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History of Thailand
This page is only a modest attempt at mentionning a few milestones in Thai history. We used various sources of information but mainly Wikipedia, synthetizing their articles about history of Thailand, then adding maps and pictures.
1. Sukhothai and the founding of the Thai nation
The Thais date the founding of their nation to the 13th century, so this is where we shall start. Before that, during the 9th and 10th century, the whole region was under Khmer domination. It's only during the 11th and 12th centuries that the Thais, coming from China, began to settle. They gained independence from the Khmer Empire at Sukhothai, which was established as a sovereign Kingdom in 1238. This event traditionally marks the founding of the modern Thai nation.
Under King Ramkhamhaeng the Great, the third king of Sukhothai, who is credited with designing the Thai alphabet, Sukhothai enjoyed a golden age of prosperity. At its peak, supposedly stretching from Martaban (now in Burma) to Luang Prabang (now in Laos) and down the Malay Peninsula as far south as Nakhon Si Thammarat, the kingdom's sphere of influence was larger than that of modern Thailand, although the degree of control exercised over outlying areas was variable. The northern states of Phayao and Lanna also coexisted with Sukhothai.
After Ramkhamhaeng's death in 1365 the kingdom fell into decline and became subject to another emerging Thai state known as the Ayutthaya kingdom, which grew from the earlier kingdom of Lopburi and dominated southern and central Thailand until the 1700's.
2. The kingdom of Ayutthaya (1350-1767)
The first ruler of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, King Ramathibodi I, made two important contributions to Thai history: the establishment and promotion of Theravada Buddhism as the official religion - to differentiate his kingdom from the neighbouring Hindu kingdom of Angkor - and the compilation of the Dharmashastra, a legal code based on Hindu sources and traditional Thai custom. The Dharmashastra remained a tool of Thai law until late in the 19th century.
Beginning with the Portuguese in the 16th century, Ayutthaya had some contact with the West. The court of King Narai (1656-1688) had strong links with that of King Louis XIV of France.
Ayutthaya dominated a considerable area, ranging from the Islamic states on the Malay Peninsula to states in northern Thailand. Under King Naresuan the Great, who reigned from 1590 to 1605, Thailand had the biggest territorial extent in history.
Nonetheless, the Burmese, who had taken control of Lanna and had also unified their kingdom under a powerful dynasty, launched several invasion attempts in the 1750s and 1760s. Finally, in 1767, Burma invaded and destroyed the city of Ayutthaya. The royal family fled the city and the King died. The Ayutthaya royal line had been extinguished.
3. Thonburi and Bangkok period (1768-1932)
Taksin the Great (1769-1782)
Despite its complete defeat and occupation by Burma, Siam made a rapid recovery. The resistance to Burmese rule was led by a noble of Chinese descent, Taksin, a capable military leader. Within a year, he had defeated the Burmese occupation army and re-established a Siamese state with its capital at Thonburi, on the west bank of the Chao Phraya. In 1768 he was crowned as King Taksin (now officially known as Taksin the Great). He rapidly re-united the central Thai heartlands under his rule, and in 1769 he also occupied western Cambodia. He then re-established Siamese rule over the Malay Peninsula, as far as Penang. Having secured his base in Siam, Taksin attacked the Burmese in the north in 1774 and captured Chiang Mai in 1776, permanently uniting Siam and Lanna.
Rama I (1782-1809)
General Chakri succeeded Taksin in 1782 as Rama I, the first king of the Chakri dynasty. In the same year he founded the new capital city at Bangkok. Rama I restored most of the social and political system of the Ayutthaya kingdom, promulgating new law codes, reinstating court ceremonies and imposing discipline on the Buddhist monkhood. The Burmese invaded Siam again in 1785. They occupied both the north and the south, but were defeated in a battle near Kanchanaburi. This was the last major Burmese invasion of Siam, although as late as 1802 Burmese forces had to be driven out of Lanna. In 1792 the Siamese occupied Luang Prabang and brought most of Laos under indirect Siamese rule. Cambodia was also effectively ruled by Siam. By the time of his death in 1809, Rama I had created a Siamese Empire dominating an area considerably larger than modern Thailand.
Rama II (1809-1824)
During Rama II's reign, western influences again began to be felt in Siam. In 1785 the British occupied Penang, and in 1819 they founded Singapore. In 1821 the government of British India sent a mission to demand that Siam lift restrictions on free trade - the first sign of an issue which was to dominate 19th century Siamese politics.
Rama III (1824-1851)
Rama II died in 1824, and was peacefully succeeded by his son. In 1825 the British sent another mission to Bangkok. They had by now annexed southern Burma and were thus Siam's neighbours to the west, and they were also extending their control over Malaysia. The King was reluctant to give in to British demands, but his advisors warned him that Siam would meet the same fate as Burma unless the British were accommodated. In 1826, therefore, Siam concluded its first commercial treaty with a western power. Under the treaty, Siam agreed to establish a uniform taxation system, to reduce taxes on foreign trade and to abolish some of the royal monopolies. As a result, Siam's trade increased rapidly, many more foreigners settled in Bangkok, and western cultural influences began to spread. The kingdom became wealthier and its army better armed.
