t´lnd, –lnd, Thai Prathet Thai [land of the free], officially Kingdom of Thailand, constitutional monarchy (2005 est. pop. 65,444,000), 198,455 sq mi (514,000 sq km), Southeast Asia. Occupying a central position on the Southeast Asia peninsula, Thailand is bordered by Myanmar on the west and northwest, by Laos on the north and east (the Mekong River forms much of the line), by Cambodia on the southeast, and by the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia on the south. Bangkok is the capital and by far the largest city. Administratively, the country is divided into 76 provinces.
A southward extension into the Malay Peninsula gives Thailand a long coastline on the Gulf of Thailand and on the Andaman Sea. The heart of the country, the fertile and thickly populated central plain, is dotted with numerous rice paddies, entirely flat and rarely more than a few feet above sea level. It is watered by the Chao Phraya and lesser rivers and is elaborately veined by a system of canals (called klongs) for irrigation and drainage. Bangkok and Ayutthaya, the old capital, are in that basin. The north is mountainous, with peaks rising to c.8,500 ft (2,590 m); mountains stretch south along the boundary with Myanmar on the west. Forests in the north yield teak, although overcutting has decreased Thailand's forest reserves severely.
Although the population in the north is relatively sparse, rice is intensively cultivated in the river valleys, and one of the country's major cities, Chiang Mai, is in that area. Most of NE and E Thailand is occupied by the Korat (Khorat) plateau, which is cut off from the rest of the country by highlands and the Phetchabun Mts. It is a hilly, dry, and generally poor region, where livestock raising is dominant. Chief towns are Nakhon Ratchasima (Korat), Udon Thani, and Ubon Ratchathani. Peninsular Thailand in the south (which includes Phuket and other offshore islands) is largely mountainous and covered with jungles. It is the principal source of the rubber and tin that make Thailand a major world producer of both. Chief towns of the peninsula are Hat Yai and Songkhla, the second largest port of the country. Thailand has a tropical and monsoonal climate.
Thailand has a large Chinese minority, accounting for almost 15% of the population. Local trade is chiefly in the hands of the Chinese and as a consequence there is substantial tension between Thais and Chinese. Other substantial minorities include the Muslim Malays, concentrated in the southern peninsula; the hill tribes of the north; the Khmers, or Cambodians, who are found in the southeast and on the Cambodian border; and the Vietnamese, chiefly recent refugees who live along the Mekong River. While the ethnic minorities generally speak their own languages, Thai (linguistically related to Chinese) is the official tongue; English predominates among the Western languages. Theravada Buddhism is the state religion; some 93% of the people are Buddhists.
The economy is heavily agricultural, with rice by far the leading crop; Thailand is the world's leading exporter of rice (1990). Other commercial crops include rubber, corn, kenaf, jute, tapioca, cotton, tobacco, kapok, and sugarcane. Thailand's teak, once a major export, is still a valuable commodity. Marine and freshwater fisheries are important; fish provide most of the protein in the diet, and some of the deep-sea catches (mackerel, shark, shrimp, crab) are exported. Thailand is also a major exporter of farmed shrimp. Tin, by far the most valuable mineral, is a major export item. Tungsten, lead, zinc, and antimony are also mined for export. Iron ore, gold, precious and semiprecious stones (especially saphires and rubies), salt, lignite, petroleum, asphaltic sand, and glass sand are exploited on a smaller scale.
Thailand has substantial hydroelectric potential, which is being developed; projects have been constructed on the Ping, Mekong, Phong, and Songkhram rivers. Industry is growing and is centered chiefly in the processing of agricultural products; rice milling is by far the most important, followed by sugar refining, textile spinning and weaving, and the processing of rubber, tobacco, and forest products. During the 1980s and 1990s, electronics became important, causing a substantial rise in the per capita GDP. Lumbering is concentrated in the north. The country also has a small steel mill, an oil refinery, tin smelters, and vehicle and machine assembly plants. Small factories, many of which are in the Bangkok area, manufacture building materials, jewelry, glass, pharmaceuticals, and various consumer goods. Tourism is the leading source of foreign exchange, and handicraft production has a ready market in the tourist trade. Thailand is also a major transshipment point for illicit heroin and has become a drug money–laundering center.
Bangkok is a key point on round-the-world air routes. It is the political, commercial, cultural, and transportation center of the country, with the only port that can accommodate oceangoing vessels. Thailand's railroads originate in Bangkok and extend to Chiang Mai, the Korat plateau, and to Cambodia, Laos, and Malaysia; a corresponding network of paved highways has been constructed. Thailand's inland waterways—a complex, interconnected system of rivers, streams, and canals—have been important arteries since ancient times; barges and boats still carry well over half the cargo moved in the central plain.
Thailand is governed under an interim constitution, established after the 2006 coup, its 17th since 1932. The king is the head of state. The interim prime minister and 250-member unicameral national assembly are appointed by the Council of National Security.
