History The exact origin of the “Tai” people, which the Thais are a branch of, is continually debated by professional historians; however, traditionally it has been taught the ancestors of the Thais moved from inland China, possibly coming from two kingdoms to the north of the modern province of Sichuan called the Kingdom of Lung and the Kingdom of Pa, and then settled and created a kingdom in Nan Chao, in the present-day Yunnan province of southern China. It had long been assumed the Tai people spread out throughout Southeast Asia after the Mongol rulers of China overran Nan Chao in the thirteenth century. However, currently it appears most specialists do not believe Nan Chao was a Tai kingdom, at least Tai languages were not dominant in the kingdom. Instead, a newer theory that the Tai people had been gradually spreading across regions of Southeast Asia centuries before the collapse of Nan Chao is emerging. Nevertheless, it is generally accepted the Thais and the Laotians, as well as the Shans and other “Tai” ethnic groups, share a common ancestry (Jumsai 2000: 8, 16; Pholsena 2004: 237; Syamananda 1993: 6-14; Wyatt 2003: 7-16). One of the first “Thai” kingdoms was the kingdom that became known as Lannathai, which means “land of one million rice fields.” The early rulers of Lannathai traced their origin to the Kingdom of Chiengsen (Chiang Saen). The kingdom first changed its capital to Chiang Rai and then later to the city it is most identified with, Chiang Mai. The Lannathai Kingdom in Chiang Mai was founded by King Mangrai who spent most of his time fighting off the Mongol led forces of China. Although Lannathai has been considered a “Thai” kingdom, it would appear in reality it was a kingdom filled, at least at first, with a highly ethnically diverse population that included Mons, Lawas, different types of Tai peoples, as well as leftover Khmers from the Khmer Empire of Angkor that had ruled the region previously (Jumsai 2000: 31; Wyatt 2003: 33-9). At around the same time, another “Thai” kingdom was coming into existence to the south of Lannathai. Sukhothai had been an outpost of the Khmer Empire of Angkor; however, as the power of Angkor was in decline, Tai people living in the area took over the city and it became a “Thai” kingdom. One of the most famous kings in Thai history, King Ramkhamheang, came to power in the then
small Kingdom of Sukhothai around 1279. Under the leadership of King Ramkhamhaeng, forces from Sukhothai joined with those from Lannathai to repeal the attempts of invasion by the Mongol-led Chinese forces. It has been reported that Ramkhamhaeng sent four embassies to meet with Kublai Khan, the powerful emperor of China, in 1281, 1291, 1295, and 1297, and even personally visited China twice, in 1294 and 1300. King Ramkhamhaeng ruled until 1317 (other sources claim he died in 1298) and after his death the Kingdom of Sukhothai began a slow decline. The Kingdom of Sukhotai was eventually incorporated into the growing power of the Thai Kingdom of Ayutthaya in the early fifteenth century (Jumsai 2000: 81-3; Jumsai 2001: 26; Syamananda 1993: 20-33; Wyatt 2003: 39-49). It is often stated the Kingdom of Ayutthaya (Ayudhya) was founded in 1350 by King Ramathibodi I in 1350 in the location of a Khmer outpost. During the time of Angkor rule, Ayutthaya was located in the Lopburi region and it seems likely Ramathibodi, also known by his given name of U Thong, did not start a new kingdom, but rather took over as ruler of an existing center of population that gained independence and became more “Thai” from the decline of the power of the Angkor Empire. By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, international trade had made Ayutthaya one of the strongest kingdoms of Southeast Asia (Jumsai 2001: 28; Syamananda 1993: 32, Wyatt 2003: 50-85). By the middle of the Ayutthaya period, the main competitor for power in central mainland Southeast Asia shifted westward and conflicts between Ayutthaya and the Burmese became a long-lasting part of the history of the region. In 1548 and 1549, Burmese troops led by King Tabinshwehti, stormed into Ayutthaya, but were eventually forced to retreat. However, Burmese forces regrouped and sacked all of the major Thai capitals between 1558 and 1569. Within a few decades, Ayutthaya regrouped and under the military leadership of Naresuan regained its position of prominence. Ayutthaya controlled a cosmopolitan kingdom that created amazing religious monuments and a highly effective economic system. However the kingdom’s main weakness was the lack of smooth transitions of political power and the frequent political splitting of the kingdom during battles for succession. Burma’s invasion of 1760 was on the verge of success when the troops retreated due to the injury and eventual death of King Alaunghpaya. However, the Burmese were soon back and devastated the city and killed off all the royal family of Ayutthaya in 1767 (Wyatt 2003: 52-121). An argument could be made that the history of Thailand, as opposed to the history of a multitude of Thai states, can be traced to the aftermath of the sacking of Ayutthaya. The Manchu dynasty’s invasion of northern Burma in 1769 resulted in the Burmese presence in and control over Ayutthaya’s former territory diminishing as Burmese energies went from conquest to successfully defending its own territory. This left a power vacuum that was taken up by the former Sino-Thai governor of Tak province, named Sin, who became known as Taksin. Taksin’s military forces began taking control of the area of present-day Thailand, which included the areas previous controlled by the Lannathai Kingdom. Instead of rebuilding Ayutthaya, Taksin decided to install his capital
