A Short History of Southeast Asia: Thailand


1973-92: Between Autocracy and Democracy

1948-73: The "Strong Man" Era

1932-48: Rise of Military Governments

1910-32: Eclipse of the Role of the Monarcy

1868-10: Modernisation under King Chulalongkorn

1857: King Mongkut signs Bowring Treaty

1782: Chakri Dynasty commences

1767: New capital at Thonburi

1351-1767: Ayudhya Kingdom

1279-1298: Sukhotai Kingdom

mid-late 13th century: Small kingdoms across northeast Myanmar, central and northern Thailand and Lao

7th-13th century: Tai migration south from western and northern China


Thailand stands at the heart of mainland Southeast Asia, yet its modern history differs strikingly from the turbulent history of the rest of the region. Culturally Thailand’s population (approaching 60 million in the early 1990s) is relatively homogeneous; no major regional, ethnic, linguistic or religious rifts have threatened national coherence. Thailand does harbour minorities, but it is well on the way to assimilating its most significant minority, the Chinese. Uniquely in Southeast Asia, Thailand avoided the disruptions of Western colonial rule – and, therefore, the upheavals of decolonisation. World War II produced no serious conflict on Thai soil. After the war, and unlike in neighbouring Indochina, communism never attracted wide support in Thailand. While revolution was tearing Vietnam, Lao and Cambodia apart, and military-imposed ‘Burmese socialism’ was stifling Burma, Thailand embarked on capitalist development which by the 1990s had made it one of Southeast Asia’s strongest economies and brought it close to the status of a NIC (newly industrialised country).

Historically the Thais have nevertheless had to face serious problems. In the 18th century Thai society had to rebuild itself after the trauma of almost total destruction by Burmese armies of the four-centuries-old Thai kingdom of Ayudhya. In the 19th and early 20th centuries Western pressures forced major, but necessarily delicate, adjustments to traditional Thai government, the economy and social organisation. In World War II Thailand had to adjust to Japanese military pressures, and the country suffered acute economic disruption. Afterwards Thailand became a frontline state in the Cold War, its fortunes tied closely to United States’ interests.

Until 1932 Thailand was an absolute monarchy. Subsequently it experienced a succession of unrepresentative military-dominated governments. A violent collision between the military and pro-democracy demonstrators on the streets of Bangkok in 1992 may have ushered in an era of representative democracy, but this is not yet assured. Resolution of conflict about the form of Thai government is needed, for the country is again facing problems. The country’s economic successes have been impressive, but they have forced change on Thai society at a headlong pace. Pressing problems include inadequate infrastructure, an overburdened metropolis in Bangkok, serious pollution and ecological degradation, deplorable conditions for many workers, and widening gaps between urban and rural, and rich and poor, Thais.

Thais sum up their social coherence in the nationalist prescript ‘Nation, Religion (Buddhism) and King’. They are proud of their history, out of which these nationalist symbols have emerged. This history is worth studying for clues about the ability of the Thais to handle their present difficulties.

Early history

In the 13th century several small kingdoms emerged across the regions known today as northeast Burma, central and northern Thailand, and Lao. These were probably the first attempts at state-building by Tai communities. The Tais were the principal ancestors not only of today’s Thais but also of the Lao peoples, the Shans of Burma, a range of upland communities in mainland Southeast Asia such as the Black, Red and White Tais of Lao and northern Vietnam, and the Lü of Yunnan, China.

It used to be thought that, before the 13th century, Tais had dominated a kingdom called Nanchao in Yunnan, but had been dispersed southwards by a Mongol attack in 1253. Scholars no longer hold this theory. Instead the evidence suggests long, slow Tai migration over many centuries, beginning in western China, or even further north, and spreading southwards from the 7th century.

The Tais were wet rice farmers clustered in muang – one or more villages under a chieftain. Over time some muang developed inter-relationships cemented by trading networks, intermarriage, security needs and talented military leaders. But the 13th century leap from linked muang to kingdoms was propelled by Tai adaptations of beliefs, ideas and techniques derived from the states and empires they were encountering in their southward movement. The Tais probably adopted Theravada Buddhism from Mon states in what is now central Thailand and from the Burmese kingdom of Pagan. This religion accommodated itself to Tai folk traditions and animist beliefs but it was also an institutionalised religion with a universalist world view and a transmitter of Mon, Burmese and Sinhalese civilisation.

The principal blueprint for Tai state-builders was, however, Angkor, the great Cambodian kingdom which at its height from the 11th to 13th centuries dominated an empire stretching from the Mekong delta to the northern Malay peninsula and as far north as the Vientiane plain. From Angkor came ideas adapted originally from Indian Brahmanical thought, particularly concepts of society as a divinely ordained hierarchy and of devaraj – the ruler as an immensely potent incarnation of a Hindu deity and/or Buddhist boddhisattva. Angkor also provided lessons in administering large, scattered populations and in a range of arts and technologies.