A Lao rebellion led by Anouvong was defeated in 1827, following which Siam destroyed Vientiane, carried out massive forced population transfers from Laos to the more securely held area of Isan. In 1842-1845, Siam waged a successful war with Vietnam, which tightened Siamese rule over Cambodia. Rama III's most visible legacy in Bangkok is the Wat Pho temple complex, which he enlarged and endowed with new temples.
In 1850 the British and Americans sent missions to Bangkok demanding the end of all restrictions on trade, the establishment of a western-style government and immunity for their citizens from Siamese law (extraterritoriality). Rama III's government refused these demands, leaving his successor, his brother Mongkut, with a dangerous situation.
Rama IV (1851-1868)
Mongkut came to the throne as Rama IV in 1851. He was determined to save Siam from colonial domination, but he lacked real power and had to yield to the British, by signing a treaty which restricted import duties, abolished royal trade monopolies, and granted extraterritoriality to British subjects. Other western powers soon demanded and got similar concessions.
The King soon came to consider that the real threat to Siam came from the French, not the British. The British were interested in commercial advantage, the French in building a colonial empire. They occupied Saigon in 1859, and established a protectorate over southern Vietnam and eastern Cambodia. Rama IV hoped that the British would defend Siam if he gave them the economic concessions they demanded. In the next reign this would prove to be an illusion, but it is true that the British saw Siam as a useful buffer state between British Burma and French Indochina.
Rama V (1868-1910)
King Chulalongkorn was the first Siamese king to have a full western education. He created a Privy Council and a Council of State, a formal court system and budget office. He announced that slavery would be gradually abolished and debt-bondage restricted. He established Cabinet government, an audit office and an education department. The semi-autonomous status of Chiang Mai was ended and the army was reorganised and modernised.
In 1893 the French authorities in Indochina used a minor border dispute to provoke a crisis. French gunboats appeared at Bangkok, and demanded the cession of Lao territories east of the Mekong. The King appealed to the British, but the British minister told the King to settle on whatever terms he could get, and he had no choice but to comply. Britain's only gesture was an agreement with France guaranteeing the integrity of the rest of Siam. In exchange, Siam had to give up its claim to the Tai-speaking Shan region of north-eastern Burma to the British.
The French, however, continued to pressure Siam, and in 1906-1907 they manufactured another crisis. This time Siam had to concede French control of territory on the west bank of the Mekong opposite Luang Prabang and around Champasak in southern Laos, as well as western Cambodia. The British interceded to prevent more French bullying of Siam, but their price, in 1909, was the acceptance of British sovereignty over four Malayan provinces (Kedah, Kelantan, Perlis and Terengganu). The treaty also made the modern border between Siam and British Malaya by securing the Thai authority on the provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Satun, which were previously part of the semi-independent Malay sultanates of Pattani and Kedah.
By 1910, when the King died, Siam had become at least a semi-modern country, and continued to escape colonial rule. It is a widely held view in Thailand that the diplomatic skills of these monarchs, combined with the modernising reforms of the Thai Government, made Siam the only country in South and Southeast Asia to avoid European colonisation.
Since that time, Rama V has become the object of worship. Nowadays his picture can be seen in many houses and shops, and many Thai people believe he can bring good fortune. His death is commemorated on October 23, a national holiday in Thailand.
For more information, see our page about holidays in Thailand
Rama VI (1910-1925)
Vajiravudh (Rama VI), with his British education, applied his observation of the success of the British monarchy, appearing more in public and instituting more royal ceremonies. But he also carried on his father's modernisation programme. Polygamy was abolished, primary education made compulsory, and in 1916 higher education came to Siam with the founding of Chulalongkorn University, which in time became the seedbed of a new Siamese intelligentsia.
In 1917, Siam declared war on Germany, mainly to gain favour with the British and the French. Siam's token participation in World War I gained it a seat at the Versailles Peace Conference, and Foreign Minister Devrawongse used this opportunity to argue for the repeal of the 19th century treaties and the restoration of full Siamese sovereignty. The United States obliged in 1920, while France and Britain delayed until 1925. This victory gained the King some popularity, but it was soon undercut by discontent over other issues, such as his extravagance, which became more noticeable when a sharp postwar recession hit Siam in 1919.
Rama VII (1925-1935)
The initial legacy that Prajadhipok (Rama VII) received from his elder brother were problems of the sort that had become chronic in the Sixth Reign. The most urgent of these was the economy: the finances of the state were in chaos and the budget heavily in deficit. The King managed to restore stability to the economy, although at a price of making a significant amount of the civil servants redundant and cutting the salary of those that remained. This was obviously unpopular among the officials, and was one of the trigger events for the coup of 1932.
