According to archeologists, the earliest known inhabitation of present-day Thailand is from Paleolithic period, about 20,000 years ago. There are some evidences in the Khorat Plateau in the northeast revealing that prehistoric inhabitants may use bronze implements as early as 3000 B.C and cultivated rice during the 4th millennium B.C.

Early History

In the ninth century B.C, the Mon and Khmer people established kingdoms in large area of present-day Thailand. Later, commercial activities with South Asian nations influenced deeply the development of Thailand’s culture and national identity in terms of religion, society, politics, cultural ideas and institutions. In the second century B.C, the Funan Kingdom in current-day Cambodia and central Thailand had close commercial trade with India, which laid foundation for Hindu merchant-missionaries. In the southern Isthmus of Kra, Malay city-states took the control of trade routes between India and Indochina (present-day Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam).

Nanchao Period (650–1250)

Situated in the southwestern border of China’s Tang Empire (A.D. 618-907), Nanzhao flourished, even threaten the power of China later. The Tai, an ethnic group originating from Nanzhao and ancestors of present-day Thai, migrated into mainland Southeast Asia over a period of many centuries during the first millennium A.D.

Sukhothai Period (1238–1438)

In 1238, a Tai chieftain, Sri Intraditya, declares independence from Khmer Empire and established a kindom at Sukhoitai in central Thailand. Then they changed their name into Thai, which means “free” to distinguish themselves from other Tai peole, who still under foreign rule. This kingdom conquered the Isthmus of Kra in the 13th century and request tribute from Burma (today Myanmar), Laos, and the Malay Peninsula. During the reign of Ramkhamhaeng (Rama the Great 1279 – 98), Sukhothai had diplomatic relations with China’s Yuan Dynasty. However, after Ramkhamhaeng’s death, Sukhothai entered the decline and merged into new Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya by 1438.

During and following the Sukhothai period, the Thai-speaking kingdom of Lanna flourished in the north, near Burma’s border, with the capital at Chiang Mai. But from 16th to 18th centuries, Lanna came under the control of Burma.

Ayutthaya Period (1350–1767)

The city-state of Ayutthaya was founded in 1350 and established its capital in 1351 in central Thailand under name Ayutthaya. In 1360, the emperor of Kingdom, Ramathibodi recognized Theravada Buddhism as the official religion. Ayutthaya became the region’s most powerful kingdom, even capturing Angkor. During Thailand ancient culture, the king, who ruled the kingdom, was considered a representative for god-like aspects. This belief had existed until the 18th century. The kingdom experiences significantly new social, political and economic development.

In 1511, Ayutthaya received the first diplomatic delegation from the Portuguese, then signing trade treaties with Portugal in 1516, with the Netherlands in 1592, as well as getting commercial relation with Japan and English in the 17th century. Thai diplomatic missions also went to Paris and The Hague. When the Dutch managed to extract extraterritorial rights and freer trade access in 1664, Ayutthaya turned to the French’s assistance in building fortifications. Consequently, the French brought not only construction engineers, but also their missionaries and the first printing press. Fear of negative influence of foreign religion to Buddhism and the arrival of English warships actuated anti-European reaction in the late 17th century and make way for a 150-year period of conscious isolation from contacts with the West.

After a bloody dynastic struggle in the 1690s, Ayutthaya entered its golden age – a relatively peaceful period in the second quarter of the 18th century when art, literature and learning flourished. The rising power of Burma led to a Burmese invasion of Ayutthaya and the destruction of its capital and culture in 1767. Only a Chinese attack on Burma kept the chaotic Thai polity from Burmese subjugation.

Thon Buri Period (1767–82)

Thanks to leadership of a half-Chinese military commander, Phraya Taksin, the Thai made a quick recovery. Taksin organized resistance to the Burmese invaders. After defeating the Burmese troop, Taksin established a kingdom with the new capital at Thon Buri, a town near modern Bangkok. By 1774, Taksin had annexed Lan Na and reunited Ayutthaya in 1776. However, because of Taksin’s claim to divinity, he was deposed and executed by his minister in 1782.

Early Chakri Period (1782–1868)

Another general, Chakri, assumed the throne and took the name Yot Fa (Rama I, 1782 – 1809). Yot Fa continuously established the monarchy, which has existed until now. The kingdom’s capital moves to the village of Bangkok, its economy revived and the artistic heritage of Ayutthaya was restored. The kingdom of Bangkok consolidate claims to territory in Cambodia and the Malayan state of Kedah while Britain annexed territory in the claimed area between the Thai and the Burmese for centuries. Subsequent treaties—in 1826 with Britain and in 1833 with the United States— granted foreign trade concessions in Bangkok. The kingdom’s expansion was halted in all directions by 1851.

The reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV, r. 1851–68)

This period marked a new opening to the Western nations. To avoid the humiliations, which China and Burma had to suffer from their wars with Britain and the unequal treaties, Bangkok negotiated and signed treaties with Britain, The U.S, France and other European countries between 1855 and 1870. Consequently, Thai economy has been revolutionized thanks to increasing commerce with the West, even connected to the world monetary system. Foreign demands for extraterritoriality convinced Mongkut that legal and administrative reforms were needed if Siam were to be treated as an equal by the Western powers. Mongkut’s death in 1868 postponed further reforms, however.

Reign of Chulalongkorn, Reforms, and War (1868–1932)

In the reign of Chulalongkorn (Rama 5, r. 1868 – 1910), he conducted real reform about judiciary, state finance, and the political structure. He gradually eliminated slavery and corvee labor as well as introducing currency-based taxes and a conscription-based regular army. Moreover, he established a centralized state administration as the replacement for the semi-feudal provincial administration. He built European-style schools for children of the royal family and sent government officials and military officers to Europe for further education. The railway also was erected to connect Bangkok and Ayutthaya, then extend father north and to the south with British rail lines in Malaya.

During the British and French colonial period in Southeast Asia and Indochina, Siam preserved its independence and the kingdom served as a buffer state between the British and French colonies. During this timed, the native Thai also harbored a deep resentment against the Chinese when 10 percent of the population was Chinese, and ethnic Chinese largely controlled many government positions, the rice trade and other enterprises.

Siam joined the Allies in declaring war against Germany during World War I (1914-1918), sending a small expeditionary force to the European western front. These actions helped Siam gain favorable amendments to its treaties with France and Britain at the end of the war, avoiding German ships for use in its merchant marine. Siam took part in the Versailles peace conference in 1919 and was a founding member of the League of Nations.

The Emergence of Constitutional Rule (1932–41)

In 1932, a group of Western-oriented and nationalist-minded government officials and army officers replaced the absolute monarchy into a constitutional regime. The first parliamentary elections were held in November 1933, confirming Minister of Finance Pridi Phanomyong’s popularity, but Luang Plack Phibunsongkhram (Phibun) used his considerable power as minister of defense to assert the superior efficiency of the military administration over the civilian bureaucracy. In 1938 Phibun succeeded as prime minister, with Pridi continuing with the finance portfolio. The Phibun administration promoted nationalism and in 1939 officially changed the nation’s name from Siam to Muang Thai (Land of the Free), or Thailand. Foreign- owned businesses (mostly Chinese-owned) were heavily taxed, and state subsidies were offered to Thai-owned enterprises. The people were encouraged to emulate European-style fashions. Betel chewing was prohibited, and opium addicts were prosecuted. Besides, the Thai also took lost territories in Cambodia and Laos back thanks to anti-French sentiment, over the period. Phibun built closer relations with Japan as a model for modernization and a challenge to European power.

Thailand During World War II (1941–44)

After World War II broke out in Europe (1939– 45), Japan used its influence with the Vichy regime in France to obtain territorial concessions for Thailand in Laos and Cambodia. The war for Thailand began in earnest on December 8, 1941, when Thai and Japanese troops clashed on the Isthmus of Kra. Bangkok acceded to Japan’s demands that its troops be permitted to cross the isthmus to invade Burma and Malaya. In January 1942, Phibun signed a mutual defense pact with Japan and declared war against Britain and the United States. Seni Pramoj, the anti-Japanese Thai ambassador to Washington, refused his government’s orders to deliver the declaration of war, and the United States refrained from declaring war on Thailand. Seni organized a Free Thai movement, and, with U.S. government support, Thai personnel were trained for anti-Japanese underground activities. In Thailand, Pridi ran a clandestine movement that, by the end of the war, with Allied aid had armed more than 50,000 Thai to resist the Japanese. During the early war years, Phibun was rewarded for his cooperation with Tokyo with the return of further territory that had once been under Thai control. Japan stationed some 150,000 troops in Thailand and built the infamous “death railway” across the River Kwai and through Thailand using Allied prisoners of war. The Allies bombed Bangkok during the war, and public opinion and the civilian political leaders forced Phibun out of office in June 1944.

Civilian Government (1945-47)

Shortly after the war, Seni Pramoj briefly served as prime minister. In May 1946, a new constitution was promulgated. It called for a bicameral legislature with a popularly elected lower house and an upper house elected by the lower house. The name Siam was officially restored. The 1946 elections set the stage for Pridi to become the prime minister. However, two weeks after the election Pridi was accused of being implicated in the untimely death of King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII), and he resigned and left the country. The new king, Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), who was born in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1927, had spent the war in Switzerland and returned there after a brief first visit to Thailand in 1945. He did not return to Bangkok to take up his kingly duties until 1951, following a government-engineered coup.

