Early History -- Archaeologists believe that Thailand was a major thoroughfare for Homo erectus en route from Africa to China and other parts of Asia. Stone tools, dating back some 700,000 years, have been excavated around Lampang in northern Thailand. Cave paintings, found throughout the country, are believed to originate as early as 2000 B.C.; these show people dancing and hunting, as well as domesticated and wild animals in grasslike settings that appear to be rice paddies. There are also images of different forms of marine life, dolphins (in the south), and catfish (in the north). Human remains have been excavated at many sites, the most famous of which, Ban Chiang, in the northeastern province of Udon Thani, contained copper and bronze items originally believed to date back to 4000 B.C., and said to be the earliest examples of the Bronze Age in Thailand. This suggests that this particular Bronze Age settlement developed independently of the few other world centers at this time. More accurate radiocarbon testing, however, has put Thailand's Bronze Age at about 2500 to 2000 B.C., which was in fact later than that of the Middle East and roughly at the same time as China's.
Modern civilization did not arrive in Thailand until about 1,000 years ago. There is archaeological evidence that points to areas in both central and southern China as a cultural heartland for the descendants of many of the peoples of Southeast Asia. These people began to appear in northern Southeast Asia in the first millennium A.D. and continued to migrate south, east, and west in waves over the following 8 centuries, settling primarily in what is now Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar (Burma). Known as the Tai, they dispersed over a vast area of space and shared a similar culture and language. Their descendants are the core bloodline of the Thai people of today: the Shan of northern Myanmar, the Tai people of northern Laos, and the Lu of Yunnan province in southern China, as well as groups in Vietnam, on the Chinese island of Hainan, and others in northeastern India. The total number of Tai people today is estimated at 70 million.
The early Tais lived in lowland valleys in groups of villages called muang that were ruled over by a chao or feudal lord. They lived in stilted houses, making a living from subsistence agriculture. In times of threat, either to their economic stability or from outside aggression, many muang would combine forces. What developed were loosely structured feudal states where both lord and villager benefited -- the lord from manpower and the villager from stability. The Tais expanded as ruling fathers sent sons out into the world to conquer or colonize neighboring areas, establishing new muang in increasingly broad regions.
The Dvaravati (Mon) Period -- From the 6th century, Southeast Asia underwent a gradual period of Indianization. Merchants and missionaries from India introduced Brahmanism and Buddhism to the region, as well as Indian political and social values -- and art and architectural preferences. Many Tai groups adopted Buddhism, combining its doctrine with their own animistic beliefs. But the true significance of India's impact can be seen in the rise of two of the greatest Southeast Asian civilizations -- the Mon and Khmer.
The Mon were the earliest known inhabitants of Lower Burma, and it was they who introduced writing to the country as well as Buddhism. Around the 6th century A.D., their sphere of influence expanded, and they established Theravada Buddhism in Thailand. Mon settlements can be found at Lamphun, near Chiang Mai; Lopburi; Nakhon Pathom; Nakhorn Ratchasima (also called Khorat); and into Cambodia and northern Laos. Sadly, this once-proud race now numbers only around a million, most of whom are struggling to retain their culture in Myanmar (Burma) in the face of military oppression, though many have fled to Thailand and live, mostly in refugee camps, near the border west of Kanchanaburi.
The Srivijaya Empire -- In the southern peninsula, the Srivijaya Empire, based in Java, Indonesia, began to play an important role in cultural affairs. Before the 9th century A.D., southern port cities had drawn traders from all over the region and beyond. However, the Srivijayas, who had assimilated their own unique brand of Buddhism from India, would leave a lasting impression on these cities, linking them with other parts of Southeast Asia by importing Buddhism and Buddhist art. While the empire never actually conquered the area, its cultural influence is still evident in Nakhon Si Thammarat and from the southern art of this period. Some historians argue that Chaiya, near Surat Thani, could have been the capital of the empire for a time, but the claim is largely disputed. Srivijaya power, ground down by endless warring with southern India, headed into decline and disappeared from Thailand by the 13th century.
The Khmers -- By the early 9th century A.D., the Khmer Empire had risen to power in Cambodia, spreading into surrounding areas. Indravaraman (877-89) saw the kingdom reach Nakhorn Ratchasima (Khorat) in northeastern Thailand. Suryavarman I (1002-50) extended the kingdom to the Chao Phraya River valley and north to Lamphun, driving out the Mons. Suryavarman II (1113-50) pushed the kingdom even farther, forcing the Mons still deeper into Myanmar (Burma) until his death in 1150.