Tai attacks upon Angkor’s imperial outposts, and eventually upon Angkor itself in the 14th and 15th centuries, would lead to a direct transfer to them of human and material resources. Meanwhile in the 13th century the most celebrated of early Tai states was the kingdom of Sukhothai. Modern Thais regard Sukhothai as the birthplace of the Thai nation, particularly under Ramkhamhaeng, king c.1279 – 1298, whose rule is celebrated by the Sukhothai stone – an inscribed obelisk reputedly discovered in 1833 by the Thai prince Mongkut, then a monk and scholar and later Thailand’s first modernising monarch. The inscription portrays Sukhothai as an idyllic place, governed by a just, fatherly and devoutly Buddhist monarch. Possibly it is Ramkhamhaeng’s self-justifying counterblast to the arrogance and avariciousness of imperial Angkor. In recent years the stone’s authenticity has been questioned, some sceptics arguing that Mongkut himself devised the inscription to give his people an appealing early history. Scholarly consensus continues to view the inscription as genuine, however.

The kingdom of Ayudhya, 1351–1767

After Ramkhamhaeng’s death Sukhothai dwindled in significance. In 1351 the establishment further south of the kingdom of Ayudhya – or Siam as it came to be known – would provide a more lasting basis for Thai statehood. As Siam’s capital, Ayudhya would survive for over four centuries, until 1757. It was founded by U Thong, who is thought to have been a Chinese merchant who acquired wealth and prestige from his trading connections with the Chinese imperial court.

He was related by marriage to a prominent Thai family, and he emphasised his devotion to the Thai form of Buddhism. He may be an early example of a repeated theme in Thai history – the readiness of Thai society to absorb talented Chinese and other foreigners. The people over whom U Thong claimed kingship in 1351 were perhaps predominantly ‘Tai’, but ‘Thai-ness’ was also being constructed out of Mon, Khmer, Chinese and other people.

Ayudhya prospered, partly because of its strategic position. It stood only 70 kilometres up the broad Chaophraya River from the sea, enabling it to become one of Southeast Asia’s great trading ports. Simultaneously it commanded the vast, fertile Chaophraya plain, providing rice for a growing population and for export. The city’s power was also based on its rulers’ keen attention to government and social control. From the beginning they insisted that male subjects pay many months of service each year to the state, as soldiers or labourers; a concept which became known as corvee labour which was used in a number of European countries, especially France.

King Trailok, who reigned from 1448–88, elaborated to an extraordinary degree the place and duties of subjects in a rigidly hierarchical society. Codifying the structure of government and the civil law, Trailok developed the system of sakdina, which carefully scaled the positions of everyone in the kingdom. The pyramid social structure which resulted was intended to enforce social discipline and enable the easy mobilisation of manpower. The structure was legitimated by a parallel hierarchical organisation of the sangha (Buddhist monks) under royal patronage and oversight.

Elements of the sakdina conception of society persist in Thai thinking, and are indeed embedded in the Thai language. However, automatic social obedience was probably never absolute in Ayudhya. The elaborate delineation of social standing bred a self-conscious concern for dignity in even the most humble individual, resulting in at least passive resistance to unjust superiors. Other question-marks against the cohesion of Ayudhyan society concern the regional dispersal of administrative and military power, and the difficulties surrounding monarchical succession. Ayudhyan history would be marked by rivalries between powerful families, each with bases in the provinces, and by clashes over a vacant throne.

Even so, Ayudhya’s social structures proved remarkably strong and enduring. Manpower conscription enabled military-minded kings to defeat Angkor decisively, wage war on other regional rivals, and to claim an empire sometimes encompassing much of modern Lao, the Tai kingdom of Lan Na, based on Chieng Mai (Thailand’s second largest city), and the states of the Malay peninsula. In the 15th and 16th centuries Cambodia remained a significant antagonist, but Ayudhya’s main challenges would come from the Burmese. Only the strong institutions of Ayudhyan society would enable it, indeed, to survive the blows dealt it by the Burmese.

In 1568 the Burmese King Bayinnaung laid seige to Ayudhya, having extended his military power over the north as far as Lao. The city fell in 1569 and was destroyed. Yet over the next decades Narasuan, heir to the throne, managed to reconstitute the kingdom and as king in 1593 decisively repulsed a renewed Burmese attack. In succeeding years he clawed back much of Ayudhya’s tributary empire, and by the early 17th century Ayudhya was again a major power.

European reports provide a striking picture of 17th century Ayudhya as a famed and wealthy trade centre. By then Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, French and English traders jostled there with Chinese, Japanese, Persian, Indian, Malay and other Asian traders. Ayudhya’s openness to trade – and to the information and ideas that traders brought – may have been one of the sources of its strength. In 1688, however, the nobility split over the degree of foreign influence at court, particularly that of an extraordinary Greek adventurer Constantine Phaulkon, who had become a powerful minister; and of the French, including French Jesuit missionaries. Upon the death of King Narai a relatively minor official, Phetracha, organised a coup, excluded the French and had Phaulkon executed. Phetracha assumed the throne himself. Agitation over these events and the legitimacy of Phetracha’s subsequent dynasty would dog Ayudhya for the next 80 years.

It was possibly ruling class divisiveness which accounted for Ayudhya’s poor response to its greatest challenge – another, and massive, Burmese beseigement in 1766. In April 1767 the city fell, to an enemy set on destroying Thai state power forever. Ayudhya’s ruling class was decimated. Tens of thousands of people and all portable wealth were carried off. The city was burned. Vast tracts of territory were left as scorched earth by the Burmese forces.