Return to Military Rule (1947–73)

The civilian government’s failure eventually led to the restoration of the Phibun military faction. Phibun had been arrested in 1945 as a war criminal but was release soon. After a coup in November 1947, Phibun took over as prime minister in April 1948. During his second government (1948-57), Phibun reused the name Thailand, building Thai social behavior legislation conforming to Western standards, improving secondary education and increasing military appropriations. Phibun’s government recognized the independence of Taiwan continuously, supporting the French in their actions against communist insurgents in Indochina. Thailand also sent ground, naval and air army to the United Nations forces fighting during the Korean war (1950-53). Phibun brought Thailand into the new Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO) in 1954. In 1955 SEATO’s headquarters was established in Bangkok, and Thailand offered the United States the use of Thai military bases. In an attempt to generate popular support for himself, Phibun articulated a policy of democracy, but he was deposed in a bloodless coup in September 1957.

Military-controlled government continued between 1957 and 1967. There was talk under Prime Minister Sarit Thanarat of a “restoration” of the king, and a strong popular affection for the monarchy arose. The regime emphasized the kingdom’s Buddhist heritage in an effort to gain support from monks for government programs. Anticommunism continued to influence Thailand’s foreign affairs, and in 1961 Thailand, the Philippines, and newly independent Malaya (since 1963, Malaysia) formed the Association of Southeast Asia (ASA). In 1967 Thailand became a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), a broader regional cooperative organization that replaced the ASA. At the same time, Prime Minister Thanom Kittikachorn decided to shorten the timetable for the country’s transition from the military-dominated leadership structure to a popularly elected government.

In June 1968, a new constitution was proclaimed, but martial law, which had been imposed in 1958, remained in effect. Party politics resumed in 1968, and Thanom’s United Thai People’s Party carried the February 1969 National Assembly elections. The new government, however, had to respond to numerous issues: a Muslim insurgency in southern Thailand, communist guerrillas operating in jungle areas north of the Thai-Malaysian border, the successes of communist forces in Vietnam and Laos, and other regional unrest and protests against the government. In November 1971, Thanom carried out a coup against his own government, thereby ending the three-year experiment in parliamentary democracy. The constitution was suspended, political parties were banned, and the military took full charge in suppressing opposition.

Transition to Democratic Rule (1973–76)

The stern moves by the Thanom regime led to popular dissatisfaction among university students and organized labor, accompanied by growing anti-U.S. sentiments. Some feared Thanom would even overthrow the monarchy and establish a republic. In a demonstration on October 13, 1973, some 250,000 people pressed their grievances against the government. The following day, troops fired on the demonstrators, killing 75 of them. King Bhumibol took a rare direct role, forcing the cabinet’s resignation; Thanom and his close colleagues were allowed to leave the country secretly. Thammasak University president Sanya Dharmasakti was appointed interim prime minister, and it was he who fully credited the student movement with bringing down the military dictatorship. A new constitution went into effect in October 1974, providing for a popularly elected House of Representatives. The elections were inconclusive, and conservative Seni Pramoj eventually formed a government that lasted less than a month. His brother, Kukrit Pramoj, then put together a more acceptable centrist coalition that lasted until January 1976. Seni returned as prime minister but only until October 1976, when violent student demonstrations were suppressed by security forces, and Seni was ousted. A military junta took control of the government, declared martial law, annulled the constitution, banned political parties, and strictly censored the media.

Military Rule and Limited Parliamentary Government (1976–92)

The new government, led by Prime Minister Thanin Kraivichien, a strident anticommunist, was more repressive in many ways than the earlier military regimes. Strict censorship continued, and the regime tightly controlled labor unions and purged suspected communists from the civil service and educational institutions. As a result, many students joined the communist insurgency. Thanin was replaced in 1977 by General Kriangsak Chomanand. He promulgated a new constitution in December 1978 with a popularly elected House of Representatives and an appointed Senate, but the military controlled cabinet and Senate appointments. Economic instability, however, brought down the Kriangsak government in March 1980. The new prime minster, who was the commander in chief of the army and minister of defense, General Prem Tinsulanonda, came to power by consensus among key politicians. He gave civilians a greater role in government by appointing civilians to his cabinet. A coup attempt in 1981 weakened Prem’s government, and there was continual dissension among the civilian members of the government. Despite student and farmer demonstrations, Prem was reappointed as prime minister in April 1983. He survived a coup attempt in September 1985 and elections in July 1986. Prem was succeeded as prime minister following elections in July 1988 by General Chatichai Choonhavan, the leader of a multiparty coalition. The following years saw a series of military-led governments, efforts to reform, coups, new elections, and coalition party politics. Reforms were introduced in the business sector, the government allowed increased foreign investment, and relations with Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam improved. Charges of corruption and abuse of power abounded, however, and Chatichai was removed from power in a bloodless coup in February 1991.

