The earliest civilization in Thailand is believed to have been that of the Mons in central Thailand, who brought a Buddhist culture from the Indian subcontinent. In the 12th century, this met a Khmer culture moving from the east, the Sumatran-based Srivijaya culture moving north, and citizens of the Thai state of Nan Chao, in what is now southern China, migrating south. Thai princes created the first Siamese capital in Sukhothai, later centres in Chiang Mai and, notably, Ayuthaya.
The Burmese invaded Siam in both the 16th and 18th centuries, capturing Chiang Mai and destroying Ayuthaya. The Thais expelled the Burmese and moved their capital to Thonburi. In 1782, the current Chakri dynasty was founded by King Rama I and the capital was moved across the river to Bangkok.
In the 19th century, Siam remained independent by deftly playing off one European power against another. In 1932, a peaceful coup converted the country into a constitutional monarchy, and in 1939 Siam became Thailand. During WW II, the Thai government allowed Japanese troops to occupy Thailand. After the war, Thailand was dominated by the military and experienced more than twenty coups and countercoups interspersed with short-lived experiments with democracy. Democratic elections in 1979 were followed by a long period of stability and prosperity as power shifted from the military to the business elite.
In February 1991 a military coup ousted the Chatichai government, but bloody demonstrations in May 1992 led to the reinstatement of a civilian government with Chuan Leekpai at the helm. This coalition government collapsed in May 1995 over a land-reform scandal but replacement Prime Minister Banharn Silpa-archa was no better. Dubbed a 'walking ATM' by the Thai press, he was forced to relinquish the prime ministership just over a year later after a spate of corruption scandals. Ex-general and former deputy PM Chavalit Yongchaiyudh headed a dubious coalition until late 1997, when veteran pragmatist Chuan Leekpai retook the reins.
In 2000, Thaksin Shinawatra and his 'Thai Loves Thai' party had a landslide victory in national elections. Thailand's new leader is popular, but is embroiled in a scandal involving allegedly false declarations of assets that could cost him the premiership. The controversy is grist for Thai cynics who will tell you that, despite all the leader-swapping, things never change. Widespread vote-buying and entrenched corruption make a joke of democracy, and until this is rectified Thailand's claims to democratic status and political stability will remain as shaky as ever.
In 1997 the Thai baht pretty much collapsed, dragging the economy (and many other South-East Asian economies) down in a screaming heap. In August the International Monetary Fund stepped in with a bailout package of austerity measures, which - although it slowed Thailand's growth dramatically and hit the poor hardest - seemed to have turned things around by early 1998. By the turn of the new century, Thailand's economy had stopped going into free fall, but rebuilding had only just begun. Genuine attempts to weed out corruption seem underway, but the poverty-stricken members of Thailand are still wary of promises and agitating for more reforms.
Over recent months, the relatively new Thai Rak Thai Party (Thais Love Thais), led by Thaksin Shinawatra, emerged as a force in Thai politics and saw many sitting MPs defect to its ranks. In parliamentary elections (January 2001), Thai Rak Thai trounced Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai's democrats and will form a new coalition government in Thailands first election under a new constitution designed to reduce electoral fraud. Nonetheless, allegations of corruption caused the Electoral Commission to run revotes in sixty-two constituencies.
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.
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