alternative reader no. 144
THAILAND: A Short Political History
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
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.
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
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
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.
Siam (as the country was known until 1939, and again in 194549) 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.
King Mongkut and his successor, King Chulalongkura (Rama V; reigned
18681910), 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
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.
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
194757, Field Marshal Sarit Thanarat 195763, and Gen Thanom Kittikachorn
196373. 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 195758 and
196871. 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
The army supreme commander, Gen Kriangsak Chomanan, held power 197780 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.
The civil war in Cambodia and Laos, which resulted in the flight of more
than 500,000 refugees to Thailand 197590, 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.
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.
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.
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