THAILAND: A Short Political History

Country in southeast Asia on the Gulf of Siam, bounded east by Laos and Cambodia, south by Malaysia, and west by Myanmar (Burma).


A hereditary monarch is head of state. A number of constitutional changes were implemented through the 1990s. There is a two-chamber national assembly, comprising a 500-member house of representatives, the Saphaphutan, elected by universal suffrage for a four-year term, and a 200-member senate, the Wuthisapha. The senate used to be appointed by the monarch (and traditionally drawn from the armed forces and police), but is known also democratically elected for a four-year term.

The monarch retains significant political power, having the authority to dissolve the national assembly and to veto bills, with a two-thirds assembly majority being required for a royal veto to be overturned. On the advice of the national assembly, the monarch appoints a prime minister, and cabinet ministers. Since 1992, the prime minister and ministers may not be simultaneously members of the national assembly.

The military’s influence is now much reduced. The 1997 constitution sets out a wide range of political, religious and social rights.


Archaeological evidence suggests that the area of modern Thailand was the centre of a significant Neolithic culture as early as 3500 BC, and of iron-working as early as 2000 BC.

Early empires

The Thai peoples were relatively late arrivals in the area. The earliest historical evidence suggests that the area was mostly under the control of the Funan Empire, centred on Cambodia, in the 5th century AD, although by the 7th century various kingdoms of Mon peoples had been established in the Chao Phraya valley. The northeast region on the other hand remained in the hands of the Khmer empires that followed Funan, notably that of Angkor after the 8th century.

The first Thai kingdoms

The Thais themselves began to move into their present territory in the 8th and 9th centuries from the kingdom of Nan Chao in the Yunnan area of southwest China. Small states were established in the 11th century, and in 1238 the first major kingdom was founded at Sukhothai in north-central Thailand. Mongol invasions of Nan Chao forced greater migrations, and, under King Rama Khamheng, Sukhothai expanded to overcome the Mon kingdoms of the lower Chao Phraya valley and extend its rule down the southern peninsula.

The Sukhothai kingdom was, however, short-lived, and by 1350 power had passed to the south where another prince, Ramatipadi, founded Ayuthya. From this capital much of Thailand became united, and the country was involved in a protracted power struggle with first Cambodia and then Burma (Myanmar). The contest with Burma was particularly long, and after successes on both sides it led in 1767 to the destruction of Ayuthya. Order in Thailand was subsequently restored, and in 1782 the present Chakri dynasty came to power in the new capital of Bangkok.

European contacts

Siam (as the country was known until 1939, and again in 1945–49) was reached by Portuguese traders in 1511. The 17th century witnessed the arrival of the British East India Company, the Dutch, and the French, and trading rivalries between the three countries developed rapidly. France was particularly active and sought domination in Siam, which brought a wary Siamese reaction.

This circumspection continued into the 19th century. Although a treaty of friendship and trade was signed with Britain in 1826, it was only with the accession of King Mongkut (Rama IV) in 1851 that Siamese attitudes changed. In 1855 another treaty was signed with Britain, establishing Britain as the paramount power in the region and opening Siam to foreign commerce. Similar arrangements with other powers followed.

Independence maintained

King Mongkut and his successor, King Chulalongkura (Rama V; reigned 1868–1910), employed Western advisers to assist in the modernization of the country’s administration and commerce, and managed to maintain Siam’s independence by playing off the British interests to the west and south against those of the French to the east. Anglo-French diplomatic agreements of 1896 and 1904 established Siam as a neutral buffer kingdom between the British territories of Burma and Malaya and French Indochina. Some territorial concessions were made by Siam in order to maintain its independence: the Laotian territories east of the River Mekong went to France along with the Cambodian provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap, while in 1909 rights to four Malay states of southern Siam were transferred to British Malaya.

Siam in the early 20th century

Siam remained a British sphere of influence in the early 20th century, becoming Britain’s ally in World War I in 1917. After World War I a movement for national renaissance developed, and this, combined with the worldwide depression of the 1930s, precipitated a political coup against the absolute monarch King Prajadhipok in 1932. The coup created a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary government, and the name of Muang Thai (‘land of the free’) was adopted for the country in 1939.

Throughout the 1930s politics were marked by considerable unrest and by increasing nationalism. In 1938 the pro-Japanese military leader Phibun Songkhram seized power. In 1940, taking advantage of the defeat of France and encouraged by Japan, Phibun annexed the Indochinese territories lost in 1893 and 1907. In December 1941 Japanese forces entered Thailand, requesting the right to advance through the country preparatory to their attack on British Malaya and Singapore. This was refused, but after a brief struggle Phibun signed a treaty with the Japanese, and by 1942 Thailand had declared war on the Allies. However, there was an anti-Japanese guerrilla movement, the Free Thai, which succeeded in forcing the resignation of Phibun in 1944.

Military control

After World War II Thailand restored the French territories and signed treaties with its former enemies, but another period of unstable government followed, particularly as a result of the assassination of King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII) in 1946. The year 1947 saw a military coup by the wartime leader Phibun Songkhram, and the army retained control during the next two decades, with the leader of the military junta periodically changed by a series of bloodless coups: Field Marshal Phibun Songkhram 1947–57, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat 1957–63, and Gen Thanom Kittikachorn 1963–73. The monarch, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, was only a figurehead.

Thailand followed a steady anti-communist line under the influence of its alliance with the USA, and was a founder member of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). It encountered serious communist guerrilla insurgency along its borders with Laos, Cambodia, and Malaysia.

