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Thailand - History


Pre 20th Century History

The earliest civilisation 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 and 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.

Modern History

The 20th century brought great change to Thailand. In 1932, a peaceful coup converted the country into a constitutional monarchy and in 1939 Siam became Thailand. During WWII, the Thai government sided with the Japanese. 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.

Recent History

In 1997 the Thai baht pretty much collapsed, dragging the economy (and many other southeast Asian economies) down in a screaming heap. The unfinished skyscrapers around Bangkok are a legacy of this downturn. In August 1997 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 of Thailand are still wary of promises and agitating for more reforms.

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 held in January 2001, Thai Rak Thai trounced Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai's democrats.

Although Thaksin has thus far been able broadly to deliver on his promises, he has faced opposition from anti-reform elements within his own Thai Rak Thai party, as well as accusations of corruption during his time as deputy prime minister in 1997. One worrying recent development has been Thaksin's widespread suppression of the Thai media. As owner of Thailand's only independent TV station, he sacked 23 journalists during the election that brought him to power, and has since come down heavily on all forms of political commentary on radio or TV. Thaksin also instigated the recent 'war on drugs', which has left thousands dead, many apparently victims of a shoot-to-kill policy by the Thai police. He has also been criticised for a lack of commitment to ending sectarian violence in Thailand's deep south.

In early 2006 Thaksin faced growing calls to resign amid mounting criticism over his family's sale of shares in telecoms giant Shin Crop. Several anti-Thaksin demonstrations occurred, prompting Thaksin to dissolve parliament and call a snap election on 2 April 2006.

In December 2004 the west-facing Andaman coast was hit by a tsunami, killing more than 5000 people. Worst affected were small family-run businesses and fishermen, whose buildings and boats were lost to the waters. Aside from areas such as Ao Lo Dalam on Phi Phi island and the Khao Lak/Takua Pa areas in Phang- Nga province, the majority of tourist-reliant areas reopened within weeks or even days of the event.

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