Like other countries of Southeast Asia, Thailand in prehistoric times was peopled through successive migrations from central Asia into territory already inhabited by the Negrito peoples. Although a few Thai groups (ethnically related to the Shan of Myanmar and the Lao of Laos) migrated to the northern hill country of Thailand, the main body of Thais remained in Yunnan, China, where by AD 650 they had organized the independent kingdom of Nanchao. By 1000, however, the Chinese had overrun Nanchao and made it a tributary state. With the destruction of the kingdom of Nanchao by the Mongols under Kublai Khan in 1253, the slow infiltration of Thailand from the north turned into a mass migration. By that time the Khmer Empire was well established in the Chao Phraya valley and on the Korat plateau.
The Thais captured the Khmer town of Sukhothai, in N central Thailand, and a new Thai nation, with its capital at Sukhothai, soon developed. During this period (c.1260–1350), King Rama Kamheng, whose 40-year reign began c.1275, borrowed from the Khmers of Cambodia the alphabet that the Thais still use. He extended Sukhothai power southward to the sea and down the Malay Peninsula, and contact was made with India. After the death of Rama Kamheng, Sukhothai declined and was absorbed by Rama Tibodi, prince of Utong, who established (c.1350) a new capital at Ayutthaya. The kings of Ayutthaya consolidated their power in S Siam and the Malay Peninsula, then launched a long series of indecisive wars against the Lao state of Chiang Mai and against Cambodia, which did not end until the 19th cent. The 16th cent. saw the beginnings of warfare with the Burmese; in 1568 the Burmese captured Ayutthaya and dominated the country until c.1583, when King Naresuan (1555–1605) drove them from Siam. He captured Tanintharyi and Tavoy in S Myanmar and the major port of Mergui.
Siam's relations with the West commenced after 1511, when Portuguese traders and missionaries began to arrive. Adroit diplomacy, developed during this time, enabled Siam to remain independent of European colonization, the only country in Southeast Asia able to do so. In the early 17th cent. the Dutch and British broke Portugal's monopoly. Siam became, so far as Europe was concerned, the most consequential kingdom in Southeast Asia, and the brilliance of its court under King Narai (reigned 1657–88) was proverbial. The French, aided by the Greek adventurer Constantine Phaulkon, who had risen to power at the Siamese court, launched a bid for dominance in Siam that provoked an antiforeign coup (1688). Phaulkon was executed, and Siam was closed to most foreigners for over a century.
In 1767 the Burmese, after several attempts, finally destroyed Ayutthaya. Gen. Phya Tak, or Taksin, however, quickly rallied the Thai forces, and within a decade he drove (c.1777) the Burmese from the country and established his capital at Thon Buri. His successor, General Chakkri (reigned 1782–1809), later known as Rama I, moved the capital from Thon Buri across the river to Bangkok and founded the Chakkri dynasty, thereafter the ruling house of Siam. In the 19th cent. the authority of Bangkok was at last established over N Siam, and relations with the West were resumed; Siam signed commercial treaties with Great Britain (1826) and the United States (1833). The independence of the kingdom was threatened, however, when Great Britain extended its sway to Malaya and Burma, and France carved out an empire in Indochina.
By opening their posts to European trade, by bringing in Western advisers, by strengthening the central administration as against the hereditary provincial chieftains, and by playing off British against French interests, the Siamese managed to stay free. Even so, the establishment of Siam's boundaries meant the surrender of its claims to Laos (1893) and parts of Cambodia (1907) and of its suzerainty over Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, and Terengganu (1909), on the Malay Peninsula. The Westernization of Siam took place under an absolute monarchy and was chiefly the work of Mongkut (reigned 1851–68), or Rama IV, and his son Chulalongkorn (reigned 1868–1910), or Rama V. Siam became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, when a bloodless coup forced Prajadhipok (reigned 1925–35), Rama VII, to grant a constitution.
The two young leaders of the coup, Pibul Songgram and Pridi Phanomyang, both educated in Europe and influenced by Western ideas, came to dominate Thai politics in the ensuing years. In 1934 the first general elections were held; a year later Prajadhipok abdicated, and a council of regency chose Ananda (reigned 1935–46) as Rama VIII. Pibul Songgram, a militarist, became premier in 1938. He changed the country's name to Thailand and instituted a program of expansion. Taking advantage of the initial French defeat (1940) in World War II, he renewed Thai claims in Cambodia and Laos. Japanese mediation resulted (1941) in territorial concessions to Thailand. In Dec., 1941, Pibul, despite the objections of Pridi Phanomyang, permitted the Japanese to enter Thailand, and in 1942 the government, under Japanese pressure, declared war on Great Britain and the United States.