On June 24, 1932, while the King was holidaying at the seaside, the Bangkok garrison mutinied and seized power. Thus ended 150 years of Siamese absolute monarchy.
4. Military rule (1932-1973)
The coup d'état of 1932 transformed the government of Thailand from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. Siam's first constitution included a National Assembly, half appointed and half indirectly-elected. A prime minister and Cabinet were appointed and a facade of constitutional rule was maintained.
Conflict began to erupt among the members of the new ruling coalition. The royalists also led a revolt against the government in 1933, but the army remained loyal to the government and the royalists were defeated. The King accused the government of having no regard for democratic principles (there was indeed no debate and heavy censorship), and he finally abdicated. The government chose Prince Ananda Mahidol as the next king, who was at that time in school in Switzerland. In the eyes of some, the youth of the new King and his absence from the country were the main reasons that he was selected. For the first time in history, Siam was without a resident monarch and was to remain so for the next fifteen years.
The government carried out some important reforms. The currency went off the gold standard, allowing trade to recover. Expenditures on education was increased, thereby significantly raising the literacy rate. Thammasat University was founded, as a more accessible alternative to the elitist Chulalongkorn University. Elected local and provincial governments were introduced, and in November 1937 democratic development was brought forward when direct elections were held for the National Assembly, although political parties were still not allowed. Military expenditure was also greatly expanded, a clear indication of the increasing influence of the military.
Phibun: the pursuit of nationalism
The military, now led by Major General Phibun as Defence Minister, and the civilian liberals led by Pridi Phanomyong as Foreign Minister, worked together harmoniously for several years, but when Phibun became prime minister in December 1938 this co-operation broke down. Phibun was an admirer of Benito Mussolini, and his regime soon developed some fascist characteristics. In early 1939 forty political opponents were arrested and eighteen were executed, the first political executions in Siam in over a century. Phibun launched a demagogic campaign against the Chinese business class. Chinese schools and newspapers were closed, and taxes on Chinese businesses increased.
Phibun copied the propaganda techniques used by Hitler and Mussolini to build up the cult of the leader. Government slogans were constantly aired on the radio and plastered on newspapers and billboards. Phibun's picture was also to be seen everywhere in society, while portraits of the ex-monarch King Prajadhipok, an outspoken critic of the autocratic regime, were banned. At the same time he passed a number of authoritarian laws which gave the government the power of almost unlimited arrest and complete press censorship. During the Second World War, newspapers were instructed to print only good news emanating form Axis sources.
In 1939, Phibun also changed the country's name from Siam to Prathet Thai, or Thailand, meaning "land of the free". This was a nationalist gesture: it implied the unity of all the Tai-speaking peoples, including the Lao and the Shan, but excluding the Chinese. The regime's slogan became "Thailand for the Thai". The Thais had to salute the flag, know the National Anthem, and speak the national language. Patriotism was taught in schools and was a recurrent theme in song and dance.
At the same time, Phibun worked rigorously to rid society of its royalist influences - traditional royal holidays were replaced with new national events, royal and aristocratic titles were abandoned.
World War II
In 1940 most of France was occupied by Nazi Germany, and Phibun immediately set out to avenge Siam's humiliations by France in 1893 and 1904, when the French had redrawn the borders of Siam with Laos and Cambodia by forcing a series of treaties. In 1941, Thailand invaded French Indochina, beginning the French-Thai War. The Thais, better equipped and outnumbering the French forces, dominated the war on the ground and in the air, but suffered a crushing naval defeat at the battle of Koh Chang. The Japanese then stepped in to mediate the conflict. The final settlement thus gave back to Thailand the disputed areas in Laos and Cambodia.
The war was celebrated as a great victory, and Victory Monument was erected a few months later in Bangkok. It became an embarrassment in 1945 when the Allied victory in the Pacific War forced Thailand to evacuate the territories it had gained in 1941 and return them to France.
Thailand's campaign for territorial expansion came to an end on December 8, 1941 when Japan invaded the country along its southern coastline and from Cambodia. After initially resisting, the Phibun regime allowed the Japanese to pass through the country in order to attack Burma and invade Malaya. Convinced by the Allied defeats of early 1942 that Japan was winning the war, Phibun decided to form an actual military alliance with the Japanese.
As a reward, Japan allowed Thailand to invade and annex the Shan States in northern Burma, and to resume sovereignty over the sultanates of northern Malaya which had previously been lost in a treaty with Britain. In January 1942, Phibun declared war on Britain and the United States, but the Thai Ambassador in Washington, Seni Pramoj, refused to deliver it to the State Department. Instead, Seni denounced the Phibun regime as illegal and formed hiw own movement in Washington.
