coup and one of 10 successful coups since 1932, it was only the second coup to overthrow a democratically elected civilian government. The NPKC abolished the 1978 constitution and dissolved the parliament, charging Chatichai’s civilian government with corruption and vote buying. Rights of public assembly were curtailed but the press was only closed down for one day.
Following the coup, the NPKC appointed a handpicked civilian prime minister, Anand Panyarachun, former ambassador to the USA, Germany, Canada and the UN, to dispel public fears that the junta was planning a return to 100% military rule. Anand claimed to be his own man, but like his predecessors – elected or not – he was allowed the freedom to make his own decisions only insofar as they didn’t affect the military. In spite of obvious constraints, many observers felt Anand’s temporary premiership and cabinet were the best Thailand has ever had, either before or since.
In December 1991 Thailand’s national assembly passed a new constitution that guaranteed a NPKC-biased parliament – 270 appointed senators in the upper house stacked against 360 elected representatives. Under this constitution, regardless of who was chosen as the next prime minister or which political parties filled the lower house, the government would remain largely in the hands of the military.
A general election in March 1992 ushered in a five-party coalition government with Narong Wongwan, whose Samakkhitham (Justice Unity) Party received the most votes, as premier. But amid US allegations that Narong was involved in Thailand’s drug trade, the military exercised its constitutional prerogative and replaced Narong with (surprise, surprise) General Suchinda in April 1992.
In May 1992 several huge demonstrations demanding Suchinda’s resignation – led by the charismatic Bangkok governor, Chamlong Srimuang – rocked Bangkok and larger provincial capitals. Chamlong won the 1992 Magsaysay Award (a humanitarian service award issued by a foundation in the Philippines) for his role in galvanising the public to reject Suchinda. After street confrontations between the protesters and the military near Bangkok’s Democracy Monument resulted in nearly 50 deaths and hundreds of injuries, Suchinda resigned, having been premier for less than six weeks. Anand Panyarachun was reinstated as interim premier, winning praise for his fair and efficient administration.
The September 1992 elections squeezed in veteran Democrat Party leader Chuan Leekpai, who helmed a four-party coalition government. A food vendor’s son and native of Trang Province instead of a general, tycoon or academic, the new premier didn’t fit the usual mould. Although well regarded for his honesty and high morals, Chuan accomplished little in the areas of concern to the majority of Thais, most pointedly Bangkok traffic, national infrastructure and the undemocratic NPKC constitution.
After Chuan was unseated in a vote of no confidence, a new general election ushered in a seven-party coalition led by the Chart Thai (Thai Nationality) Party. At the helm was billionaire Banharn Silapa-archa, whom the press called a ‘walking ATM’; they immediately attacked his tendency to appoint from a reservoir of rural politicians known to favour big business over social welfare. In September 1996 the Banharn government collapsed amid a spate of corruption scandals and a crisis of confidence.
The November 1996 national election, marked by electoral violence and accusations of vote buying, saw the former deputy prime minister and army commander Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, of the New Aspiration Party, secure premiership with a dubious mix of coalition partners.
In July 1997, following several months of warning signs that almost everyone in Thailand and in the international community chose to ignore, the Thai currency fell into a deflationary tailspin and the national economy crashed and screeched to a virtual halt. Along with Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and South Korea, Thailand had huge current-account deficits, massive external debt and low foreign-exchange reserves. Asia was borrowing billions more than it could afford on the basis of optimistic predictions of future growth.
On 27 September 1997 the Thai parliament voted in a new constitution, Thailand’s 16th since 1932 and the first to be decreed by a civilian government. Known as rátthàthamanun pràchaachon (people’s constitution) it put new mechanisms in place to monitor the conduct of elected officials and political candidates and to protect civil rights, achieving many of the aims of the prodemocracy movement.
Hope faded as Chavalit, living up to everyone’s low expectations, failed to deal effectively with the economy and was forced to resign in November 1997. An election brought Chuan Leekpai back into office, where he did a reasonably decent job as an international public-relations man for the crisis.
