Thailand (ราชอาณาจักรไทย), formerly known as Siam, is the only country in Southeast Asia never colonised by Europeans. Thailand is a devoutly Buddhist nation known for its temples, elephants, cuisine and military coups.

Four regions constitute Thailand, each with its own history, dialect and culture.

  • thai regions.jpgThe Central Region, centred on Bangkok, is the richest and most politically significant. Central Thai is the main spoken language.
  • The Northern Region is the heartland of the old Lanna kingdom. Most people speak the Northern Thai dialect of Kham Muang. Hill tribes like the Hmong and Karen inhabit the mountains.
  • The Northeast, also known as Isan, is the poorest and most populated part of Thailand.  Isan people are ethnically Lao and speak a Lao dialect. Khmer is also spoken in the south.
  • The Southern Region is the skinny peninsula to the south, a tropical land of islands and picturesque beaches popular with foreign tourists. Local speak the Southern dialect and, in the Muslim areas of the far south, Malay. A quiet insurgency haunts the Malaysian border provinces.

Thailand’s official language is the Central dialect, or simply ‘Thai’. Outside the Central Region, most learn Thai at school and their regional dialect at home.  Like Chinese, Thai is a tonal a language, where words have different meanings based on their inflexion. It is influenced by Sanskrit, Pali and Khmer, and closely related to Lao. Thailand has used its own unique script since the 14th century. It looks similar but is not the same as those of Burma and Laos.

The Thais migrated from southern China in the 11th century, introducing Theravada Buddhism, walled cities and wet rice cultivation to their new home. The indigenous population were assimilated or driven to the hills. In their place, the Thais established the lowland kingdoms of Ayutthaya, Lan Na and Sukothai. In the 1400s Ayutthaya replaced Angkor as the dominant power in Southeast Asia. By 1700, Ayutthaya was the most populated city in the world.

In 1768 Burmese invaders burned Ayutthaya to the ground. Taksin the Great, an Ayutthaya general of Chinese descent expelled them but was overthrown by his lead commander Chakri. Chakri founded the kingdom of Siam, with a new capital at Bangkok, and the dynasty that rules to this day.

rama v.jpgThe fifth king, Chulalongkorn (1853-1910, pictured), modernised the kingdom, opened trade with Britain and earned recognition on par with the monarchs of Europe. He is credited with the abolition of slavery and saving Siam from colonisation.

In 1932 a bloodless revolution overthrew the absolute monarchy and established a constitutional one. One of the revolutionists, Phibun, was a fascist and admirer of Mussolini. As Prime Minister, he changed Siam’s name to Thailand, mandated western dress and sided with the Axis in WW2. The royal family went into exile and others, including some 1932 leaders, fought with the Allies.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej was head of state from 1946 to 2016, the longest reign of any monarch. He reinstated the institution of monarchy and oversaw Thailand’s rise from a rural backwater to a robust middle economy. Bhumibol is revered among Thais today.

Thailand is Asia’s 8th largest economy. The biggest industry in Thailand is rice cultivation, which employs 40% of the population. After India, Thailand is the second biggest rice exporter in the world. Tourism is another major industry, accounting for 12% of Thailand’s GDP. In 2017 Bangkok was the most visited city in the world.

bangkok 2.jpgDespite Thailand’s recent growth and status as a newly industrialised country, prosperity is not even. In 2016 Credit Suisse ranked Thailand as the third most unequal country, after Russia and India. The top 1% owns 58% of the country’s wealth.

Modern Thailand shifts ceaselessly between periods of civilian and military rule.  Typically the people elect a government, it threatens the interests of the elite then the military overthrows it. Thailand has suffered 12 successful coups since 1932, the most of any country. The current government seized power in 2014.

Every time there is a coup, the new regime will introduce a new constitution. As a result, Thailand has had 20, again the most of any country.

Thai society has generally remained stable despite changes at the top. Unlike the rest of Indochina, modern Thailand has never suffered a civil war.