The rise of the Bangkok empire

This time of crisis saw two remarkable Thai military leaders emerge, Taksin and his leading general Chaophraya Chakri. Taksin had a Thai mother and Chinese father. He had been raised at court and in 1767 was a provincial governor. In the leadership crisis following the destruction of the old regime Taksin rallied an army, imposed his authority on a distracted people, declared himself king and founded a new capital at Thonburi. During the 1770s he and his armies rebuilt an empire which included Chieng Mai in the north. In 1778 armies under Chaophraya Chakri subdued Luang Prabang (the old capital of Lao) and captured Vientiane (the modern capital of Lao). From the latter city they brought back the Emerald Buddha, subsequently Thailand’s most sacred, and it is believed most potent, Buddha-image.

In his later years Taksin undermined respect for his imposing achievements with viciously tyrannical behaviour. He may have succumbed to religious dementia, for he alienated the sangha. In 1782 a tax revolt evolved into a coup, and Taksin was deposed and executed. The coup leaders offered Chaophraya Chakri the throne, thus inaugurating the dynasty of Thai monarchs which continues to the present.

Rama I (reigned 1782–1809) had been born of a Thai father – a relatively minor Ayudhyan official though of aristocratic lineage – and a Chinese mother. He would prove to have not only military skills but great administrative and intellectual abilities. Militarily his reign would see the triumphant, and final, repulsion of the Burmese in 1785 and 1786, and the consolidation of a Thai empire larger than any Ayudhya had controlled. Effectively it covered all of mainland Southeast Asia excluding Burmese and Vietnamese territory, and also included the northern Malay states. Local dignitaries ruled at the empire’s perimeters – in Cambodia, Lao and the Malay states – but they did so at the Thai king’s behest.

At home Rama I supervised the construction of his new capital Bangkok, founded in 1782, which soon became a major cosmopolitan port. From Bangkok the king rebuilt administrative structures reminiscent of Ayudhya’s but arguably even stronger. Labour control now involved mass registrations and the tattooing of subjects to indicate place of residence and administrative superior. Rama I gathered about him talented officials, jurists, scholars and artists. With them he revitalised Thai culture. Their achievements included the reconstruction and reform of the sangha hierarchy, the production of a new, definitive text of the Buddhist scriptures, the complete revision of the kingdom’s laws, and the translation of numerous literary and historical works including the Indian epic Ramayana (in translation, Ramakian).

The king and his followers self-consciously renovated, rather than merely restored, old institutions. The Bangkok court thus moved into the 19th century demonstrating an intellectual and cultural acuity that would be of incalculable value in the years ahead.

Bangkok and the West

Unlike island Southeast Asia, where the Dutch had been extending their empire since the 17th century, mainland Southeast Asia did not encounter intense Western pressures until the 19th century. Even Rama I’s successors Rama II (reigned 1809 – 24) and Rama III (reigned 1824 – 51) were largely able to ignore or turn aside the problems presented by the increasing Western presence in the region. Rama III did reach vague agreement with a British emissary in 1825 (at a time when the British were conquering southeast Burma) about reducing and standardising the taxes on trade. He was unwilling, however, to grapple with the major legal and administrative changes which Western businessmen, perplexed by Thai customs and Asian ways in general, were calling for.

In key respects, therefore, Bangkok remained ‘traditional’ in the first half of the 19th century. This was most obvious in its vigorous prosecution of its authority over its empire. By military intervention in the Malay peninsula it risked tensions with the British, ensconced from the 1820s in the Straits Settlements and lower Burma. In the 1830s and 1840s Bangkok saw as its chief foreign threat not any Western power but Vietnam. Between 1841 and 1845 it fought an exhausting struggle with the Vietnamese over control of Cambodia, a struggle ending effectively in a stand-off.

Virtually at the centre of Bangkok society, however, a group of royal and noble young men were studying the West keenly, led by the example of Prince Mongkut, brother of Rama III. Then a monk, Mongkut was devoting much of his energies to the ongoing reform of Thai Buddhism. He founded the Thammayutika sect, whose goal was intellectually rigorous religious scholarship, clearing away additions to original Buddhist teachings. Mongkut and his circle were also studying Western languages, Western science and mathematics, and such matters as Western military organisation and technology. When Mongkut succeeded to the throne he was therefore in a position to reorientate Bangkok positively towards the West.

King Mongkut (Rama IV, 1851–68) signed the Bowring treaty with Britain in 1855. Under this treaty import and export duties were sharply reduced and fixed, ruling class trading and commodity monopolies were abolished, and British subjects were granted extra-territorial legal rights. In subsequent years Mongkut signed similar treaties with many other Western powers. The signing away of legal power over foreign subjects in the kingdom was a bitter blow – these rights would not be fully recovered until the 1930s. More crucially, the other provisions of the treaties deprived the throne and many powerful subjects of much income. The shortfall would be reversed in time by the expansion of trade and by heavy taxes on opium, alcohol and gambling, but it is testimony to Mongkut’s domestic diplomatic skills, and to the cohesion of his court, that the major fiscal rearrangements passed without revolt.