In 1942, Japanese forces, supplies and equipment transported to Burma by sea were vulnerable to attack by Allied submarines, and an alternative means of transport was needed. The Japanese started the Thailand-Burma Railway, also known also as the Death Railway, in June 1942. Forced labour was used in its construction. About 200,000 Asian labourers and 60,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) worked on the railway. Of these, around 100,000 Asian labourers and 16,000 Allied POWs died as a direct result of the project.
By 1944, it was evident that the Japanese were going to lose the war, and their behaviour in Thailand had become increasingly arrogant. Bangkok also suffered heavily from the Allied bombing raids. This, plus the economic hardship caused by the loss of Thailand's rice export markets, made both the war and Phibun's regime very unpopular. In July 1944, Phibun was ousted by the infiltrated government of Seni Pramoj. The new government hastily evacuated the British territories that Phibun had occupied.
The Japanese surrendered on August 15, 1945. The British regarded Thailand as having been partly responsible for the immeasurable damage dealt upon the Allied cause and favoured treating the kingdom as a defeated enemy. However, the Americans had no sympathy for British and French colonialism and supported the new government. Thailand thus received little punishment for its wartime role under Phibun. In the postwar period Thailand enjoyed close relations with the United States, which it saw as a protector from the communist revolutions in neighbouring countries.
Seni Pramoj became Prime Minister in 1945, and promptly restored the name Siam as a symbol of the end of Phibun's nationalist regime. Democratic elections were held in January 1946. These were the first elections in which political parties were legal, and Pridi Phanomyong's People's Party and its allies won a majority. In March 1946 Pridi became Siam's first democratically elected Prime Minister. In 1947 he agreed to hand back the French territory occupied in 1940 as the price for admission to the United Nations, the dropping of all wartime claims against Siam and a substantial package of American aid.
In December 1945 the young king Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII) had returned to Siam from Europe, but he died in 1946 under somewhat mysterious circumstances, the official explanation being that he shot himself by accident while cleaning his gun. The King was succeeded by his younger brother Bhumibol Adulyadej, who was a schoolboy in Europe. In August Pridi was forced to resign amid suspicion that he had been involved in the regicide. Without his leadership, the civilian government floundered, and in November 1947 the army, its confidence restored after the debacle of 1945, seized power. In April 1948 the army brought Phibun back from exile and made him Prime Minister. Pridi in turn was driven into exile.
Phibun's return to power coincided with the onset of the Cold War and the establishment of a Communist regime in North Vietnam. He soon won the support of the U.S., beginning a long tradition of U.S.-backed military regimes in Thailand (as the country was again renamed in July 1949, this time permanently). Once again political opponents were arrested and tried, and some were executed. There were attempted counter-coups by Pridi supporters in 1948, 1949 and 1951, the second leading to heavy fighting between the army and navy before Phibun emerged victorious.
In 1951 the regime abolished the National Assembly as an elected body. This provoked strong opposition from the universities and the press, and led to a further round of trials and repression. The regime was greatly helped, however, by a postwar boom which gathered pace through the 1950s, fuelled by rice exports and U.S. aid. Thailand's economy began to diversify, while the population and urbanisation increased.
By 1955 Phibun was losing his leading position in the army to younger rivals led by Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat and General Thanom Kittikachorn. To shore up his position he restored the 1949 constitution and called elections, which his supporters won. But the army was not prepared to give up power, and in September 1957 it demanded Phibun's resignation. When Phibun tried to have Sarit arrested, the army staged a bloodless coup on September 17, 1957, ending Phibun's career for good. Thanom became Prime Minister until 1958, then yielded his place to Sarit, the real head of the regime. Sarit held power until his death in 1963, when Thanom again took the lead.
Sarit and Thanom were the first Thai leaders to have been educated entirely in Thailand, and were less influenced by European political ideas, whether fascist or democratic, than the generation of Pridi and Phibun had been. Rather, they were Thai traditionalists, who sought to restore the prestige of the monarchy and to maintain a society based on order, hierarchy and religion. They saw rule by the army as the best means of ensuring this, and also of defeating Communism, which they now associated with Thailand's traditional enemies the Vietnamese. The young King Bhumibol, who returned to Thailand in 1951, co-operated with this project. The Thai monarchy's present elevated status thus has its origins in this era.
The Vietnam War and the 60's
While the war in Indochina was being fought between the Vietnamese and the French, Thailand (disliking both equally) stayed aloof, but once it became a war between the U.S. and the Vietnamese Communists, Thailand committed itself strongly to the U.S. side. The Vietnamese retaliated by supporting the Communist Party of Thailand's insurgency in the north, northeast and sometime in the south.
The Vietnam War hastened the modernisation and westernisation of Thai society. The American presence and the exposure to western culture that came with it had an effect on almost every aspect of Thai life. The population began to grow explosively as the standard of living rose, and a flood of people began to move from the villages to the cities, and above all to Bangkok. Thailand had 30 million people in 1965, while by the end of the 20th century the population had doubled. Bangkok's population had grown tenfold since 1945 and had tripled since 1970.