Sources: Bangkok Post, Cathay Pacific,  Credit Suisse, Global Security, Washington Post, Wikipedia

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Khun Sa and the Burmese Opium Trade

khun sa 3.jpgKhun Sa (1934-2007) was a Shan Burmese warlord who once supplied half the USA’s heroin and a quarter of the world’s. In the 1980s his private army defied both the Thai and Burmese governments and the DEA. Despite a 2 million dollar bounty on his head, the self-styled King of Opium was never brought to justice.  The US ambassador to Thailand referred to him as ‘the worst enemy the world has’.

Khun Sa was born Zhang Qifu in the poppy fields of Shan State, Burma to a Chinese father and ethnic Shan mother. The remote highlands where Burma, Thailand and Laos meet then produced 70% of the world’s opium.  Though the local tribes of the Golden Triangle had cultivated the poppy for centuries, by the 1950s the Indochina Wars and a growing heroin market transformed opium into a cash crop that could bankroll armies.

golden triangle.gifFollowing their defeat in the Chinese Civil War, in 1949 remnants of the nationalist Kuomintang descended on Northern Burma and established themselves as masters of the opium trade. Zhang Qifu joined them as a child soldier and by 16 commanded his own armed band.

In 1962 a coup d’etat replaced Burma’s federal democracy with an ethnic Burmese dictatorship. Disenfranchised minorities like the Shan promptly rebelled and the country plunged into civil war.

Now commanding a 700 strong militia, Zhang switched allegiance to the Burmese government. In exchange, they granted him military equipment and a license to freely grow opium in his own fiefdom. His militia battled the Kuomintang, Burmese Communist Party and Shan Nationalists, trading opium for guns on the black market. A year later Zhang broke ties and established a private operation along the Chinese border.

khun saIn 1967 Zhang attempted to smuggle 16 tons of opium to General Ouane Rattikone of the Royal Lao Army. His mule caravan was ambushed by Kuomintang soldiers, however, and subsequently bombed by Rattikone, who seized the drugs for himself without payment. After this defeat, Burmese forces imprisoned Zhang Qifu from 1968-73.

When a hostage exchange brought his freedom, Zhang reunited with his followers in northern Thailand. The Golden Triangle’s political climate had since changed. Rattikone and other CIA backed traffickers lost the Laotian Civil War, leaving a gap in the market, while American GIs had withdrawn from Vietnam, bringing their taste for opiates back home. Zhang exploited the power vacuum. In 1976 he adopted the nom de guerre ‘Khun Sa’ meaning ‘prosperous prince’ and reinvented himself as a champion of Shan separatism.

mong tai army.jpg

In 1985 Khun Sa formed the Mong Tai Army in a merger with other Shan insurgents. The largest rebel force in Burma, it controlled a 150-mile radius across the Burmese-Thai border region. Khun Sa rented his territory out to heroin manufacturers across Asia who paid for the protection of his private army, now 20,000 strong and better armed than the Burmese military.

mong tai 2.jpg

For the next ten years, Khun Sa controlled 75% of the Golden Triangle’s opium and produced over 660 tons of heroin annually, most of which was 90% pure. 600 million dollars a year funded a well-developed private kingdom, complete with satellite dishes, hospitals, schools and an anti-air defence system.

In 1995 the Mong Tai Army caved under pressure from the Thai military and rival narco-armies. Sections of his force were concerned Khun Sa and his Chinese officers cared more about the drug trade than Shan nationalism, and the army splintered.

Khun Sa surrendered to the Burmese government in 1996. In exchange, they provided a mansion in Yangon and the promise not to extradite him to the USA. Khun Sa retired with a fortune and lived his last eleven years in peace.

The glory days of the Golden Triangle are now over. Since the early 21st century, the centre of opium production has shifted to Afghanistan, with the Golden Triangle accounting for only 5% of the drug supply. Khun Sa is remembered favourably by  Shan today, many of whom are still fighting the Burmese government.

Sources:  The Economist, Factsanddetails, Getty Images, The Guardian, iWonderling, New York Times

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The Laotian Civil War

indochina.gifThe Laotian Civil War (1959-1975) was a Vietnam proxy conflict that left 40,000 dead. Officially uninvolved, the CIA recruited an army of hill tribesmen to fight the North Vietnamese and Lao communists while making Laos the most bombed country in history. It was not enough. By 1975 Laos was the last of the Asian dominoes to fall.