Mongkut avoided other fundamental reforms. The ‘modernisation’ of the kingdom would really only begin with his son Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868–1910). Even then it would be cautiously undertaken and limited in scope. Chulalongkorn learned caution early in his reign. In 1873, at the age of 21, he announced some financial and legal reform measures which alarmed conservatives and provoked an attempted coup in 1874. The young king survived, but had to rein in his reforming enthusiasm. A strategy for the gradual abolition of slavery, also announced in 1873, continued however. Slavery disappeared over the next decades, although not always the bonds of patronage and obligation in Thai society which slavery had formalised. Later Chulalongkorn was also able to phase out corvee, replacing it with a capitation tax.

Chulalongkorn’s position grew stronger as the older generation passed on and he matured into a shrewd politician, nurturing a corps of bright, Western-educated royal relatives. With them he set about major reform of government in the mid 1880s. Functionally specialised ministries and departments began to appear. Cabinet government was introduced between 1888 and 1892. Subsequently the king’s half-brother Prince Damrong undertook the delicate task of reforming provincial administration, placating the great regional families while centralising bureaucratic control in Bangkok.

The modern look to government came none too soon, for Western imperial rivalries in Southeast Asia were reaching their peak. Chulalongkorn’s skilled foreign minister, Prince Devawongse, could now put the case that the kingdom had no need of Western intervention – unlike its neighbours it was stable, bent on modernisation and able to accommodate international business. Even so, Western empires stripped the former Thai empire. Already Mongkut had been obliged by the French in 1867 to abandon claims to Cambodia, except its western provinces. Now in 1893 (when French warships menaced Bangkok) and in 1902 and 1904 Chulalongkorn had to transfer to the French sovereignty over the areas which would constitute modern Lao, and in 1907 relinquish the western Cambodian provinces. In 1909 he gave control to the British of four northern Malay states formerly under his suzerainty (this left, nevertheless, a Malay-Muslim minority within his kingdom). Meanwhile, an 1896 treaty between France and Britain had marked a crucial turning-point in the disposition of Thai territory. This treaty, designed primarily to head off Anglo–French confrontation in Southeast Asia, guaranteed the independence of most of the territory which today forms Thailand. Chulalongkorn’s core kingdom had been secured.

He proceeded with modernisation until his death in 1910, laying the foundations of a modern military, improving communications – particularly with an extensive railway system – and continuing law reform. Western-style education became common for royal and upper class children, and an elementary Western-style syllabus was introduced in the temple schools. Chulalongkorn resisted full-tilt modernisation, however. He rejected any thought of introducing democracy. Economically he presided over the development of a quasi-colonial state. Ordinary Thais became commodity producers for the world market, rice accounting for over 70 per cent of exports in the early 20th century. Other items included tin, teak and rubber. There was no significant industrialisation. Western and Chinese interests dominated the country’s financial and commercial life. Chinese numbers swelled to about 10 per cent of the population. The size and power of the Chinese community began, indeed, to disturb many Thais.

The eclipse of the monarchy, 1910–1932

During the reigns of Chulalongkorn’s successors Vajiravudh (Rama VI, 1910–25) and Pradjahipok (Rama VII, 1925–35) disgruntlement with Thailand’s equivocal modernisation and economic subjection would grow amongst the expanding, though still small, Western-educated elite. Vajiravudh’s dilettante approach to kingship also provoked criticism. His inner circle at court consisted of male favourites. His extravagance contributed to government deficits and a balance of payments crisis in the 1920s. On the other hand, his contributions to the emergence of Thai nationalism probably strengthened his reign. He introduced the trinity of ‘Nation, Religion (Buddhism) and King’ as the focus of popular loyalty, and promoted organisations and public spectacles designed to inculcate nationalist pride. In the 1920s he also sponsored successful diplomatic efforts to end the extra-territoriality provisions of Mongkut’s treaties and recover national control of tariffs.

Prajadhipok (Chulalongkorn’s 76th child – Vajiravudh died heirless) took an earnest approach to his duties, but was hamstrung by the financial problems bequeathed to him and even more by the Great Depression. In the early 1930s national income slumped, and cuts to government expenditures heightened discontent. For him the promotion of nationalist thinking proved to be a double-edged sword. The concept of ‘Nation’ alongside that of ‘King’ soon encouraged modern-minded Thais to distinguish between the two. On 24 June 1932 plotters in the military and bureaucracy staged a coup – carried out without bloodshed – and, in the name of the nation, obliged Prajadhipok to surrender the monarchy’s absolute powers and accept constitutional status. In 1935 Prajadhipok abdicated in favour of his nephew Ananda (Rama VIII, 1935–46) who was then at school overseas and would remain abroad until 1945.

The rise of military government, 1932–1948

The promoters of the 1932 revolution consisted of both civilians and military men. Their professed goal was the staged introduction of parliamentary democracy, and they set up a National Assembly of appointed and elected members. By the late 1930s, however, the parliament appeared doomed to virtual irrelevancy. For 60 years after 1932, in fact, the military would dominate Thai government.

For several reasons military dominance would not prove stifling nor produce wholly negative effects. Firstly, Thai military leaders faced no serious problems of national integration; history had bequeathed to them a country of relatively minor cultural, religious, ideological or ethnic tensions, and they could usually enforce their will with a relatively light hand. Secondly, they would generally be willing to accommodate other elites in the power process, and those elites – business, bureaucracy and civilian politicians – would generally acquiesce in military preeminence. Thirdly, ossification of the power structure would be avoided, crudely but not ineffectively, by rivalries within the military and changes of government by intra-military coup. Finally, successive military-dominated governments would pursue modernisation, economic growth and the expansion of education and other services. For several decades this would seem to justify military rule – though it would eventually undermine it. Economic development and a better educated society would finally produce broad-based pressures for more representative government.