Educational opportunities and exposure to mass media increased during the Vietnam War years. Bright university students learned more about ideas related to Thailand's economic and political systems, resulting in a revival of student activism. The Vietnam War period also saw the growth of the Thai middle class which gradually developed its own identity and consciousness.
Economic development certainly did not bring prosperity to all. During the 1960s many of the rural poor felt increasingly dissatisfied with their condition in society and disillusioned by their treatment by the central government in Bangkok. By the early 1970s rural discontent had manifested itself into a peasant's activist movement. The protests focused on land loss, high rents, the heavy handed role of the police, corruption among the bureaucracy and the local elite, poor infrastructure, and overwhelming poverty.
By the late 1960s, more elements in Thai society had become openly critical of the military government which was seen as being increasingly incapable of dealing with the country's problems. It was not only the student activists, but also the business community that had begun to question the leadership of the government as well as its relationship with the United States. Thanom came under increasing pressure to loosen his grip on power when the King commented that it was time for parliament to be restored and a new constitution put into effect. Finally in 1968 the government issued a new constitution and scheduled elections for the following year. The government party founded by the military junta won the election and Thanom remained prime minister.
Surprisingly, the Assembly was not totally tame. A number of MPs (mostly professionals such as doctors, lawyers, and journalists) began to openly challenge some of the government's policies, producing evidence of widespread government corruption on a number of large projects. As a new budget was being debated in 1971, it actually appeared that the military's demand for more funds might be voted down. Rather than suffer such a loss of face, Thanom carried out a putsch against his own government, suspended the constitution and dissolved the Parliament. Once again Thailand had been returned to absolute military rule.
This strongman approach which had worked for Phibun in 1938 and 1947, and for Sarit in 1957-58 would prove to be unsuccessful. By the early 1970s Thai society as a whole had developed a level of political awareness where it would no longer accept such unjustified authoritarian rule. The King, using various holidays to give speeches on public issues, became openly critical of the Thanom regime. He expressed doubt on the use of extreme violence in the efforts to combat insurgency. He mentioned the widespread existence of corruption in the government and expressed the view that coups should become a thing of the past in the Thai political system. Furthermore, the junta began to face increasing opposition from within the military itself.
The 1973 democracy movement
In the end it was the students that played the decisive role in the fall of the junta. Student demonstrations had started in 1968 and grew in size and numbers in the early 1970s despite the continued ban on political meetings. In October 1973, 13 students were arrested on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government. The demonstrations swelled to several hundred thousand and the issue broadened from the release of the arrested students to demands for a new constitution and the replacement of the current government.
On October 13, the government yielded to the public's demand and the detainees were released. Leaders of the demonstrations called off the march, in accordance with the wishes of the King who was publicly against the democracy movement. As the crowds were breaking up the next day, the historic October 14th, many students found themselves unable to leave because the police had attempted to control the flow of the crowd by blocking the southern route to Rajavithi Road. Cornered and overwhelmed by the hostile crowd, the police soon responded with violence by launching barrages of teargas and gunfire. Within minutes, a full scale riot had erupted.
The military was called in, and Bangkok witnessed the horrifying spectacle of tanks rolling down Rajdamnoen Avenue and helicopters firing down at Thammasat University. A number of students commandeered buses and fire engines in an attempt to halt the progress of the tanks by ramming into them, with disastrous results.
With chaos reigning on the streets, King Bhumibol opened the gates of Chitralada Palace opened to the students who were being gunned down by the army. Despite orders from Thanom that the military action be intensified, army commander Kris Sivara had the army withdrawn from the streets.
The King condemned the government's inability to handle the demonstrations, and notably condemned the students' supposed role as well. Thanom resigned and was ordered by the King to leave the country.
The junta had fallen, at the cost of 1,577 lives.
5. History of Thailand since 1973
The events of October 1973 amounted to a revolution in Thai politics. For the first time the urban middle class, led by the students, had defeated the combined forces of the old ruling class and the army, and had gained the apparent blessing of the King for a transition to full democracy.
However, Thailand had not yet produced a political class able to make this bold new democracy function smoothly. The January 1975 elections failed to produce a stable party majority, and fresh elections in April 1976 produced the same result. The veteran politician Seni Pramoj and his brother Kukrit Pramoj alternated in power, but were unable to carry out a coherent reform programme. The sharp increase in oil prices in 1974 led to recession and inflation, weakening the government's position. The democratic government's most popular move was to secure the withdrawal of American forces from Thailand.
The wisdom of this move was soon questioned, however, when Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia fell to communist forces in 1975. The arrival of communist regimes on Thailand's borders, the abolition of the 600-year-old Lao monarchy, and the arrival of a flood of refugees from Laos and Cambodia, swung public opinion in Thailand back to the right.