With the help of the United States, Pridi formed a militant anti-Japanese underground. In 1943, Japan granted to Thailand territory in N Malaya and in the Shan states of Myanmar, but after the war Thailand was forced to return these territories and those acquired in 1941 to French and British control. Pridi Phanomyang became premier in the postwar government, while Pibul was briefly jailed as a war criminal. Pridi restored the name Siam as a repudiation of Pibul's policies. Inflation, corruption in government, and the mysterious death (1946) of King Ananda all contributed to the overthrow (1947) of Pridi's government by Pibul. Pridi fled the country and in 1954 appeared in Beijing as the professed leader of the Communist Free Thai movement, allegedly representing numerous Thais still in Yunnan, China.
Under Pibul's military dictatorship, the name Thailand was again adopted. Bhumibol Adulyadej, Rama IX, was crowned king in 1950 after a four-year regency. Thailand signed (1950) a technical and economic aid agreement with the United States and sent troops in support of the United Nations action in Korea. Thailand has received huge military grants from the United States and was the seat (1954–77) of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization. The country, apprehensive over its proximity to China, remained consistently pro-Western in international outlook.
In 1957 a military coup led by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat overthrew Pibul Songgram and made Gen. Thanom Kittikachorn premier. In 1958, however, with the stated purpose of combating Communism, Sarit deposed his own premier, suspended the constitution, and declared martial law. King Bhumibol Adulyadej proclaimed an interim constitution in 1959 and named Sarit premier. When Sarit died in 1963, Thanom Kittikachorn was returned to power. A new constitution was finally promulgated in 1968. Under Sarit and Thanom the country's economy in the 1960s continued to boom, spurred by a favorable export market and considerable U.S. aid. Thailand strongly supported the U.S. policy in South Vietnam, providing bases for U.S. troops and airfields for strikes against the North Vietnamese; thousands of Thai troops were sent in support of South Vietnam. The nation's foreign policy was closely geared to the U.S. presence in Southeast Asia and its economy became increasingly dependent upon U.S. military spending and subsidies. Thailand became one of the founding members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967.
Economic reversals came in 1970 when the international demand for rice dropped substantially (due in part to improved farming techniques in other countries) and the prices of tin and rubber fell; for the first time since 1933, Thailand suffered a trade deficit. In addition, the security of the country appeared threatened by the spread of the Vietnam War into Cambodia and Laos and by growing insurgencies, chiefly Communist led, in three separate areas within Thailand itself: in the south, where Malaysian Communists used Thailand as a staging base for operations in Malaysia and Thai Malay separatists mounted an insurgency that continued into the 1980s; in the north, where Communists trained in North Vietnam were believed to be organizing the hill peoples; and, most significantly, in the economically backward northeastern provinces, where a discontented minority had been active since the mid-1950s.
The increasing economic and security problems prompted a coup in Nov., 1971, by Premier Thanom Kittikachorn and three military aides, in which they abolished the constitution and the parliament and imposed military rule. Guerrilla raids against both Thai government forces and U.S. air bases continued. Economic conditions improved throughout 1972 as large numbers of U.S. military personnel were transferred from South Vietnam to bases in Thailand; by June of that year there were more U.S. forces in Thailand than in South Vietnam.
In Oct., 1973, the military regime of Thanom was toppled after a week of student demonstrations and violence in Bangkok. King Bhumibol Adulyadej appointed Sanya Thammasak as Thanom's successor, giving Thailand its first civilian premier in twenty years. The new premier promised to complete a constitution and to hold general elections. In May, 1974, citing the heavy burden of the office and the sharp criticism directed against the government, Sanya resigned, but he was soon persuaded to form a new government. In June he was sworn in as the head of a revamped, all-civilian cabinet. A new constitution was promulgated in Oct., 1974. Over the next few years the civilian government made little headway in establishing its authority. In 1976, the military took control of the government once again. After that, the military held power almost continuously until the early 1990s.
From the late 1970s, Thailand's political concerns were dominated by pressures resulting from warfare in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia and serious unrest in Myanmar (Burma); Thailand also experienced a massive influx of refugees from these countries. From 1975 onward, Thailand was a way station for Hmong refugees immigrating to the United States under its resettlement program. The Khmer Rouge used Thailand as a staging area after they were driven out of Cambodia by the Vietnamese, and internal fighting within the Cambodian government in 1997 sent a new flow of refugees into Thailand.
In 1992 there were signs of popular opposition to continued military rule and, after antigovernment demonstrators were killed, King Bhumibol Adulyadej appointed a civilian as interim prime minister. In the Sept., 1992, elections, parties opposed to the military won a majority, and Chuan Leekpai became prime minister of a coalition government. In Jan., 1995, parliament approved a package of constitutional reforms that lowered the voting age to 18, guaranteed equal rights for women, and reduced membership in the military-dominated senate. New elections were held in July, 1995, after Chuan's government fell because of a land-reform scandal; the Chart Thai (Thai Nation) party won a slight plurality, and Banharn Silpa-archa became prime minister, heading a seven-party coalition. His government collapsed in Dec., 1996, and he was succeeded by Chavalit Yongchaiyudh. However, Chavalit resigned under pressure in Nov., 1997, and Chuan Leekpai once again became prime minister. A new constitution was approved in Sept., 1997.
