Thailand History

For centuries, outsiders knew Thailand as Siam and made a real impression on the West at the end of the 17 th century, through the reports of a series of curious Frenchmen. They were not the first Europeans to spend time in the kingdom, however. In 1511, shortly after they seized Malacca, the Portuguese sent an envoy to the capital. They then joined resident Chinese, Japanese, Malays and Persians to make the Siamese capital one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the vast region now known as Southeast Asia . Some believe Thailand ‘s human history predates that of any other country in the world. The archaeological discoveries at Ban Chiang suggest that it was the site of the world’s oldest Bronze Age civilization, with artifacts dating back seven to eight thousand years. Recent archaeological discoveries suggest the northeast settlement of Ban Chiang is the world’s oldest Bronze Age civilization to have flourished in Thailand some 5,000 years ago. Centuries after the inhabitants of Ban Chiang moved on, there was still a steady flow of immigrants arriving from the northern and eastern countries, crossing the Mekong River and settling in the north of the country. The Thais began migrating from southern China in the early part of the Christian era. At first they formed a number of city-states in the northern part of what is present-day Thailand , in places like Chiang Saen, Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai, but these were never strong enough to exert much influence outside the immediate region. These settlers included Mon, Khmer and Chinese and small township soon established themselves around the country. Gradually the Thais migrated further south to the broad and fertile central plains, and their power spread over nearly the entire Indochina Peninsula .

Sukhothai period (1238 – 1350 A.D.)

By the early 1200s the Thais had established small northern city-states in Lanna, Phayao and Sukhothai. In 1238 two Thai chieftains, Khun Bang Klang Tao an d Khun Pha Muang, successfully rebelled against Khom reign and established the first truly independent Thai kingdom in Sukhothai – a kingdom that was short-lived but of immense cultural importance in the nation’s history. It was in Sukhothai that saw the Thais’ gradual growth throughout the entire Chao Phraya River basin and the establishment of Theravada Buddhism as the paramount Thai religion. It was here that the first evidence of written Thai was left, along with distinctively Thai styles of art such as painting, sculpture, architecture and literature, which survived after Sukhothai was absorbed by the kingdom of Ayutthaya – a dynamic young kingdom further south in the Chao Phraya River valley.

Ayutthaya period (1350 – 1767 A.D.)

During Ayutthaya ‘s 417 years as the capital, under the rule of 34 kings, the Thais brought their distinctive culture forth, totally removing their lands of Khom presence, and fostered contact with Arabian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese and European powers. Contact with the West especially flourished during the reign of King Narai the Great (1656-1688) in which an envoy was sent to France to establish foreign diplomacy. Founded in 1350 Ayutthaya remained the Thai capital until it was sacked and burned by the Burmese.

Thonburi Period (1767 – 1782 A.D.)

Ayutthaya ‘s downfall was a severe blow to the Thais. However, a Thai revival occurred within a few months, and the Burmese were expelled by King Taksin, who ushered in the Thonburi Period (1767-1782). King Taksin made Thonburi the capital, but it was the shortest-lived capital in Thai history. In 1782 the first king of the present Chakri dynasty, Rama I, established his new capital on the site of a riverside hamlet called Ban Kok (Village of the Wild Plums).

Rattanakosin period (1782-present)

During the Rattanakosin Period (1782 – present) two Chakri monarchs, King Mongkut (Rama IV) who reigned between 1851 and 1868 and his son King Chulalongkorn (Rama V, 1868-1910), saved Thailand from the powerful tides of Western colonialism through clever tactics of diplomacy and careful modernization. Today, Thailand is a modern constitutional monarchy. Since 1932, Thai kings, including the present monarch H.M. King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), have exercised their legislative powers through a national assembly, their executive powers through a cabinet headed by a prime minister and their judicial powers through the courts of law.

Military rule – History of Thailand (1932-1973)

The Siamese takeover of 1932 transformed the Government of Thailand from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) initially accepted this change but later surrendered the throne to his ten-year old nephew, Ananda Mahidol. King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII) died in 1946 under somewhat mysterious circumstances, the official version being that he shot himself by accident while cleaning his gun. He was succeeded by Bhumibol Adulyadej, the longest reigning king of Thailand , and very popular with the Thais. Although nominally a constitutional monarchy, Thailand was ruled by a series of military governments with brief periods of democracy in between. In 1992 the last military ruler, Suchinda Kraprayoon, gave up power in the face of massive popular protests, supported by the king. Since then, Thailand has been a functioning democracy with constitutional changes of government.

On December 8, 1941, a few hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan demanded the right to move troops across Thailand to the Malayan frontier. The Japanese landed at Bangkok and at several locations along the east coast of southern Thailand where they engaged the Thai army for six to eight hours before the Thai army determined it would be impossible to defend the kingdom. Shortly thereafter Japan was granted free passage, and on December 21, 1941, Thailand and Japan signed an alliance with a secret protocol wherein Tokyo agreed to help Thailand get back territories lost to the British and French colonial powers and Thailand undertook to assist Japan in her war against the Allies.

After Japan’s defeat in 1945, with the help of a group of Thais known as the Saree Thai who were supported by the United States, Thailand was treated as a defeated country by the British and French, although American support mitigated the Allied terms. Thailand was not occupied by the Allies, but it was forced to return the territory it had gained to the British and the French.

In the post-war period, Thailand enjoyed close relations with the United States, which it saw as a protector from the communist revolutions in neighboring countries. Recently, Thailand also has been an active member of the regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), especially after democratic rule was restored in 1992.

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