With each conquering reign, magnificent Khmer temples honoring Hindu deities were constructed in outposts, thus expanding the Cambodian presence in the empire. Brahmanism, having been brought to Cambodia with traders from southern India, influenced not only Khmer religion and temple design (with the distinct corncob-shaped prang, or tower), but also government administration and social order. Conquering or forcing villages into their control, the Khmers placed their own leaders in important centers and supplied them with Khmer administrative officers. The empire was extremely hierarchical, with the king exerting supreme power and ruling from his capital.
The populations of these outposts were largely Tai, and while the Khmers had the authority, Tais were assimilated as laborers, slaves, and temple workers. A temple bas relief at Angkor that shows a stiff orderly regiment of Khmer soldiers following unkempt and fierce-looking Tais clearly demonstrates the Khmer attitude toward what they called Syam.
Angkor, Cambodia's great ancient temple city, was built during the reign of Suryavarman II. It is believed the temples of Phimai and Phanom Rung, in Isan province, predated the Khmers' capital temple complex, thus influencing its style. By this time, however, the Khmer empire was already in decline. The last great Khmer ruler, Jayavarman VII (1181-1219), extended the empire to its farthest limits -- north to Vientiane in Laos, west to Myanmar (Burma), and down to the Malay peninsula. It was he who finally shifted Khmer ideology away from Hindu-based religion toward Buddhism, which eventually led to temples constructed in Khmer style. His newfound Buddhism inspired him to build extensive highways (portions of which are still evident today), plus more than 100 resthouses for travelers, and hospitals in the outer provinces. Jayavarman VII's death in 1220 marks Thailand's final break from Khmer rule. The last known Khmer settlement in Thailand is at Wat Kamphaeng Laeng in Phetchaburi.
The Lanna Kingdom: The Northern Tais -- By A.D. 1000, the last of the Tai immigrants had traveled south from China to settle in northern Thailand. Several powerful centers of Tai power -- Chiang Saen, in northern Thailand; Xishuangbanna, in southern China; and Luang Prabang, in Laos -- were linked by a common heritage and the rule of extended families. In the region, muang grew stronger and better organized, but internal conflict remained a problem. In 1239, a leader was born in Chiang Saen who would conquer and unite the northern Tai villages and create a great kingdom. Born to the king of Chiang Saen and a southern Chinese princess, Mengrai ascended the throne in 1259 and established the first capital of the Lanna kingdom at Chiang Rai in 1263. He then conquered and assimilated what remained of Mon and Khmer settlements in northern Thailand, and, in 1296, shifted his base of power to Chiang Mai, which translates to "The New City."
The Lanna empire would strengthen and ebb over five periods; at its height, it extended into Burma (now Myanmar); Luang Prabang, in Laos; and Yunnan province, in China. Lanna society mixed animist beliefs with Mon Buddhism. Retaining Mon connections with what is today Sri Lanka, the Lanna era saw the rise of a scholarly Buddhism with strict adherence to orthodox doctrines. Lanna kings were advised by a combination of monks and astrologers and ruled over a well-organized government bureaucracy. Developments were made in transportation and irrigation, medicine, law, and the arts through religious sculpture, sacred texts, and poetry. By and large, the people were only mildly taxed and were allowed a great deal of autonomy.
It was the expansionist Mongols under Kublai Khan who began to threaten Lanna with forays into the region. Mengrai succeeded in keeping these marauders at bay by allying his kingdom with Shan leaders in Myanmar (Burma) and two separate Tai kingdoms to the south; one of these was Sukhothai, which in time would rise to a position of dominance.
Sukhothai: The Dawn of Siamese Civilization -- While Mengrai was busy building Lanna, a small southern kingdom was simultaneously growing in power. After the demise of first the Dvaravarti civilization and later the Khmers, the Tai people who had migrated south to the Chao Phraya River valley found themselves in small disorganized vassal states. A tiny kingdom based in Sukhothai would dwell in obscurity until the rise of founding father King Indraditya's second son, Ram. Single-handedly defeating an invasion from neighboring Mae Sot, on the Burmese border, Ram proved a powerful force, winning the respect of his people. Upon his coronation in 1279, Ramkhamhaeng, or "Ram the Bold," set the scene for what is recognized as the first truly Siamese civilization.
