There is evidence of human settlement in Thailand dating to 40,000 years before present, with stone artefacts from this period in the rock shelter of Tham Lod in Mae Hong Son. Like other parts of Southeast Asia, Thailand was heavily influenced by the culture and religions of India, from the Funan Kingdom around the 1st century AD to the Khmer Empire. In its early days, Thailand was under the rule of the Khmer Empire, which had strong Hindu roots, and the influence among the Thai people remains to this day.
Indian influence on Thai culture is partly the result of direct contact with Indian settlers, but manifested itself mainly indirectly through the Indianised kingdoms of Dvaravati, Srivijaya and Cambodia. E.A. Voretzsch believes that Buddhism must have flowed from India to Siam at the time of the Indian Emperor Ashoka of the Maurya Empire and into the first millennium AD. Later, Thailand was influenced by the Pallava dynasty in southern India and the Gupta Empire in northern India.
According to George Coeds, “Thais first entered the history of far-off India in the 11th century with the mention of Syam slaves or prisoners of war in” the Champa epigraphy and “in the 12th century in the bas-reliefs of Angkor Wat” where “a group of warriors” are described as Syam. Moreover, “after the conquest of Ta-li on 7 January 1253 and the pacification of Yunnan in 1257, the Mongols did not look unfavourably on the creation of a series of Thai principalities at the expense of the old Indianised kingdoms”. The Menam Basin was originally settled by the Mons, and the site of Dvaravati in the 7th century, followed by the Khmer Empire in the 11th century. Yuan history mentions an embassy from the Sukhothai Kingdom in 1282. In 1287, three Thai chiefs, Mangrai, Ngam Muang and Ram Khamhaeng, concluded a “strong friendship pact”.
After the fall of the Khmer Empire in the 13th century, various states founded by the different Tai, Mons, Khmer, Cham and ethnic Malay peoples flourished here, as evidenced by the many archaeological sites and artefacts scattered throughout the Siamese landscape. Before the 12th century, however, the first Thai or Siamese state was traditionally considered to be the Buddhist kingdom of Sukhothai, founded in 1238.
After the decline and fall of the Khmer Empire in the 13th and 15th centuries, the Tai Buddhist kingdoms of Sukhothai, Lanna and Lan Xang (now Laos) developed. But a century later, the power of Sukhothai was eclipsed by the new kingdom of Ayutthaya, established in the lower Chao Phraya River or Menam region in the mid-14th century.
Ayutthaya’s expansion was concentrated along the Menam River, while in the northern valleys the kingdom of Lanna and other small city-Tai states dominated the region. In 1431, the Khmer abandoned Angkor after the city was invaded by Ayutthaya’s forces. Thailand has maintained a tradition of trade with its neighbouring states, from China to India, Persia and Arab countries. Ayutthaya has become one of the most dynamic trading centres in Asia. European traders arrived in the early 16th century, starting with the envoy of the Portuguese Duke Afonso de Albuquerque in 1511, followed by the French, Dutch and English. The Burmese-Siamese War (1765-1767) left Ayutthaya burnt and plundered by King Hsinbyushin Konbaung.
After the fall of Ayutthaya into Burmese hands in 1767, Taksin moved the capital to Thonburi for about 15 years. The current Rattanakosin era in Thai history began in 1782, after the establishment of Bangkok as the capital of the Chakri dynasty under King Rama I the Great. According to the Encyclopædia Britannica, “a quarter to a third of the population in parts of Thailand and Burma was enslaved from the 17th to the 19th century”.
Despite European pressure, Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation that has never been colonised. This is due to the long succession of competent leaders who exploited the rivalry and tensions between French Indochina and the British Empire over the last four centuries. This kept the country a buffer state between the parts of Southeast Asia colonised by the two colonial powers, Britain and France. Nevertheless, Western influence in the nineteenth century led to many reforms and significant concessions, including the loss of a large area on the east bank of the Mekong to the French and the gradual takeover by Britain of the areas inhabited by the Shan and Karen as well as the Malay Peninsula.
As part of the concessions offered by the Chakri dynasty to the British Empire in exchange for its support, Siam ceded four predominantly Malay southern provinces to the British Empire in the Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909. These four provinces (Kelantan, Tringganu, Kedah, Perlis) would later become the four northern states of Malaysia.
In 1917, Siam joined the Allies in the First World War and is considered one of the victors of the Great War.
In 1932, a bloodless revolution led by the Khana Ratsadon group of military and civilian leaders led to a change of power when King Prajadhipok was forced to give the people of Siam their first constitution, ending centuries of absolute monarchy.
In 1939, the name of the kingdom, “Siam”, was changed to “Thailand”.