in Thonburi. However, it has been reported that Taksin soon became an intolerable despot and went insane. Although it appears there is independent confirmation of this behavior, this fact also was important in establishing the founder of the current royal family as national savior as opposed to being a usurper (Myint-U 2006: 104; Syamananda 1993: 93-9; Wyatt 2003: 122-8; Young 1900: 2). The Chakri dynasty began in 1782 when the former Chaophraya Chakri accepted the invitation to take over the throne after the imprisonment and execution of Taksin. While ruling he took on the name of King Ramithibodi (Ramathibodi), and he was given the post-humous title of Phra Phuttahayofa Chulalok (Pra Buddha Yodfachulaloke), but he is most often referred to as King Rama I. Under King Rama I, the capital was moved to Bangkok and this began the building of the modern country of Thailand (Syamananda 1993; Wyatt 2003: 128-44; Young 1900: 3-4). The country continued to grow through the reigns of Rama II and III. Perhaps the most important aspect of the reign of Phra Phutthaloetla Naphalai (Rama II) was the smoothness of the transition of power, unlike the conflicts that invariably seemed to happen during the Ayutthaya period. Rama II is remembered as one of the great Thai poets and patrons of the arts; additionally, during his reign, the “nation” continued to take form and a renewal of international trade brought increased wealth to the nation. There was considerable controversy over the succession of Prince Chetsadabodin, who ruled as Phrao Nangklao but is mostly known as Rama III. During his reign, Thailand fought a war with Laos in which many Laotian prisoners were brought to populate the Khorat plateau. Also in this era, much like in the current time, conflicts between the government of Bangkok and the Muslim populations in the south were frequent and violent (Evans 2002; Wyatt 2003: 144-65). King Mongkut, Rama IV, is one of the most revered figures in history among the Thais. King Mongkut was 47 upon taking the throne, after having had a distinguished 27-year career as a Buddhist monk and scholar. During his reign, Thailand (Siam) began to experience pressures from the colonial powers, the British to the west and south, and the French to the east. The country began opening up to trade with the West to a greater extent and the beginning of a more decentralized and modern form of government began to take shape. As trade with the West increased, King Mongkut took a long-term view and instead of making radical changes during this era of globalization, he chose to take a gradual approach to reforms (Wyatt 2003: 166-74). At the same time, trade with China greatly decreased as the political influence of the Manchu dynasty was in decline and, therefore, King Mongkut stopped the tradition of sending tribute to the emperors of China (Stuart-Fox 2003: 119). King Mongkut was succeeded by his son, normally referred to as King Chulalongkorn (Rama V), another of the most beloved figures in Thai history. During his reign, pressures for concessions from the colonial powers increased. King Chulalongkorn’s skill at diplomacy is often credited with allowing the kingdom to remain the only major nation of Southeast Asia that was not colonized by a European power. In 1897, King Chulalongkorn visited Europe and,
while impressed by many of the aspects of modernization he saw, he also realized the European way of life had not eliminated poverty and hardships for all citizens and so decided to continue on a program of modernization for his country, but not to attempt to turn his country into a replica of a European model. He felt the country should selectively choose what to use from the West and what not to use. King Chulalongkorn placed high value on education reform, ended the practice of slavery in the country, and was known for his hard work and being personally involved in many aspects of government. He reigned for 42 years, in which time the country met many challenges and retained its independence (Wyatt 2003: 175-209). King Vajiravudh, Rama VI, came to the throne in 1910 and his reign has been considered somewhat controversial. While he supported many social changes, for example promoting sports and increasing social standing for women, he did not support major political changes. He appeared to be somewhat flamboyant, very interested in the arts, had little interest in female companionship, married late in life, had only a single child, a daughter born two days prior to his death, ran up large expenditure for royal projects, and may be best remembered for starting the Wild Tiger Corps, a militaristic version of the Boy Scouts (Wyatt 2003: 210-21). During the reign of King Vajiravudh, Chinese immigration greatly increased and the dominant position of ethnic Chinese merchants in the economy was reinforced (Montesano 2005: 185). King Prajadhipok, Rama VII, came to power upon the death of King Vajiravudh in 1925. At first, he had a major problem to handle in attempting to get the state’s budget under control as royal expenditures had been allowed to balloon under the previous monarch. He also believed the country would eventually have to adopt a representative political system and he thought this should be a gradual process. However, the Great Depression hit the country in the early 1930s, creating economic and political turmoil. In 1932, a new tradition was started in Thailand, and a group, led by Pridi Phanomyong and Luang Phibunsongkhram, called the “Promoters,” staged a coup in the name of democracy and the rule of the absolute monarchy in the country was ended. King Prajadhipok abdicated the throne in 1935 and was replaced by the then ten-year-old Prince Mahidol (Wyatt 2003: 222-38). The end of the absolute monarchy did not immediately bring democracy to Thailand. For the next few decades, the government of the country was heavily influenced by political battles between two men, the left-leaning Pridi Phanomyong, mostly referred to as Pridi, and the more conservative Luang Phibunsongkhram, usually referred to as Phibun. But through it all, the military was a major actor in Thai politics. In 1935, a government came into existence with Phraya Phahon as prime minister, Pridi as the minister of foreign affairs and Phibun as minister of defense. In 1938, Phibun became prime minister and, in a marriage of convenience, the country officially sided with Japan in World War II, and the military control of the government tightened (Wyatt 2003: 234-50). By 1944, it became obvious the tide of the war was turning and having a head of the country associated with the losing side was not deemed favorable, so
