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.
- The 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.
The 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.
Despite 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