World War II
During World War II, the Japanese Empire claimed the right to move troops through Thailand to the Malaysian border. The Japanese invasion of Thailand on 8 December 1941 was coordinated with attacks across Asia and kept the Royal Thai Army busy for six to eight hours before Plaek Phibunsongkhram ordered a ceasefire. Soon after, Japan was given a free ride and on 21 December 1941, Thailand and Japan signed a military alliance with a secret protocol in which Tokyo agreed to help Thailand regain the territories lost to the British and French.
As a result, Thailand declared war on the United States and Britain on 25 January 1942 and pledged to “support” Japan in its war against the Allies, while maintaining an active anti-Japanese movement in free Thailand. Some 200,000 Asian labourers (mainly Romushas) and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war worked on the Burma Railway, commonly known as the “Death Railway”.
After the war, Thailand became an ally of the United States. Like many developing countries during the Cold War, Thailand then experienced decades of political instability, characterised by a series of coups and one military regime replacing another, but eventually evolved into a stable and prosperous democracy in the 1980s.
Politics and government
Thailand’s politics are currently conducted within the framework of a constitutional monarchy, in which the prime minister is the head of government and a hereditary monarch is the head of state. The judiciary was supposed to be independent of the executive and legislative branches, although judicial decisions have been suspected of being based on political considerations rather than applicable law.
Since the political reform of the absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand has had 19 constitutions and charters. During this time, the form of government has varied from military dictatorship to electoral democracy, but all governments have recognised a hereditary monarch as head of state.
June 28, 1932
Before 1932, the Kingdom of Siam had no legislature, as all legislative powers resided in the person of the monarch. This had been the case since the founding of the Sukhothai Kingdom in the 12th century, as the king was considered the “Dharmaraja” or “king who rules according to the Dharma” (the Buddhist law of righteousness). However, on 24 June 1932, a group of civilians and military officers calling themselves Khana Ratsadon (or People’s Party) led a bloodless revolution, ending 150 years of absolute rule by the Chakri dynasty. In its place, the group advocated a constitutional form of monarchy with an elected legislature.
The 1932 “Draft Constitution” signed by King Prajadhipok created Thailand’s first legislature, a People’s Assembly with 70 appointed members. The Assembly met for the first time on 28 June 1932, in the throne room of Ananta Samakhom. Khana Ratsadon decided that the people were not yet ready for an elected assembly. They then changed their minds. When the “permanent” constitution came into force in December of the same year, elections were scheduled for 15 November 1933. The new constitution changed the composition of the assembly, which now has 78 directly elected members and 78 appointed members (through Khana Ratsadon), for a total of 156 members.
1932 to 1973
Thailand’s history from 1932 to 1973 was dominated by military dictatorships that held power for much of the period. The most important figures of this period were the dictator Luang Phibunsongkhram (better known as Phibun), who allied the country with Japan during World War II, and the civilian politician Pridi Phanomyong, who founded Thammasat University and served briefly as prime minister after the war.
Japan invaded Thailand on 8 December 1941. For the events following the abdication of the king, including the name change of 1939, up to the coup d’état of 1957, see Plaek Pibulsonggram.
Pridi’s fall was followed by a series of military dictators – Phibun again, Sarit Dhanarajata and Thanom Kittikachorn – under whom traditional authoritarian rule was combined with increasing modernisation and westernisation under the influence of the United States. The end of the period was marked by Thanom’s resignation after a massacre of pro-democracy demonstrators led by Thammasat students. Thanom interpreted the situation as a coup d’état and fled, leaving the country without a leader. HM appointed the chancellor of Thammasat University, Sanya Dharmasakti PM, by royal decree.
Thailand supported the United States and South Vietnam in the Vietnam War between 1965 and 1971. The USAF stationed F-4 Phantom fighter aircraft at Udon and Ubon air bases and stationed B-52s at U-Tapao. Thai forces also actively participated in the secret war in Laos from 1964 to 1972.
1997 to 2001
The 1997 Constitution was the first constitution drafted by the popularly elected Constituent Assembly and was popularly known as the “People’s Constitution”. The 1997 Constitution created a bicameral legislature consisting of a 500-seat House of Representatives (สภาผู้แทนราษฎร, sapha phu thaen ratsadon) and a 200-seat Senate (วุฒิสภา, wutthisapha). For the first time in Thai history, both chambers were elected through direct elections.
Many human rights were explicitly recognised and measures were taken to increase the stability of elected governments. Parliament was elected on the first-past-the-post system, where a single candidate could be elected in a constituency with a simple majority. The Senate was elected according to the provincial system, whereby a province could send more than one senator to the Senate depending on its population.