In 1953 the French colony of Laos, a  thinly populated and landlocked backwater situated between Thailand and Vietnam, gained its independence. The French transferred power to the old royal family, who established the Kingdom of Laos.

Image result for royal lao flag vs pathet lao flagLike Cambodia and South Vietnam, a Marxist insurgency threatened Laos. The North Vietnamese Army invaded in the 1950s to support the Pathet Lao, a local communist group. The Ho Chi Minh Trail, which supported the insurgency in South Vietnam, flowed through Lao territory. Heavily backed by North Vietnamese troops and Soviet and Chinese arms, the Pathet Lao sought to overthrow the Lao monarchy and establish a socialist state.

Image result for royal lao flag vs pathet lao flag

The Royal Lao Government was weak in comparison. Despite American support, they could not match the Communists’ numbers or determination. Internal division and low morale beset them.

From 1964, the CIA conducted a ‘Secret War’ on Washington’s behalf. While the 1962 Geneva Convention obliged foreign powers to respect Lao neutrality, North Vietnam ignored it and the USA only pretended. They never officially stationed troops in Laos and never declared war. Using $3.3 billion a year, the CIA outsourced operations to Hmong militias and Air America. Their base at Long Tieng housed 40,000 people, was Laos’s second-biggest city and one of the world’s busiest airports, but appeared in no Atlas and officially did not exist. In fighting this Secret War, the CIA hoped to divert North Vietnamese manpower and halt the spread of communism.

Related imageThe main strategy was aerial bombardment. From bases in allied Thailand, American planes bombed communist territory daily.  The CIA dropped two million tons of explosives on Laos from 1964-73, an average of one planeload every eight minutes. More explosives were dropped on Laos than Germany and Japan in WW2 combined. Today unexploded ordinance still kills an average of 300 Laotians a year. The American public was kept in the dark.

As the Royal Lao Army proved ineffective, CIA operatives trained and equipped a ‘Secret Army’ of 20,000 Hmong militiamen under major-general Vang Pao. An ethnic minority from the mountains, the Hmong proved capable fighters; rescuing downed American pilots and matching communist guerrillas at their own game. A further 20,000 Thai mercenaries assisted. With 60% of Hmong men serving in the Secret Army, the CIA turned a blind eye to opium trafficking and child soldiery in their ranks.

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In 1973 President Nixon made peace with North Vietnam and abruptly ended US involvement in Laos. Abandoned by their allies, the royalists resisted for another two years alone before they surrendered on the 2nd December 1975, eight months after the fall of Saigon. The Indochina Wars had come to an end.

The Pathet Lao established a one-party dictatorship and exacted brutal reprisals against the royalists and the Hmong, whom they promised to wipe out. 300,000 of Laos’s 4 million people, including a third of the Hmong and 90% of the intelligentsia, fled Laos by the 1980s. Thousands of others suspected of working with the Americans and the old regime were sentenced to ‘re-education camps’. The royal family were worked to death.

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Flag of the Republic of China.svgTaiwan is a disputed territory in the South China Sea. Whilst Taiwan, officially the Republic of China, functions as an independent nation-state with its own government, the People’s Republic of China considers it a renegade province rightfully theirs. Given Beijing’s greater strength and international clout, few countries recognise Taiwanese statehood. It is the world’s most populated non-UN member state.

Taiwanese aborigines - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Formerly known as Formosa, Taiwan is the ancestral homeland of the Austronesian people, a linguistic family which today dominates Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, the Philippines, Polynesia and Madagascar. It is a land of fertile valleys, tropical jungles, dramatic elevation and picturesque mountains.

Starting with the Dutch and the Spanish in the 1620s, Taiwan witnessed a series of foreign rulers. In 1662 Koxinga, a Ming Dynasty loyalist, conquered the Dutch colonies and established the island’s first Chinese state. Twenty years later Koxinga’s kingdom acquiesced to the Qing, China’s new rulers. Slowly but surely, Han Chinese immigrants replaced the aboriginal tribes, who retreated to the island’s mountainous interior. Comparable to the displaced natives of Australia or the USA, today aborigines make only 2.3% of Taiwan’s population.