In response to the Khmers' authoritarian approach, Ramkhamhaeng established himself as an accessible king. It is told he had a bell outside his palace for any subject to ring in the event of a grievance. The king himself would come to hear the dispute and would make a just ruling on the spot. He was seen as a fatherly and fair ruler who allowed his subjects immense freedoms. His kingdom expanded rapidly, it seems; through voluntary subjugation, it reached as far west as Pegu in Myanmar (Burma), north to the Laotian cities of Luang Prabang and Vientiane, and south beyond Nakhon Si Thammarat, to include portions of present-day Malaysia.
After centuries of divergent influences from external powers, we see for the first time an emerging culture that is uniquely Siamese. The people of the central plains had a mixed heritage made up of Tai, Mon, Khmer, and indigenous people, with Indian and Chinese elements woven into their cultural tapestry. Ramkhamhaeng was a devout Buddhist, adopting the orthodox and scholarly Theravada Buddhism from missionaries hailing from Nakhon Si Thammarat and Sri Lanka. A patron of the arts, the king commissioned many great Buddha images. While few sculptures from his reign remain today, those that do survive display a cultivated creativity. For the first time, physical features of the Buddha are Siamese in manner. Images have graceful, sinuous limbs and robes, insinuating a radiant and flowing motion. Ramkhamhaeng initiated the many splendid architectural achievements of Sukhothai and nearby Si Satchanalai. He is also credited with developing the modern Thai written language, derived from Khmer and Mon examples of an archaic South Indian script. Upon Ramkhamhaeng's death in 1298, he was succeeded by kings who would devote their attentions to religion rather than affairs of state. During the 14th century, Sukhothai's brilliant spark faded almost as quickly as it had ignited.
Ayutthaya: Siam Enters the Global Scene -- In the decades that followed, the nation faltered with no figurehead, until the arrival of U Thong -- the son of a wealthy Chinese merchant family. Crowning himself Ramathibodi, he set up a capital at Ayutthaya, on the banks of the Lopburi River. From there, he set out to conquer what was left of the Khmer outposts, eventually engulfing the remains of Sukhothai. The new kingdom combined the strengths of its population -- Tai military manpower and labor, Khmer bureaucratic sensibilities, and Chinese commercial talents -- to create a strong empire. Ayutthaya differed greatly from its predecessor. Following Khmer models, the king rose above his subjects atop a huge pyramid-shaped administration. He was surrounded by a divine order of Buddhist monks and Brahman sanctities. During the early period of development, Ayutthaya rulers created strictly defined laws, caste systems, and labor units. Foreign traders from China, Japan, and Arabia were required to sell the first pick of their wares to the king for favorable prices. Leading trade this way, the kingdom was buttressed by great riches. Along the river, a huge fortified city was built with temples that equaled those in Sukhothai. This was the Kingdom of Siam that the first Europeans, the Portuguese, encountered in 1511.
But peace and prosperity would be disrupted with the coming Burmese invasion that would take Chiang Mai (part of the Lanna kingdom) in 1557, and finally Ayutthaya in 1569. The Lanna kingdom that King Mengrai and his successors built was never to regain its former glory. Fortunately, Ayutthaya had a better fate with the rise of one of the greatest leaders in Thai history. Prince Naresuan, born in 1555, was the son of the puppet Tai King -- placed in Ayutthaya by the Burmese. Although Naresuan was a direct descendent of Sukhothai leaders, it was his early battle accomplishments that distinguished him as a ruler. Having spent many years in Burmese captivity, he returned to Ayutthaya to raise armies to challenge the Burmese. His small militias proved inadequate, but in a historic battle scene, Naresuan, atop an elephant, challenged the Burmese crown prince and defeated him with a single blow.
With the Tais back in control, Ayutthaya continued through the following 2 centuries in grand style. Foreign traders -- Portuguese, Dutch, Arab, Chinese, Japanese, and English -- not only set up companies and missions, but some also attained positions of power within the administration. Despite numerous internal conflicts over succession and struggles between foreign powers for court influence, the kingdom managed to proceed steadily. While its Southeast Asian neighbors were falling under colonial rule, the court of Siam was extremely successful in retaining its own sovereignty. It has the distinction of being the only Southeast Asian nation never to have been colonized -- a point of great pride for Thais today.
The final demise of Ayutthaya would be brought about by two more Burmese invasions. The first, in 1760, was led by King Alaunghpaya, who would fail, retreating after he was shot by one of his own cannons. But 6 years later, two Burmese contingents, one from the north and one from the south, would besiege the city. The Burmese raped, pillaged, and plundered the kingdom -- capturing fortunes and laborers for return to Burma. The Thai people still hold a bitter grudge against the Burmese for these atrocities.