The two chambers of the National Assembly have two different mandates. According to the Constitution, the Senate is elected for a term of six years, while the House is elected for a term of four years. Overall, the term of office of the National Assembly is aligned with that of the House of Representatives. The National Assembly meets in two sessions each year: an “ordinary session” and a “legislative session”. The first session of the National Assembly must be held within thirty days of the general election of the House of Representatives. The first session must be opened by the King in person by reading a speech from the throne; this ceremony takes place in the throne room of Ananta Samakhom. He may also appoint the Crown Prince or a representative to perform this function. It is also the duty of the King to extend the sittings at the end of the term of the House by royal decree. The King also has the prerogative to convene extraordinary sittings and to extend sittings on the advice of the House of Representatives.
The National Assembly can host a “joint session” of the two Houses in various circumstances. These include the appointment of a regent, any amendment to the Palace Inheritance Act 1924, the opening of the first session, the announcement of policy by the Thai cabinet, the approval of the declaration of war, the hearing of statements and the approval of a treaty, and the amendment of the constitution.
Members of the House of Representatives serve four-year terms, while senators serve six-year terms. The 1997 People’s Constitution also promoted human rights more than any other constitution. The judicial system (ศาล, san) included a Constitutional Court with jurisdiction over the constitutionality of Acts of Parliament, Royal Decrees and political issues.
2001 to 2008
The January 2001 general election, the first under the 1997 constitution, was described as the most open and corruption-free election in Thailand’s history. The Thai Rak Thai Party, led by Thaksin Shinawatra, won the election. The Thaksin government was the first in Thai history to serve a four-year term. The 2005 election saw the highest voter turnout in the country’s history and the Thai Rak Thai Party won an absolute majority. However, despite efforts to clean up the system, vote buying and electoral violence remained a problem for voters in 2005.
The PollWatch Foundation, Thailand’s largest election monitoring agency, said vote buying in this election, especially in the north and northeast, was more serious than in the 2001 election. The organisation also accused the government of violating the election law by abusing the power of the state by introducing new schemes to obtain votes.
2006 Coup d’état
Without meeting much resistance, a military junta overthrew the interim government of Thaksin Shinawatra on 19 September 2006. The junta suspended the constitution, dissolved parliament and the Constitutional Court, arrested and dismissed several members of the government, declared martial law and appointed one of the king’s private advisers, General Surayud Chulanont, as prime minister. The junta then drafted a much abbreviated provisional constitution and appointed a group to draft a new permanent constitution. The junta also appointed a 250-member legislature, which some critics described as a “chamber of generals”, while others claimed that representatives of the poor majority were missing.
In this draft of the interim constitution, the head of the junta was allowed to dismiss the prime minister at any time. The legislature was not allowed to hold a vote of confidence against the cabinet and the public was not allowed to comment on draft legislation. This interim constitution was then replaced by the permanent constitution on 24 August 2007. Martial law was partially lifted in January 2007. The ban on political activities was lifted in July 2007 after the Thai Rak Thai Party dissolved on 30 May. The new constitution was approved by referendum on 19 August, allowing a return to democratic general elections on 23 December 2007.
The political crisis of 2008-2010
The People’s Power Party (Thailand), led by Samak Sundaravej, has formed a government with five small parties. After several court rulings against him in various scandals and after surviving a vote of no confidence and protesters blockading government buildings and airports in September 2008, Sundaravej was found guilty of conflict of interest by the Constitutional Court of Thailand (because he hosted a cooking show on TV) and therefore his mandate was terminated.
He was replaced by Somchai Wongsawat, a member of the PPP. In October 2008, Wongsawat was denied access to his office, which was occupied by protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy. On 2 December 2008, in a highly controversial decision, the Thai Constitutional Court found the People’s Power Party guilty of electoral fraud, resulting in the dissolution of the party in accordance with the law. Subsequently, it was alleged in the media that at least one member of the judiciary had a telephone conversation with officials from the Privy Council Office and another. The telephone conversation was recorded and has since been circulating on the internet. The callers discussed finding a way to ensure the dissolution of the ruling PPP party. Accusations of judicial interference were made in the media, but the recorded call was dismissed as a hoax. In June 2010, however, supporters of the eventually dissolved PPP were accused of tapping the phone of a judge.
Immediately after what many media outlets called a “judicial coup”, a senior military official met with the ruling coalition factions to bring their members into opposition and the Democratic Party was able to form a government, a first for the party since 2001. Democratic Party leader and former opposition leader Abhisit Vejjajiva was appointed and sworn in as the 27th Prime Minister on 17 December 2008 along with the new government.
In April 2009, protests by the United National Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD, or “Red Shirts”) forced the cancellation of the fourth East Asia Summit after demonstrators stormed the grounds of the Royal Cliff Hotel in Pattaya and smashed the venue’s glass doors to get inside, and a blockade prevented then Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao from attending. The summit finally took place in Thailand in October 2009.