In the 1930s Thailand was still overwhelmingly a country of peasant farmers. The military was its best-organised, most cohesive modern institution. The military’s crucial place in the 1932 revolution was underscored in October 1933, when pro-royalist protesters marched on Bangkok. They were repulsed by troops commanded by a Lt Colonel Phibun Songkhram. The following year Phibun became Defence Minister. He would then hold various posts until he became Prime Minister in 1938, heading a cabinet of predominantly military men.

Phibun and his supporters, unimpressed by the floundering Western democracies of the period, were attracted to other political models – fascist Italy, Germany and above all Japan, the one Asian country which seemed to offer Thailand a pattern for modernisation. Phibun rapidly adopted some features of dictatorship, arresting opponents, promoting himself as Thailand’s great leader and exciting nationalist emotions. A series of ‘cultural mandates’ attempted instant economic and social change. Domestically his most dramatic move was legislation aimed at the Chinese in Thailand. State corporations took over commodities such as rice, tobacco and petroleum, and Chinese businesses found themselves subject to a range of new taxes and controls. Chinese economic know-how was in fact too valuable for anti-Chinese measures to be pushed far, but Phibun’s policies would have lasting effects. They stimulated Chinese assimilation into Thai society, through Sino-Thai business partnerships, intermarriage, and Chinese acceptance of Thai language, education and culture. They also set in train heavy state involvement in the economy, which would blur the lines between business and those who held political and bureaucratic power.

Pursuing his nationalist goals, Phibun changed his country’s name from Siam to Thailand in 1939 (the name Siam would be briefly resumed between 1945 and 1949). Phibun pointed out that ‘Siam’ was originally a term for the area used by Chinese and other foreigners, but the change also had irredentist implications – should ‘the land of the Thais’ include ‘Tai’ people who lived beyond its borders, many as a result of Western pruning of the old Bangkok empire? Phibun answered this question in November 1940, when Thai forces invaded Lao and western Cambodia. The Japanese, who now held base and transit rights in French Indochina, stepped in to mediate, awarding Cambodia’s western provinces and portions of Lao to Thailand.

This victory was popular in Thailand. Phibun’s subsequent relations with the Japanese would become more controversial. In December 1941 the Japanese moved troops into Thailand, demanding transit rights for their attacks on British Burma and Malaya. Thai troops resisted, but the Phibun government called for a ceasefire within hours. Subsequently it entered a military alliance with Japan and in January 1942 declared war on the United States and Britain. Division about these events within Thai ruling circles was indicated most obviously by the refusal of the Thai Minister in Washington, the aristocratic Seni Pramoj, to advise the United States government of the declaration of war. A Free Thai movement began to grow amongst overseas Thais and eventually underground within Thailand itself.

At first, however, Phibun’s actions were widely supported, and Thailand was rewarded by Japan with the Shan states of Burma in 1942 and the four northern Malay states in 1943. Disillusionment began to set in as the tide of war turned against Japan, and Thailand experienced acute economic disruption because of the war. In July 1944 Phibun quietly resigned the prime ministership, leaving the National Assembly with the problem of preparing Thailand for an Allied victory.

The politicians were restrained by the Japanese presence until August 1945, but then all agreements with Japan were repudiated (including those which had transferred territory to Thailand). The goal of democratic government was reasserted. A range of factors would, however, frustrate the achievement of that goal. The British and French were at first bitterly hostile to Thailand. The economic difficulties of the war years persisted. Political infighting prevented effective or even stable government.

In the midst of the turmoil King Ananda, who had returned to Thailand in December 1945, died of a gunshot one morning in June 1946. His death has remained shrouded in mystery. The young king enjoyed collecting guns and most likely the shot was self-inflicted by accident, but the political scene was inflamed by murder theories. The Prime Minister Pridi Phanomyong, famed as the chief civilian promoter of the 1932 revolution but viewed by conservatives as a radical leftist, resigned amidst mounting hysteria against ‘communists’. Government continued to flounder until the military stepped in, staging a coup in November 1947. Initially they retained a civilian Prime Minister, but forced him to resign in April 1948. He was replaced by Phibun.

The ‘strong man’ era, 1948–1973

The resumption of military dominance over government initiated a succession of authoritarian leaders unchallenged by forces outside the military until 1973. Their power was enhanced by United States patronage and aid. Washington wanted strong anti-communist leaders who would both repress domestic communism (never more than a fringe phenomenon in Thailand in fact) and join in American-led strategies for the containment of Asian communism. From the 1950s United States aid to Thailand was substantial. It enabled much social and economic development, notably in communications, infrastructure and social welfare projects, but it also bolstered military and police power.

Even so the goal of stable government was not necessarily secured. American aid created new opportunities for corruption in Thai government and administration, and stimulated competition for the prizes of power between rival political networks anchored in the military but reaching into business and the bureaucracy. American appeals for some evidence of democracy in Thailand produced, in the short term, only cynical political manipulation, rigged elections and rubber-stamp parliaments from time to time.

