Thailand National History


Modern day Thailand dates back to 1782 when the Chakri dynasty founded a new kingdom and moved the capital to Bangkok. Members of the same family have ruled down to the present day. In 1851 King Mongkut became ruler and launched a gradual modernisation of the country (then known as Siam). This trend continued under King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910), who oversaw reform of the legal code and established western-style government ministries separate form the royal household. Astute political deals with both the French and British ensured that the country was never colonised by European powers. King Vajiravudh (1910-25) introduced compulsory education, the western calender and entered the First World War on the side of the Allies in 1917.

In June 1932 a bloodless coup forced King Prajadkipok (1925-35) to accept constitutional limitations on what had previously been an absolute monarchy. During the 1930s the popular mood became strongly nationalist, and non-Thais lost economic and political power. This particularly affected the commercially active Chinese minority. The influence of the army in political life increased markedly and in 1938 western-educated General Phibun (also spelled Pibul) became Prime Minister. He promoted a Pan-Thai expansionist policy and in 1939 changed the country’s official name from Siam to Thailand (“Land of the Free”). Phibun was able to take advantage of France’s defeat in 1940 to revive old claims for parts of the French colonies of Laos and Cambodia. This territory was handed over following Japanese ‘mediation’. On 8 December 1941 Japanese forces invaded, but after offering token resistance General Phibun chose to co-operate with the occupiers. On 25 January 1942 Thailand declared war on Britain and the USA. At the same time Pridi Pahnomyong, regent for the boy king Ananda, worked with the underground on the side of the Allies.

In 1944 General Phibun was voted out of office. This initiated a period of political confusion and economic dislocation, during which the territories acquired during the war were returned. Meanwhile, the left wing government held Phibun as a war criminal. In 1946 King Ananda was shot dead in mysterious circumstances. On 9 November 1947 General Phibun led a military coup, accusing the civilian leadership of the king’s murder. The army remained in power, through coups and counter-coups, until 1973. This was justified in part by fear of communist insurgency. In 1965 the USA was allowed to develop air bases in Thailand for use in the Vietnam war, in return for military and financial aid.

In October 1973 a bloody suppression of student demonstrations brought royal protests and a split in the army, beginning a brief period of civilian rule. Further protests in October 1976 provided a pretext for a new hardline military government. In 1980 a coup placed General Prem in power and he was able to stabilise the nation politically and economically. With royal support Prem persuaded communist guerrillas to give up the fight and oversaw a phased introduction of democracy.

In 1988 elections saw a largely civilian administration take power. Unfortunately, the new government was rocked by corruption scandals and in February 1991 it was overthrown by a military coup – the 17th since 1932. A civilian businessman was later appointed interim Prime Minister. In March 1992 new elections saw the leader of the 1991 coup become Prime Minister. Mass demonstrations and rioting resulted in over 50 people being killed in a military crackdown. The king forced a change of leadership and new elections in September saw moderates take power.

By the 1990s Thailand had become one of the Asian ‘Tiger’ economies, with manufacturing and tourism displacing agriculture and minerals as the principle sources of wealth. Between 1988 and 1997 the economy grew by more than 9% a year. However, in 1997 a crisis of confidence occurred over mounting foreign dept and the sharp depreciation of the baht against the dollar, leading to bankruptcies and stringent austerity measures. An IMF rescue package became neccessary. Economic reforms were put in place in 1998 and by the following year the economy had begun to pick up again.

In February 2001 and May 2002 Thai troops were involved in border clashes with the Burmese Army. Rebels fighting the Burmese government frequently infiltrated across the border. A crackdown on illegal narcotics production was launched in February 2003, with more than 2000 suspects killed by the end of April. A potentially even bigger problem arose in January 2004 when Islamic militants began a campaign of attacks in the largely moslem south. By the end of April more than 200 people had been killed in these attacks.

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