From time to time experiments at liberalization were made, with elected assemblies in 1957–58 and 1968–71. The results were fractious and further military coups resulted. Thanom ruled through a National Executive Council until 1973, when growing unrest over foreign policy and the lack of basic freedoms led to student riots in Bangkok, culminating in the fall of the government in October. Free elections were held in 1975 and 1976. A series of coalition governments lacked stability, and in 1976 the armed forces, led by Admiral Chaloryoo, took over, with Thanin Kraivichien becoming prime minister.

The government succeeded in reorienting the country’s foreign policy in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The USA withdrew all its substantial military presence in Thailand, and diplomatic relations were established with the communist regimes in China, North Korea, and Cambodia. Disputes with communist Laos and Vietnam continued, and Thailand remained firmly within the non-communist Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Towards civilian government

The army supreme commander, Gen Kriangsak Chomanan, held power 1977–80 and established a mixed civilian and military form of government under the monarch’s direction. Having deposed Kriangsak in October 1980, Gen Prem Tinsulanonda (1920– ) formally relinquished his army office and headed an elected civilian coalition government from 1983.

Attempted coups in April 1983 and September 1985 were easily crushed by Prime Minister Prem, who ruled in a cautious apolitical manner. With an economic growth averaging 9%–10% a year, Thailand emerged as an export-oriented, newly industrializing country. Chatichai Choonhavan, leader of the Thai Nation Party, was elected prime minister in 1988.

Foreign affairs

The civil war in Cambodia and Laos, which resulted in the flight of more than 500,000 refugees to Thailand 1975–90, provided justification for continued quasi-military rule and the maintenance of martial law. Thailand drew closer to its allies in the Association of South East Asian Nations, who jointly supported the Cambodian guerrilla resistance to the Vietnamese-imposed government. The country was drawn more deeply into the Cambodian civil war with the shelling July 1989 of a refugee camp in Thailand, but tensions eased after the Cambodian peace agreement of 1991.

The 1991 military coup

In February 1991 Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan was overthrown in a bloodless coup led by Gen Sunthorn Kongsompong, the supreme military commander, and army chief Gen Suchinda Kraprayoon. It was the country’s 17th coup or attempted putsch since the abolition of the absolute monarchy in 1932. A civilian, Anand Panyarachun, was appointed interim prime minister, subject to the ultimate control of the military junta, but after new elections in March 1992 he was replaced by Gen Suchinda. The latter’s appointment sparked the largest street demonstrations for two decades, forcing him to resign.

Constitutional reforms and the return of democracy

In May 1992 the ruling coalition agreed to a package of constitutional reforms, including the proviso that the prime minister should not come from the ranks of the military. Anand was again made interim prime minister in June, but after the September 1992 general election gave a Democrat coalition 185 seats in the 360-member parliament, Chuan Leekpai became prime minister.

In January 1995 further constitutional amendments were approved, lowering the voting age to 18, reducing the size of the senate, and giving women equal rights in law to men. The ruling coalition collapsed in May 1995 as a result of a land-reform scandal, and a general election was called for July.

Coalition governments, 1995–97

The July 1995 election was narrowly won by the opposition Thai Nation Party, amid allegations of vote-buying in rural areas. Its leader Banharn Silpa-archa formed a new seven-party coalition. In March 1996 Banharn Silpa-archa appointed a new 260-member senate – the first to be appointed by a democratically elected prime minister. Only 39 of its members were active military officers compared with 139 in the outgoing senate.

In August 1996 Banharn was left with a narrow majority after Palang Dharma, the third-largest party in the seven-party coalition, withdrew from the government. Banharn resigned in September after losing the support of the other six parties.

In November 1996, a general election – the fourth in four years – brought to power a new, reshuffled six-party coalition led by Gen Chavalit Yongchaiyudh of the New Aspiration Party (NAP). The new coalition comprised the NAP, Chart Patthana, the Social Action Party (SAP), Prachakorn Thai, Muan Chon, and Seritham. In November 1997, Chuan Leekpai was again elected prime minister as well as minister of defence. His Democratic Party hastily cobbled together a coalition, and began to implement economic reforms.

Economic reform

In February 1998, Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai warned that the economy was expected to contract by 3.5% in 1998, as a result of the austerity measures instituted since the devaluation of the baht (Thai currency) in July 1997. Plans were also announced for the repatriation of 500,000 foreign workers (drawn chiefly from neighbouring Myanmar) each year for the next three years; by April 1998, 100,000 had already been sent back. Plans to restructure the country’s stricken financial institutions were unveiled in August 1998, and in September, the IMF approved an aid package of US$135 million. In October the opposition Chart Patthana party was brought into the coalition government, with the aim of increasing its majority to help push through reforms. The reforms achieved some success in the following years.

Elections in 2001

Thai Rak Thai (TRT; Thais Love Thais), the party of Thaksin Shinawatra, a telecommunications tycoon, initially won over half the seats in the 500-seat lower house of Thailand’s parliament in a general election held on 6 January 2001. The elections were marred by vote-buying and other irregularities, and a rerun of disputed seats deprived the party of its overall majority. It formed a coalition government with two other parties. TRT had run a populist campaign, promising a grant of 1 million baht for each of Thailand’s 70,000 villages and a generous health insurance plan. In March, a bomb destroyed an aircraft at Bangkok airport minutes before Shinawatra was due on board. In early April, secessionist Muslims in southern Thailand were blamed for bomb attacks in two cities that killed one and injured 40.

The National Counter-Corruption Commission opened its case in the Constitutional Court against Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in April. Shinawatra, who was accused of concealing the full extent of his wealth when earlier in government, appeared before the court in June, but was acquitted in August.

© Research Machines plc 2006. All rights reserved. Helicon Publishing is a division of Research Machines plc.

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