After 1948 Phibun resumed many of his former repressive policies. He mounted another anti-Chinese campaign, and also attempted to impose cultural uniformity forcefully on the Malay-Muslims of the far south. The latter resisted the arrival of Thai officials, the introduction of Thai-language education and the substitution of Thai law for customary law. A separatist movement grew which, despite conciliation by later Thai governments, would persist to the present.

Despite the tough image which Phibun once more projected, his power was not in fact secure. He faced several attempted coups from within the military between 1948 and 1951. All were defeated, but at the price of the emergence of two further ‘strong men’ – army commander, subsequently Field Marshal, Sarit Thanarat (whose later spectacular wealth would be grounded in his control of the government lottery) and police chief Phao Siyanon (who would make his fortune from opium trafficking). In 1955 Phibun eased the controls on political activity and promised elections. Possibly he was under American pressure, possibly he hoped to outmanoeuvre his rivals by winning popular endorsement. However his party was accused of massive fraud during the 1957 election. Sarit won popularity by resigning, supposedly in disgust, from Phibun’s government. In September 1957 Sarit staged a coup, driving Phibun and Phao into exile.

In October 1958 Sarit declared martial law, silencing the experiments in open politics since 1955. Sarit justified his authoritarianism in two ways – he argued for a return to Thai traditions of social order, and he accelerated economic development and social modernisation. Under the former banner the monarchy was given renewed prominence.

King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX, 1946–present) attended public ceremonies, toured the provinces and patronised development projects, becoming a personally revered figure. Under the banner of development, Sarit introduced to government a new generation of economically liberal technocrats, encouraged private and foreign investment, launched major rural development programs and rapidly expanded educational facilities.

When Sarit died in December 1963 power transferred peacefully to his close associates Generals Thanom Kittikachorn (who became Prime Minister) and Praphas Charusathian (Deputy Prime Minister). Thanom and Praphas basically maintained Sarit’s style of government and economic policies, which produced GNP growth rates of over 8 per cent per year during the 1960s. At the same time the military’s place in the Thai political landscape seemed to loom larger than ever. United States aid increased sharply because of the Indochina conflicts. From 1964 Thailand provided bases for the United States airforce and committed its own troops to action in Vietnam and Laos. United States aid was also forthcoming to combat a communist insurgency which had taken root amongst alienated tribal groups in the country’s north and northeast.

The era of unquestioned ‘strong man’ rule was drawing to a close, however. Economic development, wider education and better communications were rapidly increasing the numbers of the politically aware. In 1968 Thanom proclaimed a new constitution, and in 1969 an election established a new parliament. The political public was shocked when he reversed direction in 1971, dissolving the parliament and banning political parties once more. By the early 70s several other issues were raising concern. The leaders’ presumed successor, Narong Kittikachorn (Thanom’s son and Praphas’ son-in-law), was not regarded highly inside or outside the military. Thailand’s close involvement with the United States obviously required rethinking as the United States moved to disengage from Vietnam and the region. The OPEC ‘oil shock’ and rising prices sent tremors through the economy.

It was the educated young who precipitated the downfall of the Thanom-Praphas regime. In October 1973 student protests against political repression (inspired to some extent by the Western student radicalism of the era) escalated into massive confrontation with the police on the streets of Bangkok. Popular sympathy for the students increased when police killed or wounded several students. In the first subtle indication of royal political opinion in many years, the King permitted student first-aid stations on royal ground. The demonstrators triumphed when the army withheld its support from Thanom, Praphas and Narong, who fled into exile.

Between autocracy and democracy, 1973–1992

The ‘Students’ Revolution’ unleashed an extraordinary burst of political activism. Political parties mushroomed, hitherto banned ideas circulated freely, trade unionism flourished, and numerous organisations of all shades of opinion set out to politicise the people. Even the Buddhist sangha, long a compliant supporter of government, revealed radical dissent within its ranks.

An interim civilian government arranged for a fully elected parliament to be created by elections in January 1975. The result was an unstable coalition government which collapsed within twelve months. Another ineffective coalition emerged from elections in April 1976. Meanwhile the problems of a destabilised economy were not being addressed, nor the apparent threats to Thailand from the communist victories in Cambodia, Vietnam and Lao in 1975.

Conservative opinion, outraged by the political disorder from the beginning, increasingly became popular opinion. In October 1976 the military resumed power unopposed, permitting right-wing organisations to torture and kill student radicals gathered at Thammasat University in Bangkok. Many leftist and moderate leaders fled the city, some to join the communist insurgents in the northeast.

For the moment it appeared that Thailand faced more authoritarian government than ever before. The policies of the first post-coup Prime Minister, a civilian but a rigid right-winger, deepened rather than healed the divisions in the country. Even civil war seemed possible, if the newly expanded insurgent forces could attract popular sympathy.

Within the military, however, opinions varied after the ‘Students’ Revolution’ about the future of Thai politics and the military’s relationship to government. At one pole of a spectrum of opinions stood those keen to retain the autocratic discipline of the ‘strong man’ years. At the other stood those who saw the development of democracy as desirable, even inevitable; clearly Thai society was now unwilling to be politically passive. In the middle of the spectrum, key military figures concluded that ‘managed democracy’ was possible. This has remained an option attractive to military politicians ever since. Management may include a range of strategies: the maintenance of a constitution allowing for an appointed Prime Minister, appointments to other senior posts and a part-appointed parliament; the nurture of political parties sympathetic to military interests; the promotion of the military to the public as an efficient national institution more likely to deliver government in the common good than self-interested (civilian) politicians. The strategy of managed democracy also seemed to require, however, that the military should retain the right to the ultimate weapon of political management, the coup.