The Rise of Bangkok: The Chakri Dynasty -- The Siamese did not hesitate to build another capital. Taksin, a provincial governor of Tak in the northern central plains, rose to power on military excellence and charisma. Over time he was able to successfully propagate the false notion that he was in fact divinely appointed as ruler. Rather than build upon the ashes of Ayutthaya, Taksin moved the capital to Thonburi Si Mahasamut, an already-well-established settlement on the western bank of the Chao Phraya River, now engulfed by modern Bangkok. Within 3 years he'd reunited the land from the previous kingdom, but his rule would not last. Legend tells that Taksin suffered from paranoia and his claims to divinity offended many, including the monastic order. His own wife, children, and monks were purported to have been murdered on his orders. Regional powers acted fast. He was swiftly kidnapped, placed in a velvet sack, and beaten to death with a sandalwood club -- so no royal blood touched the soil. He was then buried secretly in his own capital. These same regional powers turned to the brothers Chakri and Surasi, great army generals (phraya), who had recaptured the north from Burma, to lead the land. In 1782, Phraya Chakri ascended the throne as King Ramathibodi, founder of today's Chakri dynasty.
The Thai capital was relocated by the new king across the Chao Phraya River to the settlement of Bangkok, where he built the Royal Palace, royal homes, administrative buildings, and great temples. The city teemed with canals as the river played a central role in trade and commerce. Siam was now a true melting pot of cultures, no longer limited to the Tai, Mon, and Khmer descendants of former powers, but now including Arab, Indian, European, and powerful Southern Chinese clans. Ramathibodi's first priorities involved reorganizing the Buddhist monkhood under an orthodox Theravada Buddhist doctrine and reestablishing the state ceremonies used during the Ayutthaya period, with less emphasis on Brahman and animistic rituals. He revised all laws so they were based upon the notion of justice. He also wrote the Ramakien, based upon the Indian Ramayana, which has become a beloved Thai tale and a subject for many Thai classical arts, such as dance and shadow theater.
Despite military threats from all directions, the kingdom continued to grow through a succession of kings from the new royal bloodline. Ramathibodi, later known as Rama I, and his two successors expanded the kingdom to the borders of present-day Thailand and beyond. Foreign relations in the modern sense were developed during this early era with formal ties to European powers.
King Mongkut (r. 1851-68) had a unique upbringing. During his time as a monk, a tradition all Thai men are expected to follow even today, he developed an avid curiosity, which, throughout his reign, led to enormous innovation, dynamism, and appreciation for the West. His son, King Chulalongkorn (r. 1868-1910), led Siam into the 20th century as an independent nation, by establishing an effective civil service, formalizing global relations, and introducing industrialization. He united the royal line under the title Rama and assigned the title Rama I to the dynasty's first king. Mongkut thus became Rama IV, and his son, Rama V. It was King Mongkut who employed Anna Leonowens (who was the inspiration behind the character Anna, in The King and I) as an English tutor for his children. Her account of court life is still considered grossly inaccurate and offensive by Thais; indeed anyone found with copies of the book, or the movies -- all of which are banned -- can be tried for lèse-majesté.
The reign of King Prajadhipok, Rama VII (r. 1925-35), saw the growth of the urban middle class, and the increasing discontent of a powerful elite. By the beginning of his reign, economic failings and bureaucratic bickering weakened the position of the monarchy, which was severely affected by the Great Depression. To the credit of the king, there had been a call to instate a constitutional monarchy, but, in 1932, a group of midlevel officials went ahead and instigated a coup d'état. Prajadhipok eventually abdicated in 1935.
Thailand in the 20th & 21st Centuries -- Democracy had a shaky hold on Siam. Its original constitution, written in 1932, was more a tool for leaders to manipulate than a political blueprint. Over the following decades, government leadership changed hands fast and frequently. The army has always had an imposing influence, most likely the result of its ties to the common people as well as its strong unity. In 1939, the nation adopted the name "Thailand" -- land of the free.
During World War II, democracy was stalled in the face of the Japanese invasion in 1941. Thailand speedily submitted, choosing collaboration over conflict, even going so far as to declare war against the Allied powers. But at the war's end, no punitive measures were taken against Thailand, thanks to the Free Thai Movement organized by Ambassador Seni Pramoj in Washington, D.C., who had placed the declaration of war in his desk drawer rather than delivering it.