In 2000, the economic crisis began to ease, leaving Thailand in urgent need of a new approach to development policy. Business had long since succeeded the military as the dominant force in politics. In 1998, the telecommunications billionaire and former police officer, Thaksin Shinawatra, founded the Thai Rak Thai (TRT or ‘Thai Loving Thai’) party, which corresponded with rising nationalism in the country after the Asian economic crisis. Thaksin chose to address two major sectors of society which had been deeply affected by the crisis – business and the countryside. Promising to help business recover, TRT gained support, especially from CP Group and Bangkok Bank. The party’s program included community empowerment and bottom-up grassroots development (through agrarian debt relief, village capital funds and cheap health care), which was to earn Thaksin a reputation as a populist.
After winning an almost absolute majority in the national elections of 2001, Thaksin became prime minister. The decisive majority, along with constitutional provisions designed to strengthen the prime minister, made his a stable government. Much more than previous prime ministers, he made use of telecommunications to communicate with his electorate and dominated press and TV news. He quickly delivered what he had promised during the election campaign (on community empowerment and grassroots development). In 2005, Thaksin won an outright majority in national elections and his popularity among the grassroots was immense. His success was due in part to his speedy and effective response to the tsunami disaster in December 2004, which devastated provinces along the Andaman coast and left over 5000 dead.
Thaksin was criticised nationally and internationally for his ‘war on drugs,’ which began in 2003. It was seen as his means to shake up influential groups, suspected of having links to drug trafficking, that were dominating local politics and elections. The ‘war’ took over 2700 lives, many of which appeared to be extrajudicial killings by Thai police, according to human rights groups such as Amnesty International.
In 2001, Muslim separatist insurgents began attacking government property and personnel in Thailand’s southernmost provinces of Pattani, Narathiwat and Yala. These three provinces once comprised the area of the historic kingdom of Pattani until it was conquered by the Chakri kings. Under King Chulalongkorn’s administrative reforms, the provinces came more directly under the sway of the centralised bureaucracy, which replaced the local ruling elite with governors and bureaucrats from Bangkok. During WWII, Phibul’s ultranationalist regime set out to enforce a policy of nation-building from above, including the transformation of a multi-ethnic society into a unified and homogenous Thai Buddhist nation. In the 1940s, this policy inflamed resistance in these southern provinces, and gave birth to a strong separatist movement fighting for the independence of Pattani. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Prem administration abolished this forced assimilation policy. Prem promised support for Muslim cultural rights and religious freedoms, offered the insurgents a general amnesty, and implemented an economic development plan. However, the three provinces continue to rank among the least developed (economically and educationally) in the country. In the 1990s, the Chuan government committed to implementing a supposed ‘development as security’ approach from 1999 to 2003.
However, the Thaksin regime decided to impose greater central control over the southernmost provinces. This change of government policy was a veiled attempt to break up the traditional domination of the Democrat Party in the south. The policy succeeded in weakening relations between the local elite, southern voters and the Democrats who had served as their representatives in parliament. However, it did not take into consideration the sensitive and tenacious Muslim culture of the Deep South. In 2002, the government dissolved the longstanding Southern Border Province Administration Center, which had been a joint civilian-police-military office. Instead, they handed the security of the region over to the police. These tactics displaced the old structure of dialogue between the Thai government and the southern Muslims, replacing it with a more powerful Thai provincial police structure that was much abhorred by local Muslim communities. In 2004, in denial of the rebels’ separatist spirit, Thaksin described the insurgency as part of an insidious attempt to undermine the country’s tourism industry. The government responded harshly and evaded responsibility over two incidents that year: a government force launched a deadly attack on insurgents hiding in the historic Krue Se Mosque, highly revered by local Muslims; and in Tak Bai, hundreds of local people were arrested after demonstrating to demand a release of suspected insurgents – while being transported to an army camp for interrogation, 78 of them suffocated to death in the overcrowded trucks. Those responsible for the two incidents (which together cost the lives of more than 100 Muslims) received minor punishments. In 2005, martial law was declared in the area.
Human rights abuses have been committed by both sides in this dispute, as reported by various groups including Human Rights Watch. The insurgents have been attacking not only soldiers and policemen and their bases, but also teachers, students and state schools. To date, the conflict has cost more than 3000 lives; most of the casualties have been villagers – Buddhist and Muslim alike. The insurgents’ identities remain anonymous and no concrete demands have been put forward by them.