A return to military rule
By late 1976 moderate middle class opinion had turned away from the activism of the students. The army and the right-wing parties began a propaganda war against student liberalism, by accusing student activists of being communists. In October Thanom returned to Thailand to enter a royal monastery. Two student protesters were accused of a communist conspiracy and were hung after they had protesting against his return. Students in Thammasat University held protests, and on October 6, 1976, the army unleashed the paramilitaries. Hundreds of students were tortured and killed, the constitution was suspended and the army seized power.
The army installed Thanin, an ultra-conservative former judge, as prime minister, and carried out a sweeping purge of the universities, the media and the civil service. The Minister of the Interior was Samak Sundaravej, who was to become Prime Minister in 2008. Thousands of students, intellectuals and other leftists fled Bangkok and joined the Communist Party's insurgent forces in the north and north-east. Others left for exile, including the Rector of Thammasat University. The economy was in serious difficulties, as the new regime proved as unstable as the democratic experiment had been. In October 1977 a different section of the army staged another "coup" and replaced Thanin with General Kriangsak. Kriangsak was forced to step down in February 1980 at a time of economic troubles. He was succeeded by the army commander-in-chief, General Prem Tinsulanonda, a staunch royalist with a reputation for being incorruptible.
The Prem era
For most of the 1980s, Thailand was ruled by Prem, a democratically-inclined strongman who restored parliamentary politics. Thereafter and until 2006 the country remained a democracy, apart from a brief period of military rule from 1991 to 1992.
The King and Prem acted to put an end to violent military interventions. In April 1981 a clique of junior army officers staged a coup, taking control of Bangkok, but Prem, with the King's support, managed to recapture the capital in a bloodless counterattack. This episode raised the prestige of the monarchy still further, and also enhanced Prem's status as a relative moderate. Another constitution was promulgated and elections were held in April 1983, giving Prem, now in the guise of a civilian politician, a large majority.
Prem was also the beneficiary of the accelerating economic revolution which was sweeping south-east Asia. After the recession of the mid 1970s, economic growth took off. For the first time Thailand became a significant industrial power, and manufactured goods such as computer parts, textiles and footwear overtook rice, rubber and tin as Thailand's leading exports. Tourism developed rapidly and became a major earner. While Thailand did not grow as fast as the "East Asian Tigers" like Taiwan and South Korea, it achieved sustained growth.
Prem held office for eight years and remained personally popular, but the revival of democratic politics led to a demand for a more adventurous leader. In 1988 fresh elections brought former General Chatichai to power, but he proved both incompetent and corrupt.
1992: Bloody May
By allowing one faction of the military to get rich on government contracts, Chatichai provoked a rival faction, led by General Suchinda Kraprayoon and other generals, to stage a coup in February 1991. The junta called itself the National Peace Keeping Council. The NPKC brought in a civilian prime minister, Anand Panyarachun, who was still responsible to the military. Anand's anti-corruption measures proved popular. Another general election was held in March 1992.
The winning coalition appointed coup leader Suchinda Kraprayoon to become Prime Minister, in effect breaking a promise he had made earlier to the King and confirming the widespread suspicion that the new government was going to be a military regime in disguise. Suchinda's action brought hundreds of thousands of people out in the largest demonstrations ever seen in Bangkok, led by the former governor of Bangkok, Major-General Chamlong Srimuang. Suchinda brought military units personally loyal to him into the city and tried to suppress the demonstrations by force, leading to a massacre in the heart of the city in which hundreds died. The Navy mutinied in protest, and the country seemed on the verge of civil war. In May the King intervened: he summoned Suchinda and Chamlong to a televised audience. The result of this was the resignation of Suchinda.
1997 Asian Crisis
The King re-appointed Anand as interim prime minister until elections could be held in September 1992, which brought the Democrat Party under Chuan Leekpai to power, mainly representing the voters of Bangkok and the south. Chuan was a competent administrator who held power until 1995, when he was defeated at elections by a coalition of conservative and provincial parties led by Banharn Silpa-acha. Tainted by corruption charges from the very beginning, Banharn's government was forced to call early elections in 1996, in which General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh's New Aspiration Party managed to gain a narrow victory.
Soon after coming into office, Prime Minister Chavalit was confronted by the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997. After coming under strong criticism for his handling of the crisis, Chavalit resigned in November 1997 and Chuan returned to power. Chuan came to an agreement with the International Monetary Fund which stabilised the currency and allowed IMF intervention on Thai economic recovery. In contrast to the country's previous history, the crisis was resolved by civilian rulers under democratic procedures.
From 2001 to 2006 Thai politics was dominated by the populist Thai Rak Thai ("Thais Love Thais") party of telecommunications millionaire Thaksin Shinawatra. Thaksin, an ex-policeman, campaigned effectively against the old politics, corruption, organized crime, and drugs. In January 2001 he had a sweeping victory at the polls, winning a larger popular mandate than any Thai prime minister has ever had in a freely elected National Assembly.