Despite its unsteady political climate, Thailand appeared to have one of the strongest economies in SE Asia. However, following years of speculation in the real estate market and growing corruption in government, its currency plummeted in July, 1997, setting off a crisis in Asian financial markets and plunging the country into a deep recession. The International Monetary Fund pledged to provide Thailand with a $17 billion rescue package, and by 2000 the economy was experiencing a recovery, but the economic pain led in a loss of support for the government. Elections in Jan., 2001, resulted in a victory for the Thai Rak Thai party (Thais Love Thais; TRT) and its allies, the Chart Thai and Khwam Wang Mai (New Aspiration) parties. Thaksin Shinawatra of the TRT became prime minister, but an anticorruption commission accused him of concealing his assets, raising the possibility that he would be banned from politics for five years. Thailand's high court, however, cleared him in a close decision in August. The new government has privatized a number of state-owned companies, but it also has been marked by investigations into and disclosures of significant corruption.
In 2004 there were attacks by Muslim separatists in Thailand's three southern provinces; Muslims, who are in the majority in the provinces, have complained of discrimination in education and employment. The conflict there has been exacerbated by the sometimes excessive response of the Thai police and military, and the attacks continued into 2005. In Dec., 2004, areas of S Thailand along the Indian Ocean were devastated by a tsunami; an estimated 8,000 people, some of them foreign tourists, died. The government's response to the disaster and the nation's generally improved economic conditions resulted in strong support for the TRT and the prime minister in the Feb., 2005, parliamentary elections, and the governing coalition increased its majority in the lower house. Continuing attacks by Muslim separatists in the south led the prime minister to assume emergency powers in July, 2005.
Meanwhile, Thai publisher Sondhi Limthongkul, a former ally of the prime minister, began publicly criticizing Thaksin for corruption and poor government performance, first on his television program and, after being forced off the air in Aug., 2005, at public rallies. Thaksin responded with libel suits, and there were attacks on Sondhi's offices. In Dec., 2005, the king, in a rare criticism of the government, rebuked Thaksin for suing Sondhi, and the prime minister subsequently withdrew his lawsuits.
A controversial stock sale (Jan., 2006) by Thaksin's children, who sold a nearly 50% stake in the family communications business to a Singapore-government-owned company and legally avoided taxes on the deal, gave new life to anti-government protests. In February the prime minister called a snap election, but the opposition boycotted the April vote. The TRT won a majority of the seats, but 10% of the constituencies failed to elect a representative (all seats must be filled for a government to be formed) and there was a sizable number of abstentions. Thaksin announced he would step aside and rest, but he did not resign as prime minister as demanded by the opposition. A second ballot in late April still failed to fill all the seats, leading the king to call on the courts to resolve the problem. In May the Constitutional Court ruled the election invalid.
Thaksin resumed his post later in the month, and a new election was tentatively scheduled for October. Meanwhile the late April election of the senate, intended to be independent but dominated by Thaksin supporters, was marred by vote-buying. In June Thaksin said he would support the proposals by a national commission for the three southern provinces; it recommended establishing a regional administrative body to oversee the provinces, using of Malay as a local working government language, and avoiding military responses in favor of resolving the problems that had produced the unrest. In mid-June there was a coordinated string of some 40 bombings in the south.
In mid-September the Thai election commission postponed the October parliamentary elections, but shortly thereafter, with Thaksin abroad, the military overthrew him. Gen. Sonthi Boonyaratglin, the head of the army and close to the king, led the coup. He was named head of the Council of National Security, which under the interim constitution became Thailand's most powerful body. A retired general, Surayud Chulanont, was appointed prime minister in October, and a hand-picked unicameral legislature was also appointed. The same month the new government agreed to talks with Muslim rebels in S Thailand, and then revived a former government agency for the region; the dissolution of the agency had contributed to the current unrest in the south. The policy changes did not, however, reduce rebel attacks, which increased in frequency and brutality.
In Mar., 2007, Thaksin's wife and others were charged with evading taxes in a 1997 share transfer, and the following month his children were order by a Thai anticorruption committee to pay $616 million in taxes and fines as a result of their 2006 sales of stock in the family telecommunications firm. The government moved in June to seize $1.5 billion in assets belonging to Thaksin and his wife, and also ordered him to return to face corruption charges; he remained in exile. The previous month a court had ordered the TRT party disbanded for breaking the electoral laws in 2006; Thaksin was barred from politics for five years.