In 2006 Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was accused of conflicts of interest, the most glaring example of which was the Shinawatra family’s sale of their Shin Corporation stock to the Singaporean government for a tax-free sum of 73 billion baht (US$1.88 billion), thanks to new telecommunications legislation that exempted individuals from capital gains tax. These and a series of lawsuits filed against the prime minister’s critics set off a popular anti-Thaksin campaign. His call for a snap election to assure his electoral support was met with a boycott by the opposition Democrats, and the election results were subsequently annulled.
In June, the Thai took a short break ‘from overheated politics to celebrate the 60th year of their king’s accession to the throne, the Golden Jubilee. Highly respected King Bhumibol is the world’s longest reigning monarch.
On 19 September 2006, the military, led by General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, staged a bloodless coup which forced Thaksin into exile. Retired General Surayud Chulanont was appointed as interim prime minister. In the following year, the Constitutional Court ruled that as a result of electoral fraud, the TRT Party had to be dissolved, barring 111 of the party’s executive members from politics for five years. A new constitution was approved in a referendum by a rather thin margin. As promised, the interim government held general elections in December, returning the country to civilian rule. In January 2008, the Thaksin-influenced People’s Power Party (PPP) won a majority and formed a government led by Samak Sundaravej.
In that year Thailand faced great pressure on various levels: the ongoing insurgency in the Deep South, a territorial conflict with neighbouring Cambodia, the global economic crisis, rising oil prices and the extreme political polarisation at home.
After Unesco listed the ancient Khmer temple of Phra Viharn (‘Preah Vihear’ in Cambodian) as an official World Heritage site, nationalist emotions ran high on both sides. Cambodia and Thailand moved troops into the disputed area, but returned to talks.
Ousted PM Thaksin returned to Thailand briefly, but then went back into exile (at that time to the UK, but he has since been constantly on the move) to avoid the trial, and later, the sentence handed down against him by the Thai court. His wife also faced charges in court.
Samak’s PPP-led government was troubled by the extra-parliamentary tactics of the opposition People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD). Demonstrations were led by the former mayor of Bangkok, Chamlong Srimuang, and the newspaper owner, Sondhi Limthongkul. The movement represented a mixture of anti-Thaksin, anti-PPP (considered to be Thaksin’s proxy) and royalist sentiments. The protesters, wearing yellow (the king’s birthday colour) and equipped with plastic hand-clappers, were dubbed ‘yellow-shirters’. They included a wide range of middle-class groups and some of the upper class. The PAD were well organised and developed strategies on a daily basis to interrupt the work of the government and cabinet. They seized public spaces and government complexes, setting up camps for months in places such as the Government House. The quasi-permanent gathering, supplied with food and drink and entertained with music and speeches, added to the capital’s traffic woes, although it eventually became something of a tourist attraction.
The supporters of Thaksin and the PPP government also organised their own movement, symbolised by red shirts and a formidable trademark of plastic foot-shaped clappers. (A later, milder version was heart-shaped.) The red-shirt protestors represented TRT and PPP supporters. They came mostly from the north and northeast, and included anti-coup activists. Both yellow and red movements found support from politicians and academics in different camps. Some skirmishes in Bangkok and other provinces resulted in more than a dozen deaths. This was seen by some as evidence of the surfacing of a longstanding, suppressed polarisation between classes and between rural and urban sectors in Thailand.
The PAD occupation of Thailand’s main airports, Suvarnabhumi and Don Muang, in November 2008, was the boldest and riskiest move to force the resignation of Samak’s replacement, Somchai Wongsawat, Thaksin’s brother-in-law. The occupation led to a week-long closure of both major airports, causing enormous damage to the Thai economy, especially its tourism and export industries. Throughout the crisis, the military claimed to remain ‘neutral,’ but when an Army Commander in Chief, General Anuphong Phaochinda, called publicly for new elections and a PAD withdrawal, many in the government called it a silent coup.
In the midst of this crisis, Prime Minister Somchai was forced to quit his office by a Constitutional Court ruling which dissolved the PPP because of vote buying, and barred its leaders from politics for five years. After weeks of manoeuvring by the Democrat Party to persuade several minor parties to switch sides, Democrat Abhisit Vejjajiva was elected in a parliamentary vote, becoming Thailand’s 27th prime minister. Even as the pro-Thaksin camp remained hostile and active, Abhisit faced the daunting task of re-establishing ‘national harmony’ and restoring confidence in the Thai economy in the face of the global economic recession.