In power, Thaksin presided over the rapid recovery of the Thai economy and repaid all debts borrowed from IMF before due time. By 2002 Thailand, and Bangkok in particular, was once again booming. As low-end manufacturing moved to China and other low-wage economies, Thailand moved upscale into more sophisticated manufacturing, both for a rapidly expanding domestic middle class market and for export. Tourism, and particularly sex tourism, also remained a huge revenue earner despite intermittent "social order" campaigns by the government to control the country's nightlife. Thaksin's policies were particularly effective at alleviating rural poverty and at providing near universal access to affordable health care. His main support base was the rural poor in the north, northeast east and central part of Thailand. He won an even bigger majority at elections in February 2005, securing his second consecutive term.
However, his government was frequently challenged with allegations of corruption, dictatorship, demagogy, treason, conflicts of interest, acting undiplomatically, tax evasion, the use of legal loopholes and hostility towards a free press. Thaksin was accused of lèse-majesté, selling domestic assets to international investors, and presiding over extrajudicial killings (especially in the restive south, and during his war campaign against drug dealers).
Accusations also included the improper handling of privatization of PTT and EGAT, the unfairness of the U.S.-Thailand free trade agreement, and the corruption in the Suvarnabhumi Airport project. In January 2006, the 73,000 million baht tax free buy-out of his family holding in Shin Corporation, while legal, brought on more accusations by the media and opposition parties on the grounds of what they said was immorality and conflict of interest. Anti-Thaksin and pro-Thaksin mass rallies were held from January to March 2006, and Thaksin responded by calling a snap election in April. His party won but the election was later invalidated.
On September 19, 2006, with the prime minister in New York for a meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, Army Commander-in-Chief Lieutenant General Sonthi Boonyaratglin launched a coup, the 18th coup since 1932.
The 2006 coup and its aftermath
The coup followed a year-long political crisis involving Thaksin and political opponents, and occurred less than a month before nation-wide House elections were originally scheduled to be held. The military cancelled the upcoming elections, suspended the Constitution, dissolved Parliament, banned protests and all political activities, suppressed and censored the media, declared martial law, and arrested Cabinet members.
There were widespread displays of public kindness to soldiers controlling positions throughout Bangkok. People brought food, drinks and flowers to troops, and often posed for pictures next to soldiers and tanks. Yellow ribbons (yellow is the color of the King), could be seen on tanks and machine guns, and it was assumed by some Thai analysts and the international media that the coup had the support of King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The silence of both the King and Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda on the day following the coup was enough to be taken as indicating support.
The new rulers, led by general Sonthi Boonyaratglin and organised in a Council of National Security, appointed retired General Surayud Chulanont as Prime Minister on 1 October 2006. Surayud and Prem Tinsulanonda had played a key role in the promotion of Sonthi to the position of Army Commander.
There was a significant worsening in perceived levels of corruption during Surayud's government. He raised the military budget by 35% and was accused of economic mismanagement, rampant human rights abuses, and flip-flopping on numerous policies. Thailand fell behind Cambodia and Indonesia in terms of freedom of expression. Thailand's economic growth rate slowed to the lowest level in five years and was ranked the lowest in the region. In spite of Sonthi being the first Muslim ruling the army, and in spite of Surayud's apologies for atrocities committed by the Thai military, violence continued to escalate in the south of Thailand throughout 2006 and 2007.
A new constitution, the 16th in 60 years, was drafted by a committee established by the military junta. The junta passed a law that made criticism of the draft and opposition to the constitutional referendum a criminal act. The junta also claimed to the public that general democratic elections would only occur if the draft were approved. On 19 August 2007 a referendum was held and 57.8% of the voters accepted the constitution.
On 30 May 2007, a junta-appointed Constitutional Tribunal dissolved the Thai Rak Thai Party and banned over 100 of its executives, including Thaksin, from politics for 5 years. Elections were then scheduled for 23 December 2007, but the Thai Rak Thai party was quickly refounded under a new name, People Power Party.
On December 23, elections were held and won by the People Power Party. Its leader Samak Sundaravej was elected Prime Minister by the Parliament a month later, in a period of mourning following the death of HRH Princess Galyani Vadhana, the elder sister of the King, in early January. Samak, 72 year-old, had been Minister of the Interior in the Thanin's anti-communist administration in 1976, and Deputy Prime Minister in the Suchinda administration in 1992. He had then justified the military's brutal suppression of pro-democracy demonstrators by declaring that the military had the right to do so, to restore law and order.
2008: Yellow Shirt (PAD) protests against Thaksin's successors
Thaksin made a brief come back in 2008, then returned to exile in England as he was facing a trial in Thailand.