Multiparty Democracy (1992–2006)

In March 1992, with a new constitution in force and new elections held, General Suchinda Kraprayoon, one of the February 1991 coup leaders, became prime minister and leader of a five-party coalition. When those parties withdrew their support, Suchinda resigned in May 1992, and Anand Panyarachun, a civilian who had served as acting prime minister between March 1991 and March 1992, was named prime minister. Anand embarked on new reform measures, but he was replaced after the September 1992 elections by Democratic Party (Phak Prachatipat) leader Chuan Leekpai, the head of a four-party coalition. Chuan’s government pushed through constitutional amendments that provided for more wide- ranging democratic practices, enlarged the House of Representatives, reduced the size of the appointed Senate, lowered the voting age from 20 to 18 years of age, guaranteed equality for women, and established an administrative court. In January 1985, the Thai Nation Party (Phak Chat Thai) won the largest number of House seats, and its leader, Banharn Silapa-Archa, headed the new coalition government. In March 1996, Banharn appointed the members of the new Senate; unlike earlier Senates, most members were civilians instead of military officers. The failure of his coalition, however, led to new elections and a new six-party coalition government in November 1996 led by General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, head of the Phak Khwam Wang Mai (New Aspiration Party).

Chavalit made key economic portfolio appointments to his cabinet, but he failed to implement the austere fiscal policies needed to revive a weak economy. In mid-1997 a major financial crisis ensued, the baht—Thailand’s currency—was devalued, the Central Bank governor resigned, and widespread protests took place. The government announced austerity measures, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) intervened, but the economy continued to deteriorate. Despite a new constitution promulgated in October 1997, confidence in Chavalit continued to slide, and elections in November returned Chuan Leekpai to the prime ministership as head of a seven-party coalition. This transfer of power without military intervention, from one elected leader to another, represented a major breakthrough in the development of democratic processes in Thailand. The baht continued to devalue, however, and social unrest recurred. By the summer of 1998, the economy had become more stable, although investigations into banking practices continued to uncover mismanagement and irregularities. With assistance from the IMF, Thailand gradually regained macroeconomic stability.

The first-ever elections to the Senate were held in 2000, and, in January 2001 one party—the Phak Thai Rak Thai (Thai Loves Thai Party)—won an absolute majority in the House of Representatives. Because of widespread allegations of illegal election practices, new polling took place in February in some constituencies. The Thai Rak Thai, having merged with another party since the January election, still won the absolute majority of seats, but a coalition government— with the New Aspiration Party and Chat Thai—was established. Police Lieutenant Colonel Thaksin Chinnawat became prime minister. The Thai Rak Thai was further strengthened in 2002 when it absorbed many members of the New Aspiration Party.

Thaksin set out to stabilize several problematic areas. One was to launch a major antidrug campaign. Some 2,275 people were killed in a three-month period ending in April 2003, and the government claimed to have eradicated 90 percent of Thailand’s drug problem. In October 2004, the government launched a second antidrug campaign. Another problem confronting the kingdom was terrorist violence, primarily in the south. In 2002 several police officers were killed, bombs were detonated when the minister of interior toured the violence-prone area, and five schools suffered damage from arsonists. The Thai military attributed these actions to a group thought to be an al Qaeda affiliate and arrested suspected members of Jemaah Islamiah (Community of Islam) in June 2003. They confessed to plotting attacks on embassies in Bangkok and tourist sites. Further arsons and bombings occurred, and attacks on police and army bases in 2004 heightened the terrorist threat. In 2004 alone, more than 500 people died as a result of insurgent and terrorist violence in the south. This loss of life was exacerbated when a massive tsunami hit the Andaman coast on December 26, 2004, killing more than 5,300 Thai and foreigners and leaving another 2,900 reported missing.

In February 2005, the Thai Rak Thai won a 75 percent majority in the House of Representatives elections, and, for the first time, a single-party government was formed. The following year, however, there were mass protests calling for Thaksin’s resignation over corruption issues. He called for early parliamentary elections in April 2006 that were boycotted by the major opposition parties and declared unconstitutional in May. Amidst growing protests, Thaksin continued as prime minister until September 19, 2006, when military forces staged a successful coup and set up a military-controlled regime.

Source: Nations Online