Thailand avoided direct involvement in the Vietnam War but assisted the Americans by providing runways for their B-52s and storage for the toxic defoliant Agent Orange. In turn, it benefited enormously from U.S. military-built infrastructure. The United States pumped billions into the Thai economy, bringing riches to many but further impoverishing the rural poor, who were hit hard by the resulting inflation. Communism became an increasingly attractive political philosophy to the poor as well as to liberal-minded students and intellectuals. A full-scale insurrection seemed imminent, and this naturally fueled further political repression by the military rulers.
In June 1973, thousands of Thai students demonstrated in the streets, demanding a new constitution and a return to democratic principles. Tensions grew until October, when armed forces attacked a demonstration at Thammasat University in Bangkok, killing 69 students and wounding 800, paralyzing the capital with terror.
The constitution was restored and a new government was elected. Many students, however, were not yet satisfied and continued to complain that the financial elite were still in control and resisting change. In 1976, student protests again broke out, and there was a replay of the grisly scene of 3 years before at Thammasat University. The army seized control in an effort to impose order, and another brief experiment with democracy was at an end. Thanin Kraivichien was installed as prime minister of a new right-wing government, which suspended freedom of speech and of the press, further polarizing Thai society.
In 1980, Prem Tinsulanonda became prime minister, and during the following 8 years he managed to bring remarkable political and economic stability to Thailand. The Thai economy grew steadily through the 1980s, fueled by Japanese investment and the departure of Chinese funds from Hong Kong.
Things changed dramatically in July 1997, when Thailand became the first victim of the Asian Economic Crisis. Virtually overnight, the Baht lost 20% of its value, followed by similar downturns in money markets throughout other major Asian nations. A legacy of suspicious government activity is linked to industry, massive overseas borrowing, inflated property markets, and lax bank lending practices. In November of 1997, Chuan Leekpai was elected to power to lead the country out of crisis, but 3 years later, Thais were still unsatisfied.
In January 2001, the Thai people elected Populist candidate Thaksin Shinawatra. A self-made telecom tycoon, ex-police officer, and member of one of the nation's wealthiest families, Thaksin came into office promising economic restructuring and an end to widespread corruption and cronyism. Thaksin's popularity grew from aggressive reforms that brought the country out of debt. In November 2003, Thailand paid back its $12 billion loan to the International Monetary Fund, money borrowed during the 1997 currency crisis. The popular prime minister also waged a "War on Poverty and Dark Influence," cracking down on mafia activity and bribery; however, his tactics were often heavy-handed and wholly ignored human rights. Most glaringly, he is held responsible for the on-the-spot killing of suspected drug traffickers (estimates claim that as many as 3,000 people were shot dead with no legal process during his reign). Similarly, Thaksin's aggressive response to Muslim unrest in the far south came under international criticism.
In September 2006, the Royal Thai army, backed by the King, staged a bloodless coup d'état. Thaksin, who was preparing to address the United Nations in New York, was ousted overnight. During 2007, under the military junta, democratic reforms were stalled, press freedoms were curbed, and Thaksin's own Thai Rak Thai party was banned from politics for 5 years. Meanwhile, the tycoon and his family have been convicted in absentia for fraud.
Elections held in December 2007 passed without much disturbance, but the surprising outcome gave the People's Power Party (PPP) -- run by followers of former Prime Minister Thaksin -- victory. However, without a clear majority, the party was forced into an uneasy coalition with five other parties, headed by Samak Sundaravej. In September 2008, Samak was replaced by Somchai Wongsawat, but after the occupation of Suvarnabhumi Airport by yellow-shirted People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) supporters in November 2008, Somchai also had to step down, and the PPP was dissolved, to be replaced by the Pheua Thai, or "For Thai" party. The head of the Democratic Party, Abhisit Vejjajiva, managed to form a coalition to take the reins of government, though riots in Bangkok, in April 2009, by the United Front for Democracy against Dictatorship (UDD; supporters of Thaksin who wear red shirts) represented a further step in the polarization of politics in Thailand between the red shirts and yellow shirts -- UDD vs. PAD.
Throughout his life, HM King Bhumibol Adulyadej has played an active role in stabilizing the nation, and many wonder if he will attempt to defuse the current political crisis. The King has been the nation's figurehead since 1946 and now, in his 80s, is the world's longest reigning monarch. A compassionate man, he commands enormous loyalty from the Thai people by promoting cultural traditions and supporting rural reforms, especially among the poor.
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