In October 1977 General Kriangsak Chomanand assumed the Prime Ministership, promising a new constitution and elections in 1979. Kriangsak also offered amnesty to repentant insurgents. This helped to speed the collapse of an insurgency movement increasingly disillusioned in the late 1970s by the falling out between Cambodia, Vietnam and China, and by the revelations of the horrors of Khmer Rouge rule in Cambodia. (Ironically it would be the Thai military, rather than the insurgents, who would develop a liaison with the Khmer Rouge, after Vietnam’s occupation of Cambodia in 1979.)

Not long after the 1979 elections Kriangsak was succeeded by General Prem Tinsulanonda, whose form of managed democracy would attract the label ‘Premocracy’. Prem was an appointed Prime Minister (under the 1978 constitution) but he took care to base his authority on parliamentary support, persuading MPs from a range of parties to back him. Generally, Prem maintained a reputation for being ‘clean’ and making appointments to senior posts on the basis of merit. Military elements twice tried to overthrow him, in 1981 and 1985, but on both occasions he survived with the explicit support of the King and of loyal military forces.

Prem retired in 1988 and elections brought to power a civilian Prime Minister, Chatichai Choonhavan, heading a coalition identified with civilian political and business interests. The Chatichai government was buoyed by economic boom conditions and initially by popular enthusiasm, and the military took a ‘wait and see’ attitude. Military leaders grew alarmed, however, when Chatichai manoeuvred to diminish their influence behind the scenes. Pro-military media publicised, with relish, examples of his government’s inefficiency and undoubtedly grave corruption. In February 1991 a quiescent public observed a well-planned coup which overthrew Chatichai, parliament and the constitution.

The principal figure behind the coup was army commander General Suchinda Kraprayoon; other leading figures included the navy and air force chiefs and the deputy commander of the army. Their alliance dated back to their education at Chulachomklao Military Academy, where they had graduated as members of ‘Class 5’, a generation of cadets which had come to dominate many key positions of power. The coup group – calling themselves the National Peacekeeping Council (NPC) – set out to explore new methods of managed democracy, promising another constitution and elections, and establishing an interim government headed by Anand Panyarachun, a respected businessman and former diplomat. The NPC’s stance may have been prodded by more than domestic considerations. Many countries expressed dismay at the 1991 coup. International business indicated some alarm at the capriciousness of the Thai political scene.

As interim Prime Minister, Anand performed effectively, but controversy grew over the new constitution announced in December 1991, which favoured the military by allowing for an appointed Prime Minister and an appointed upper house (the Senate) with power over legislation. The NPC leadership proved able, however, to command the lower house too. Elections in March 1992 gave a narrow majority to a coalition of parties supporting, or willing to align themselves with, military-dominated government. Only the question of a Prime Minister seemed to remain.

The military’s initial choice for Prime Minister, a civilian lower house MP, had to withdraw when the United States government publicised his links to the drug trade. General Suchinda stepped into the vacuum – to the outrage of Thailand’s frustrated democrats. Mass demonstrations began in Bangkok, led by the Buddhist ascetic Chamlong Srimuang, an ex-military officer and former Bangkok Governor. Chamlong had a reputation for incorruptibility. With his political party Palang Dharma and its supporters he now campaigned for clean, democratic government. In Bangkok and major provincial centres they enjoyed wide support.

Disastrously, Suchinda ordered troops to use force against the demonstrators. Between May 17 and 20, 1992 at least fifty protesters were killed (several hundred according to rumour at the time) in scenes of mayhem and military brutality that shocked television viewers around the world. On May 20 the King intervened. A truce was negotiated which led to Suchinda’s resignation as Prime Minister, after he had declared an amnesty for ‘all parties’ involved in killing and injuring demonstrators. Anand returned as interim Prime Minister, minor modifications were made to the constitution, and fresh elections were scheduled for September 1992.

Anand took the opportunity of the military’s discomfiture to remove Suchinda’s fellow coup leaders from their positions of power. The September elections gave a narrow majority to anti-military parties (Democrat, New Aspiration, Palang Dharma and Solidarity). Democrat leader Chuan Leekpai, a lawyer, assumed the Prime Ministership. He subsequently strengthened his control of the lower house by wooing another party, Social Action, into his coalition. His government has remained encumbered, however, by an unelected Senate, which on matters of constitutional reform can unite with opposition MPs in the lower house to block further progress towards a fully democratic political system.

Thailand in the 1990s

The wave of domestic and international revulsion against the violence of May 1992 diminished the likelihood of further direct military intervention in Thai government. However, the wish of democratic reformers to detach the military from politics and other non-military spheres of public life will not be easily achieved. Long years of military dominance have taught the present officer corps to expect influence, careers and rewards beyond the strictly military realm. Constitutional reform to reduce military management of parliament remains to be achieved.

Military political influence remains particularly strong in rural Thailand, where the armed forces present an image of practical concern for development and for the needs of the poor. Meanwhile civilian politicians still need to convince many Thais that they put clean, stable and effective government ahead of their personal interests. Corruption is a spectre which hangs over civilian as well as military politics.