Samak's mandate will probably not leave any lasting memories, except the strong opposition by the PAD, the People's Alliance for Democracy. The PAD consists of middle and upper-class Bangkokians and Southerners, supported by the conservative elite, factions of the Thai Army, and state-enterprise labor unions. Claiming that the rural population is not educated enough to vote, the PAD wants the Parliament to be a largely royally-appointed body, with only 30% of elected MP.
Led by Chamlong Srimuang, who was already at the head of the demonstrators in 1992, and media-mogul Sondhi Limthongkul, Thaksin's old enemy, the PAD organized rallies, blocked public transports and seized the Government House, forcing the government to hold their meetings at the old Bangkok airport.
Samak declared the state of emergency in Bangkok and threatened the demonstrators, but he didn't resort to force. In September 2008, Samak was eventually forced to resign (he was being paid to appear in a TV cooking show, which a court ruled unconstitutional). The PAD rejoiced but only for a short time, as Samak's successor, Somchai Wongsawat, happened to be Thaksin's brother-in-law. The demonstrations resumed and the protests escalated. On October 6 thousands of protesters, some of whom were armed, surrounded Parliament to prevent the legislature from meeting. The police charged at the demonstrators with tear gas, leaving two people dead and more than 400 injured, some severely.
On the evening of Tuesday 25 November 2008, armed PAD members forced their way into the terminal building of Suvarnabhumi International Airport and blockaded the main road to the airport. All flights were suspended, leaving thousands of travelers stranded in the airport, which remained closed for eight days. The government called on the Army to restore order, but the Army did not follow the orders. In a press conference on 26 November, Army Commander General Anupong Paochinda proposed that the PAD withdraw from the airport and that the government resign.
The chaos ended in December when the Constitutional Court of Thailand dissolved the governing People's Power Party and two coalition member parties and banned leaders of the parties, including Prime Minister Somchai Wongsawat, from politics for five years. After this decision, many previous coalition partners of the government then defected and joined the main opposition party, the Democrat party, to form a new government. "We have won a victory and achieved our aims," said Sondhi Limthongkul. On 15 December 2008, Abhisit Vejjajiva was elected Prime Minister by the Parliament.
2009-2010: Red Shirts protests against Abhisit
The early signs of a violent move against the new government was seen from early April. On April 7, Abhisit was attacked by a group of Thaksin's supporters as he was in his car. The protests then expanded to Pattaya, the site of the 14th ASEAN summit. The red-shirted protesters stormed the Summit, forcing its cancellation. Visiting leaders were evacuated from the venue by helicopter to a nearby military airbase. Abhisit declared a state of emergency in the areas of Pattaya and Chonburi on April 11.
As the week-long Songkran (Thai New Year) holiday began, protests escalated in Bangkok. Protesters used cars, buses, and in one location LPG tankers to take control of several locations in central Bangkok. Small clashes then violent clashes began between anti-government and government supporters, and the general population. Arrest warrants were issued for Thaksin and 13 protest leaders. Many protest leaders voluntarily gave themselves in to police on 14 April 2009, ending the violence. Demonstrators were sent back to the provinces by government's buses and the state of emergency was lifted on 24 April. According to government figures, over 120 people were injured in the unrest, most of them UDD (United Front for Democracy Against Dictatorship - official name for the Red Shirts). The UDD claimed that at least 6 demonstrators were killed, but Army chief Anupong Paochinda swore that no lives were lost.
In early 2010 a series of events occurred in which the situation escalated. On 26 February, assets worth 46 billion Thai baht were seized from former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. In early March 2010, "red shirt" protesters converged on Bangkok to press demands for Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to call new elections. By April 15, clashes between protesters and the military had resulted in 24 people (both civilian and military) being killed and over 800 injured.
On May 3, the Thai Prime Minister announced he was willing to hold elections on November 14 should the opposition red shirts accept the offer. The following day red shirt leaders accepted the proposal to leave the occupied parts of Bangkok in return for the new election on the scheduled date, but some protesters refused to leave, causing Abhisit to take back his decision. Bangkok became a war zone, with troops setting up live fire zones and shooting anyone entering these areas on sight.
On May 19, the Army, backed by armoured personnel carriers attacked the protest camp resulting in the deaths of 11 protestors and an Italian journalist. The Red Shirt leaders all either surrender or try and escape. Arson attacks resulted in the near destruction of the Central World shopping centre and other buildings.
The casualty count as of May 22 stood at 85 dead and 1,378 injured.
2011: Yingluck Shinawatra
Elections were eventually held on July 3, 2011, and saw a landslide victory of the "red shirts party" (Pheua Thai Party), led by Thaksin's younger sister, Yingluck Shinawatra. Formerly a businesswoman, Yingluck is a newcomer in politics and referred to by Thaksin as his "clone" who can make decisions for him. Following the elections, Abhisit resigned from his leadership of the Democrat Party, and Yingluck became the first female Prime Minister in the history of Thailand.