A Short History of Thailand
Thailand officially referred to as the Kingdom of Thailand, previously known as Siam, is a nation at the centre of the Indochinese peninsula in Southeast Asia. It occupies a total area of roughly 513,000 km² and it is the 51st biggest country in the world. It has a population of about 66 million people, making it the 20th most populated country in the globe. Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. It was a parliamentary democracy until the May 2014 coup by the National Council for Peace and Order. Its capital city is Bangkok. Laos and Myanmar border Thailand to the north, Cambodia and Laos to the east, Malaysia and the Gulf of Thailand to the South, and the southern extremity of Myanmar and the Andaman Sea to the west. Its maritime borders are India and Indonesia on the Andaman Sea to the southwest, and Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand to the southeast.
Evidence of human occupation in Thailand dates all the way back to 40,000 years ago. There are stone artefacts that date to this period at Tham Lod Rock shelter in Mae Hong Son. Like other areas in Southeast Asia, Thailand was influenced a lot by the religions and cultures of India. This influence started with the Funan Kingdom in the 1st century CE to the Khmer Empire. In its earliest days, Thailand was ruled by the Khmer Empire, which had sturdy Hindu roots, and that influence is still present among Thais.
The history of Thailand is quite broad and key periods will be discussed in brief below.
Khmer Influence in Thailan
From the 9th to the 11th century the western and central regions of Thailand were occupied by a Mon civilization known as Dvaravati. The Mon shared a similar lineage as the Khmers who settled in southern Burma. Dvaravati influence was spread to regions such as Lawo (Lopburi), Phong Tuk, Khu Bua, and Nakhon Pathom. This was an Indian culture and Theravada Buddhism was the main religion in the region. Khmer influence was brought in the nature of religion, art and language. The Sanskrit dialect was entered into the Mon-Thai glossary during this period. This influence had an effect on many provinces especially in the north-east regions in cities such as Lopburi and Kanchanaburi. The Khmer people constructed stone temples in the northeast region of the country. Some of these temples have been reinstated to their earlier glory. Despite their influence, it is important to note that the Khmer did not have political control in the whole country and they governed the areas they settled in through governors and vassals.
Thailand's Lanna Era
The northern region of Thailand was at one time occupied by the ancient Lanna Empire which spread to Phayao, Lamphun, Lampang, and Chiang Mai. The empire was tucked safely in a valley and Chiang Rai - Phayao and Chiang Mai - Lamphun were the main cities of the empire. Chiang Mai – Lamphum, also referred to as Haripunchai spread to Lampang, also referred to as Kelang Nakhon. Chiang Rai – Phayao in that era was known as Yonok.
The first leader of the Lanna Empire was King Mangrai who came to power in 1259. He expanded the empire from the Laos borders to Lamphum. Historical inscriptions suggest that King Mangrai seized the Haripunchai region and then built Chiang Mai as the capital of his kingdom. This construction was witnessed by Phra Ruang of Sukhothai and Phya Ngum Muang of Phayao who were close friends with King Mangrai. The kingdoms of these three kings were closely linked and appeared to be a consolidated state. The Lanna Empire flourished for more than 200 years and its literature and art were at their peak, especially in the 15th century during the tenure of King Tilokoraj. After his death, the kingdom went through a lot of internal conflicts and went to wars with Sukhothai’s successors, which led to the weakening of the empire.
Thailand's Sukhothai Era
Sukhothai means the ‘Dawn of Happiness’. This was the first truly independent kingdom in Thailand and it was established in 1238 by two Thai chiefs, Khun Pa Muang and Khun Bang Klang. In the 1300s, the Sukhothai kingdom ruled the Chao Phya River basin, on the western Bay of Bengal and the whole Peninsula. This was a short-lived kingdom but it has a lot of cultural significance in the country’s history. This era was the most prosperous period in the country.
The kingdom expanded its boundaries of influence after independence. It stretched its boundary from Lampang to Vientiane, in present day Laos and in the south to the Malay Peninsula. This era led to the country’s slow expansion in the whole Phraya River basin and it established Theravada Buddhism as the main religion in Thailand. During this time, Thailand had strong relationships with the neighbouring states and it adopted elements from different civilizations it came into contact with.
When Khun Pa Muang died in 1279, King Ramkhamhaeng ascended to the throne and under his leadership, Sukhothai was able to have a strong friendship with China. He came up with a writing system which became the cornerstone for writing and ultimately developed to the present day Thai alphabet. This period also brought about unique Thai styles of art such as literature, architecture, sculpture and painting, which survived after Sukhothai was assimilated by the Ayutthaya Kingdom, a young dynamic in the Chao Phraya River valley.
Thailand's Ayutthaya Era
The Ayutthaya kingdom was situated on a small island, surrounded by three rivers. Its location was very superior thus making it powerful very first both economically and politically. The name Ayutthaya was derived from Ayodhya which is an Indian holy city.
King Uthong was the first ruler of this kingdom and he made two main contributions to the history of Thailand. He established and promoted Theravada Buddhism as the Thailand’s official religion so as to distinguish his kingdom from the neighbouring Hindu Angkor Kingdom. He also compiled the Dharmaśāstra. This is a legal code founded in traditional Thai customs and Hindu sources. This code was used as a tool of law in the country until the 19th century.
Thailand's Thonburi EraThonburi kingdom was established by Phraya Taksin who was a Thai general. He was later crowned King Taksin Maharaj. The kingdom was located on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River opposite what is presently the City of Bangkok. He named himself king after he defeated the Burmese invaders who had been at war with the Ayutthaya kingdom. Thonburi was a small town but its location made it a suitable seaport. Chinese-Thai and Chinese traders engaged in maritime trade with the neighbouring countries and a number of European nations thus boosting the economy which had suffered a lot during the war with Burma, presently Myanmar.
Thailand's Rattanakosin Era
This era was under the Chakris who were sworn in on April 6, 1782, alongside the coronation of King Buddha Yot Fa Chulalok or Rama I. The king developed the governing house that has continued to the present. Under his tenure, Thailand covered parts of Burma, all regions of present-day Laos, Kedah province in Malaysia and Cambodia. He moved the capital city to Bangkok, revived the country’s economy and restored what remained of the Ayutthaya artistic heritage. During this era, laws were created to improve the rights of women and children. New road and waterways were opened, and the first printing press was established. Reforms were made in the administrative legal, and tradition realms and officials were allowed to sit on chairs during royal meetings.
It was in this era that Thailand established relations with the USA and European nations. Schools, railways, and roads were introduced and the first post office in the country built. A civil service system was also created and in 1892, the country under the tenure of Rama V, King Chulalongkom, revamped its administration to a cabinet government with 12 ministers.
In 1886, Siam lost some of its territories to France and on 23rd October the same year, the country was declared a sovereign kingdom by Rama V. This day has been marked as a national holiday and is celebrated annually.
In his Tenure, King Vajiravudh or Rama VI introduced westernization to the country, primary school education, and encouraged women to grow their hair to a certain length. Football and surnames were also introduced in the country during his rule.
King Prachadhipok or Rama VII changed the form of government in the country from an absolute monarchy to a democracy. In 1946, the country’s name was formally changed from Siam to Thailand. The name was defined in Thai as ‘Prathet Thai, the term ‘Prathet’ translates to ‘country’ and ‘Thai’ means ‘free’.
Thailand is now a Constitutional Monarchy with a multi-party national assembly and a judiciary that is independent. Its total population is 63,389,370 and its GDP per capita is $8,146. As of August 2016, a new constitution was voted in and it gives the military continued influence over the political life in the country.