Phibun’s government fell. A new government with Khuang Aphaiwong as prime minister and Pridi as regent for King Mahidol was formed. Despite the change in prime minister and his own position, Pridi held the real power for this next period of Thai political life and worked to align the country with the United States, partially to avoid the initial demands of the British government, which apparently wanted to reestablish and maybe expand its colonial holdings in Southeast Asia. However, by 1948, another shift in priority happened, as the cold war began heating up, the left-leaning government of Pridi fell out of favor and Phibun’s association with the Japanese during the war was forgiven. Phibun again became the head of the government in 1948 and remained there until 1957 (Wyatt 2003: 250-65). In 1946, King Ananda Mahidol, Rama VIII, was found shot dead under very mysterious circumstances and his younger brother, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, came to the throne, where he has now reigned for over 60 years. While the royal family has always been popular with the masses, the incredible popularity of King Bhumibol Adulyadej has grown over time and has been assisted and promoted by various governments, especially the government of Sarit Thanarat that came to power through a coup in 1957. The Thai government aligned itself with the United States during the wars in Southeast Asia against the communist forces. During this time, the military continued to hold onto control. After the death of Sarit Thanarat in 1963, a military government led by General Thanom Kittikachorn ruled for ten years until 1973. Student-led demonstrations starting at Thammasat University initially led to a violent crackdown on protesters and the removal of many civil liberties of the people. After the crackdown, many of the student leaders of the protesters joined the communist movement and fled to the northeast, but in general the Thai population supported the crackdown. International and internal pressures eventually led to the temporary end to military rule, which led to a time of chaotic democracy with a revolving door of leaders, and which was followed by further coups and military rule (Ungpakorn 2007: 83-4; Wyatt 2003: 266-304). In 1991, General Suchinda Kraprayoon staged yet another coup bringing down the elected government of Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhawan, claiming it was to end the corruption of the government, a justification reused in 2006 to bring down the elected government of Prime Minister Thaksin. This action led to large-scale street protests that were violently suppressed by the military. King Bhumibol intervened and the violence quickly ended; however, military rule was discredited, temporarily, and it appeared democracy in Thailand was here to stay with the election of Chuan Leekpai in 1992 (Chanthanom 1998: 67-8). In 2001, business tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra, who amassed his fortune through a government-granted monopoly in the mobile phone section of the telecom industry, and his Thai Rak Thai party came into power, and this political movement, despite name changes, coups, and the judiciary attempts to break the movement apart, has remained popular with the electorate. After overwhelmingly winning reelection, Thaksin’s government was brought down by a military
coup in 2006. On the other side of the conflict are those who oppose Thaksin and use the same justification for the use of non-democratic methods to seize control of the government as the leaders of other military coups and supporters of the absolute monarchy have used for over a hundred years, that is to claim the Thai people (at least those living in rural areas) are not ready for democracy. Although officially barred from politics, it is an open secret that Thaksin was the real power behind the elected governments that sprang up after the military relinquished power (Hengkietisak 2008; McCargo 2008; Phongpaichit and Baker 2008: Ungpakorn 2007). Outside the world of royalty and politics, life in Thailand has been a combination of continuity and change. In 1900, Young (5) reported on the dominance of ethnic Chinese in the field of business and commerce, and this has continued throughout the next hundred plus years (Montesano 2005). Young (1900: 21) also noticed the abundant presence of what today are known as “soi dogs” in the city of Bangkok. However, Young’s (1900: 24) statement: “In the absence of drunken men and women and the scarcity of women of ill-fame, the streets of Bangkok might well serve as a model for some of the wealthier and more handsome towns of Europe,” would appear to reflect an era before some of Bangkok’s current nightlife venues came into existence. Yet, the observation that “Thais believe that Thai Buddhism is a part of their way of life and a part of being Thai” (Chanthanom 1998: 178) could have been as easily made one or two hundred years in the past.