Thailand is an ancient kingdom that in all its years of being a unified nation never been colonized by Western powers — the only country in Southeast Asia with that distinction. The Thai people are overwhelmingly Theravada Buddhist (95%), almost 100% Thai speaking (though many also speak their own group’s local language) and, by all public accounts, quite fond of the king. (The Thai king’s official title is, “Head of State, the Head of the Armed Forces, an Upholder of the Buddhist religion, and the Defender of all Faiths.” That sounds like a lot of work.)

Early this millennium the land we now know as Thailand was composed of number of ethnic kingdoms, such as the Tai, Mon, Khmer and Malay. The nation of Siam rose in the 13th century and became dominant in the region, encompassing land in places we now know as Malaysia, Cambodia and Laos. For centuries, successive kings of Siam avoided Western colonization by positioning Siam as a “buffer state,” playing off the interests of the British and French regional empires. Thailand did lose a lot of land in the 19th century, such as a large stretch east of the Mekong to France and the Malay Peninsula to Britain, but despite constant European pressure, Thai kings continued to rule. These kings also avoided giving their people a direct say in their government, at least until 1932 when a bloodless coup forced King Prajadhipok to allow the first constitution.

Siam officially became Thailand in 1939. During World War II the Japanese Empire invaded Thailand and briefly fought with Thai troops before the Thai government ordered an armistice, allowing Japanese troops free passage. At the same time, Thailand maintained connections with the Allies, and even supported an anti-Japanese resistance movement called the Seri Thai. After the war Thailand emerged as an ally of the United States. It then changed its name back to Siam from 1945 to 1949, then changed its mind again and went back to calling itself Thailand.

For decades after the war the Thai military essentially ran the nation, with leadership changing hands through a succession of military coups. Democracy won out in the 1980s, enabling Thailand to rapidly industrialize, and rapidly build beach resorts for European
tourists along its gorgeous coast. Thailand faced rough economic times in 1997 when the economy stopped booming, causing the value of the Thai currency to collapse and prompting an Asia-wide financial crisis. Thailand has since gotten back on its feet financially (more about Thai feet below) and has continued to grow, though a recent flare-up of political unrest now threatens the nation.

In 2006, the Royal Thai Army, backed by the mainly upper-class and middle-class, monarchy-supporting, “yellow shirt” People’s Alliance for Democracy, staged a coup and overthrew elected Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, canceling upcoming elections, dissolving the Parliament and banning protests and political activities. They also accused Thaksin of corruption and even charged him with insulting the king. In 2007 the military allowed elections but outlawed Thaksin’s political party and froze his over billion dollars in assets. Thaksin’s mainly rural “red shirt” supporters continued to back him. He returned from exile when his political allies won the 2007 elections, hoping to regain power. In 2008 though, Thai courts effectively disbanded the Thaksin-supported government, finding that
prime minister Samak, according to the Wikipedia page about the 2008-2010 political unrest, “had hosted and received payment for hosting two cooking TV shows, ‘Tasting and Grumbling’ and ‘All Set at 6 AM,’ for a few months after he had become Prime Minister…. Section 267 of the 2007 Constitution of Thailand forbids members of the Cabinet from being employees of any person; this was to prevent conflicts of interest.” This led to more clashes, and eventually yellow shirt supporters armed with knives, iron bars and even golf clubs, overran the Government House and Bangkok’sinternational airport shutting down the airport for over a week. (Don’t worry. They cleaned up when they left.) By the end of December 2008, the yellow shirt-supported Abhisit Vejjajiva, was prime minister.

Since the end of 2008 there has been increasing violence between yellow-shirts and red-shirts. As of this writing (April 2011) the political crisis continues. Abhisit is still prime minister, but Thaksin is still a powerful force in Thai politics. Through it all, the aging, revered king has primarily stayed out of the fray. Have Thai politic rivalries spiraled so far out of control that even the king can’t restore peace? Or, could the king’s word finally bring the yellow shirts and red shirts together?

More information:
Wikipedia on Thailand | The early Thai kindgoms explained: Sukothai, Ayutthaya, Thonburi…. | “It’s good to be the king:” King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the ninth king of the House of Chakri, has reigned since 1946 | More about the anti-Japanese Seri Thai/Free Thailand Movement of the ’40s | More about the Asian financial crisis of 1997-’98, which
essentially started with the fall of the Thai baht | The 2004 Boxing Day tsunami devastated much of Thailand’s coastline | More about the coup of 2006: a detailed account on Wikipedia and a more concise summary on | The controversial Thaksin Shinawatra and his opponents, the People’s Alliance for Democracy | “Yellow shirts” vs. “red shirts” explained: If you’re not Thai, wear whatever color shirt you want | The joys of Thai boxing (Muay Thai) | Enjoy this page about Thai cultural customs (Mai Pen Rai, which
means “never mind”/”it’s nothing,” typifies “Thailand’s unofficial national philosophy” which is, essentially, “Don’t sweat the small stuff.”) | The Thai national greeting is “the wai”

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