The Japanese ruled Taiwan from 1895 – 1945. They aggressively subdued the remaining aboriginal tribes and industrialised the island. Japanese rule was harsh and resented by Han Taiwanese and aborigines alike. Taiwan returned to China after WW2.

Image result for chiang kai shekThe new rulers were the Kuomintang, or Chinese Nationalist Party, who had overthrown the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and established the Republic of China (ROC). The ROC was plagued by unrest, however, and their hold on China tenuous. After the Japanese defeat in 1945 civil war resumed with Mao Zedong’s Communists. Despite American financial support the Nationalists, under generalissimo Chiang Kai Shek, lost the war. In 1949 the ROC’s leadership and two million nationalists fled to Taiwan.

Like Koxinga before him, Chiang dreamed of one day retaking the mainland. Taipei was established as the ROC’s ‘wartime capital’ and a Chinese identity asserted over a Taiwanese one.  Mao would have invaded Taiwan too was it not for US president Harry Truman who, in the context of the Korean War, signed a mutual defence pact with Taipei. Thus two rival governments prevailed, the communist Peoples Republic of China in the mainland, the nationalist Republic of China in Taiwan.

The Kuomintang ruled Taiwan as a dictatorship under martial law until 1987.  Despite brutal suppression of dissent, during the 1960s and 70s, the Taiwanese free-market economy boomed, ranking it one of ‘Four Asian Tigers’ alongside Singapore, Hong Kong and South Korea. It became a global manufacturing hub.Image result for tsai ing wen

Taiwan democratised in 1992. Politics today are dominated by the ‘Green’ and ‘Blue’ coalitions. Blue parties, like the Kuomintang, emphasise the Republic of China and maintaining the status quo while Green ones assert a distinct Taiwanese identity and seek formal independence from China.  This would, however, mean war. Beijing operates on the One China Policy’ and denies Taiwan the right to secession. The incumbent Tsai Ing-Wen of the Democratic People’s Party is of the Green.

As both Beijing and Taipei claim to be China’s sole legitimate government, other nations can only recognise one or the other. The ROC held the Chinese seat on the United Nations until 1971 when President Nixon opened diplomatic relations with Beijing. Today only 19 governments, mainly poorer nations in Central America and the Pacific, recognise the Republic of China. Beijing is steadily isolating Taiwan diplomatically by buying off its allies. On April 30th 2018 the Dominican Republic switched recognition from Taipei to Beijing in exchange for 3.1 billion dollars in aid, with Burkina Faso following suit on May 24th. Beijing is currently enticing Haiti and Eswatini to do the same.

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Now only the following 18 15 nations recognise Taiwan, most of which are too small to be shown:

  1. Belize
  2. El Salvador
  3. Guatemala
  4. Haiti
  5. Honduras
  6. Kiribati
  7. Marshal Islands
  8. Nauru
  9. Nicaragua
  10. Palau
  11. Paraguay
  12. Saint Kitts and Nevis
  13. Saint Lucia
  14. Saint Vincent and the Grenadines
  15. Solomon Islands
  16. Eswatini
  17. Tuvalu
  18. Vatican City

The annexation of Taiwan by the Peoples Republic would be a critical blow to democracy.  Today Taiwan is a proudly democratic and progressive state, which allows freedom of thought, expression and speech unknown in mainland China. As of June 2018 Taiwan, Singapore, Burma and Nepal are the only countries in Asia ruled by females and Taiwan is the only state on the continent to recognise same-sex marriage. Whilst the People’s Republic flag in Taiwan might raise a few eyebrows, flying the ROC banner in the mainland would likely put you in jail.

Update 22/08/2018: El Salvador has cut ties with Taiwan, and now recognises the People’s Republic of China instead. It is the third country to do so this year.

Update 17/08/2019: The Solomon Islands cut ties with Taiwan.

Update 20/08/2019: Kirbati cuts ties with Taiwan.

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