It must also be a matter of concern that the monarchy has had to involve itself in politics in recent years. The present King has acted judiciously and maintained broad national respect, but royal intervention in politics raises risks, for the monarchy and for social stability if an intervention were to be misjudged. Thailand’s political system cannot be seen as stable or mature while resort to royal arbitration remains an occasional necessity.

Today some Thais also fear for another traditional source of social stability – Buddhism. In pre-modern Thai society Buddhism, as well as providing religious inspiration and solace, was probably the chief form of ‘social cement’. Buddhist temples were centres not only of worship but of education and social activity. Royal and aristocratic patronage of Buddhism ensured that the traditional social order enjoyed religious legitimation. In 1902 King Chulalongkorn formalised the administration of the sangha (Buddhist monks), in effect making the sangha an arm of the state. Post-1932 governments perpetuated this strategy; both Phibun and Sarit reorganised sangha administration, at least in part for political purposes.

In the short term the strategy enhanced social order. In the longer term it has produced scepticism amongst many Thais towards established Buddhism and its conservative teachings. This has led in some cases to indifference, in others to the growth of movements and sects challenging mainstream Buddhism. Modern education and rising affluence have of course contributed to the diversification of attitudes towards religion.

Instabilities in Thai society can be exaggerated however. Despite the intermittent political crises at the top, Thai society has remained serenely stable when compared with neighbouring countries. This stability has enabled economic and social development on a breathtaking scale. The political discord of recent decades may have reflected strains and tensions arising from rapid social change, but it has never endangered Thailand’s development more than fleetingly.

For over three decades Thailand has achieved average annual growth rates of around 7 to 8 per cent, reaching over 10 per cent in the late 1980s. The country has been a favoured destination of foreign investment, led at present by Japan and Hong Kong, with Taiwan, the United States and Singapore also posting significant shares. Meanwhile Thai investment also now flows to other countries of the region. Virtually a rice-growing mono-economy before World War II, Thailand’s economy is now broad-based, producing a range of agricultural products, many of them processed in Thailand, and manufactures. Mining and oil/LNG constitute a growing sector. The growth of manufacturing has been the most spectacular aspect of the development. Negligible till the 1950s, manufacturing accounted for over 26 per cent of GDP in the early 1990s and dominated Thailand’s exports. By then agriculture had shrunk relatively, to around 12 per cent of GDP. With such growth Thailand has become a key regional financial centre. It is at present the only member of ASEAN in mainland Southeast Asia. Thai business expects to play a significant role in the development of southern China, Vietnam, Lao, Cambodia and Burma.

Within Thailand other major changes have been taking place. The population stood at 38 million in 1970 and 57 million in 1991 (the annual growth rate is now down to 1.2 per cent however). Improved medical and other services have significantly reduced the death rate and the incidence of malnutrition, tuberculosis and tropical diseases. In education, enrolment rates have grown at all levels, far outstripping population growth at secondary level (up fourfold between 1970 and 1990) and tertiary level (up eightfold). A trend to urbanisation, reflecting economic shifts, has meant that about 40 per cent of Thais now live in Bangkok or provincial towns. In the capital and other urban centres the emergence of a substantial consumer-oriented middle class is strikingly evident.

The old Thailand, where small royal, aristocratic or military elites could dominate a quiescent population of subsistence farmers, has gone.

Thai government must now grapple with an increasingly mobile, affluent and educated society. Other problems loom as large. The agenda of issues confronting any Thai government today seems, indeed, disconcertingly long and urgent. On a macroeconomic level Thailand must move on from industrial development based on cheap labour and foreign-owned technology. Meanwhile the present boom has produced extreme disparities of wealth, both vertically and horizontally. The affluent share the cities with workers on minimal wages, frequently labouring in atrocious conditions. When income is expressed in per capita terms, however, urban Thais are vastly better off than those in rural areas. Poverty is particularly pronounced in the north, northeast and far south.

Most industrial development has focussed on Bangkok, which now accounts for over 50 per cent of the nation’s GDP although it has only an estimated 15 per cent of the population. Bangkok’s infrastructure is straining to cope with the expansion, but despite major development schemes rural infrastructure remains inadequate to attract much business and industry away from the capital. Pollution and environmental degradation have become urgent issues in both urban and rural areas. AIDS has become the country’s most pressing health issue; at least 2 million Thais are estimated to be HIV positive. Even so, Thailand’s past tends to induce optimism for its future. Thai history can be seen as the story of a people with an unusual capacity for social cohesion, dissolution or evasion of conflict, and creative confrontation of unavoidable challenges.

Copyright © Asean Focus Group Pty Limited. All rights reserved.

About this edition:

This is the complete text of the 2nd edition of the book. Short History of South East AsiaThe first edition of "Focus on Southeast Asia" was published in 1997 and the second edition, which was renamed "A Short History of South East Asia", was published in 1999. With so much change taking place in South East Asia over the last few years we recently decided to update the book and a fifth edition was published by John Wiley and Sons (www.wiley.com) in 2009. The cover set out is of the fifth edition.

The 5th edition of "A Short History of South East Asia" is available to purchase from Amazon, as both an e-book and a paperback, and via its publisher, Wiley.


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