About a year later, a series of new “red shirt” demonstrations resulted in 87 deaths (mainly civilians and some military personnel) and 1,378 injured. When the army tried to disperse the demonstrators on 10 April 2010, they came under fire from automatic weapons, grenades and incendiary bombs from the opposition faction of the army known as the “watermelon”. The army responded with rubber bullets and live ammunition. During the period of the “red shirt” protests against the government, there were numerous grenade and bomb attacks on government offices and homes of state officials. Gas grenades were fired by unknown gunmen at “yellow shirt” demonstrators protesting against the “red shirts” and in support of the government, killing one pro-government demonstrator; the government stated that the “red shirts” had fired on civilians. The Red Shirts continued to occupy a position in the business district of Bangkok, which was closed for several weeks.
On 3 July 2011, the opposition party Pheu Thai, led by Yingluck Shinawatra (Thaksin Shinawatra’s younger sister), won the general election with an overwhelming majority (265 of the 500 seats in the House of Representatives). She had never been involved in politics before, with Pheu Thai promoting her with the slogan “Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts”. Yingluck is the country’s first female prime minister and her role was officially confirmed in a ceremony presided over by King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The Pheu Thai Party is the continuation of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai Party.
The political crisis of 2013-2014
Protests resumed in late 2013 when a broad alliance of demonstrators, led by former deputy opposition leader Suthep Thaugsuban, called for an end to the so-called Thaksin regime. A general amnesty for those involved in the 2010 protests, modified at the last minute to include all political crimes – including all convictions against Thaksin – sparked a massive demonstration of discontent, with numbers ranging from 98,500 (police) to 400,000 (a Bangkok Post aerial photo) taking to the streets. The Senate was asked to reject the bill to quell the reaction, but the measure failed. A newly appointed group, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), along with allied groups, stepped up the pressure, with the opposition Democratic Party resigning en masse to create a parliamentary vacuum. The protesters’ demands evolved in different ways as the movement grew, prolonging a series of delays and demands that became increasingly unreasonable or unrealistic, while attracting a groundswell of support. They demanded the creation of an indirectly elected “people’s council” – instead of the Yingluck government – to clean up Thai politics and eradicate the Thaksin regime.
In response to the violent protests, Yingluck dissolved parliament on 9 December 2013 and proposed new elections for 2 February 2014, which were subsequently approved by the Election Commission. The PDRC insisted that the prime minister should resign within 24 hours, regardless of his actions. On 9 December, 160,000 protesters were present outside Government House. Yingluck insisted that she would remain in office until the elections scheduled for February 2014 and asked the protesters to accept her proposal: “Now that the government has dissolved parliament, I ask you to stop the protests and that all parties work towards an election. I have withdrawn so far that I do not know how to turn back”.
In response to the Election Commission’s (EC) process for registering candidates on party lists for elections scheduled for February 2014, anti-government demonstrators marched to the Thai-Japanese Sports Stadium, the venue for the registration process, on 22 December 2013. Suthep and the PDRC led the demonstration, which was joined by about 270,000 protesters, according to security forces. Yingluck and the Pheu Thai Party reiterated their election plan and plan to submit a list of 125 candidates to the EC.
On 7 May 2014, the Constitutional Court ruled that Ms. Yingluck should resign as Prime Minister because she allegedly abused her power by transferring a high-ranking government official. On 21 August 2014, she was replaced by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, head of the army.
Coup d’état of 2014
On 20 May 2014, the Thai army declared martial law and began deploying troops in the capital, denying that it was a coup attempt. On 22 May, the army admitted that it was a coup and that it had taken control of the country and suspended the country’s constitution. On the same day, the army imposed a curfew between 10pm and 5am and ordered citizens and visitors to stay indoors during this time. On 21 August 2014, the National Assembly of Thailand elected the army chief, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, as Prime Minister. Martial law was officially declared ended on 1 April 2015. “Men in uniform or former soldiers have ruled Thailand for 55 of the 83 years since the fall of the absolute monarchy in 1932,” noted a journalist in 2015.
From 2014 until today
The ruling junta led by Prayuth Chan-o-cha has promised to hold new elections, but wants to promulgate a new constitution before the elections. A first draft constitution was rejected by government officials in 2015. A national referendum, the first since the 2014 coup, on a new draft constitution is planned for early August 2016. The new draft constitution would give the Constitutional Court final authority in times of crisis, a power that previously rested with the king. The draft would also allow a person who is not a member of parliament to become prime minister, opening up the post of prime minister to a military official. However, deep disagreements remain over how much power should be devolved to the democratically elected government. There are indications that public debate in the run-up to the referendum will be severely restricted by the military government. The head of the Thai army, General Theerachai Nakvanich, has announced the establishment of re-education camps for critics of the regime, “for those who are still unable to understand the workings of the government and the National Council for Peace and Order”.