The Mekong River valley and Khorat Plateau areas of what today encompasses significant parts of Laos, Cambodia and Thailand were inhabited as far back as 10,000 years ago. Currently the most reliable sources for archaeological evidence are the Ban Chiang and Ban Prasat areas of North-Eastern Thailand, where rice was cultivated as early as 4000 BC (China by contrast was growing and consuming millet at the time). The Ban Chiang culture began bronze metallurgy before 3000 BC; the middle East's Bronze Age arrived around 2800, China's a thousand years later.
When trying to trace the origins of the current inhabitants of Thailand, one must consider that their predecessors belonged to a vast, nonunifed zone of Austro-Thai influence that involved periodic migrations along several different geographic lines. The early Thais spread all over South-East Asia, including the islands of Indonesia, and some later settled in south and south-west China, later to 're-migrate' to North Thailand to establish the first Thai kingdom in the 13th century. In the mid-13th century, the rise to power of the Mongols under Kublai Khan in Song dynasty China caused a more dramatic southward migration of Thai peoples. Wherever Thais met indigenous populations of Tibeto-Burmans and Mon-Khmers in the move south (into what is now Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia), they were somehow able to displace, assimilate or coopt them without force. The most probable explanation for this relatively smooth assimilation is that there were already Thai peoples in the area. Such a supposition finds considerable support in current research on the development of Austro-Thai language and culture.
With no written records or chronologies it is difficult to say with certainly what kind of cultures existed among the meuangs of Thailand before the middle of the first millennium AD. However, by the 6th century an important network of agricultural communities was thriving as far south as modern-day Pattani and Yala, and as far north and north-east as Lamphun and Muang Fa Daet (near Khon Kaen). Theravada Buddhism was flourishing and may have entered the region during India's Ashoka period, in the 3rd or 2nd centuries BC, when Indian missionaries were said to have been sent to a land called Suvannabhumi (Land of Gold). Suvannabhumi most likely corresponds to a remarkably fertile area stretching from southern Myanmar, across Central Thailand, to eastern Cambodia. Two different cities in Thailand's central river basin have long been called Suphanburi (City of Gold) and U Thong (Cradle of Gold).
This collection of city-states was given the Sanskrit name Dvaravati (literally 'place having gates'), the city of Krishna in the Indian epic poem Mahabharata. The French art historian George Coedes discovered the name on some coins that were excavated in the Nakhon Pathom area, which seems to have been the centre of Dvaravati culture. The Dvaravati period lasted until the 11 th or 12th century AD and produced many works of art, including Buddha images, stucco reliefs on temple walls and in caves, architecture, exquisite terracotta heads, votive tablets and various sculptures.
The concurrent Khmer conquests of the 7th to 11th centuries introduced Khmer cultural influence in the form of art, language and religion. Some of the Sanskrit terms in Mon-Thai vocabulary entered the language during the Khmer orLop Buri period between the 11th and 13th centuries. Monuments from this period located in Kanchanaburi, Lopburi and many other North-Eastern towns were constructed in the Khmer style and are comparable with architecture in Angkor.
Several Thai principalities in the Mekong River valley united in the 13th and 14th centuries, when Thai princes wrested the lower north from the Khmer - whose Angkor government was declining fast - to create Sukhothai (or 'Rising of Happiness'). They later took Hariphunchai from the Mon to form Lan Na Thai (literally 'million Thai rice fields').
In 1238 the Sukhothai kingdom declared its independence under King Si Intharathit and quickly expanded its sphere of influence, taking advantage not only of the declining Khmer power but the weakening Srivijaya domain in the south. Sukhothai is considered by the Thais to be the first true Thai kingdom. It was annexed by Ayuthaya in 1376, by which time a national identity of sorts had been forged.
Among other accomplishments, the third Sukhothai king, Ramkhamhaeng, sponsored a fledgling Thai writing system which became the basis for modern Thai; he also codified the Thai form of Theravada Buddhism, as borrowed from the Sinhalese. Under Ramkhanihaeng, the Sukhothai kingdom extended from Nakhon Si Thammarat in the south, to the upper Mekong River valley in Laos, and to Bago in Myanmar. For a short time (1448-1486) the Sukhothai capital was moved to Phitsanulok.
Lan Na Thai Periods:
Ramkhamhaeng also supported Chao Mangrai (also spelt 'Mengrai') of Chiang Mai, and Chao Khun Ngam Meuang of Phayao, two northern Thai jao nieuang, in the 1296 founding of Lan Na Thai, nowadays often known simply as 'Lanna'. Lanna extended across Northern Thailand to include the meuang of Wiang Chan along the middle reaches of the Mekong River. in the 14th century, Wiang Chan was taken from Lanna by Chao Fa Nguni of Luang Prabang, who made it part of his Lan Xang (Million Elephants) kingdom. Wiang Chan later flourished as an independent kingdom for a short time during the mid-16th century and eventually became the capital of Laos in its royal, French (where it got its more popular international spelling, 'Vientiane') and now socialist incarnations. After a period of dynastic decline, Lanna fell to the Burmese in 1558.
The Thai kings of Ayuthaya grew very powerful in the 14th and 15th centuries, taking over U Thong and Lopburi, former Khmer strongholds, and moving cast in their conquests until Angkor was defeated in 1431. Even though the Khmer were their adversaries in battle, the Ayuthaya kings incorporated large portions of Khmer court customs and language. One result of this acculturation was that the Thai monarch gained more absolute authority during the Ayuthaya period and assumed the title devaraja (god-king; thewaraat in Thai) as opposed to the dhammaraja title used in Sukhothai.
Ayuthaya kingdom sustained an unbroken monarchical succession through 34 reigns, from King U Thong (1350-1369) to King Ekathat (1758- 1767), over a of 400 years.
By the early 16th century Ayuthaya was receiving European visitors, and a Portuguese embassy was established in 1511. The Portuguese were followed by the Dutch in 1605, the English in 1612, the Danes in 1621 and the French in 1662. In the mid-16th century Ayuthaya and the independent kingdom of Lanna came under the control of the Bunnese, but the Thais regained rule of both by the end of the century. In 1690 Londoner Engelbert Campfer proclaimed "Among the Asian nations, the Kingdom of Siam is the greatest. The magnificence of the Ayuthaya Court is incomparable".
The Burinese invaded Ayuthaya again in 1765 and the capital fell after two years of fighting. This time the invaders destroyed everything sacred to the Thais, including manuscripts, temples and religious sculpture. The Burmese could not maintain a foothold in the kingdom, and Phaya Taksin, a half-Chinese, half-Thai general, made himself king in 1769, ruling from the new capital of Thonburi on the banks of the Chao Phraya River, opposite Bangkok. The Thais regained control of the country and further united the provinces to the north with central Siam.
Another general, Chao Phaya Chakri, came to power and was crowned in 1782 under the title Phutthayotfa Chulalok. He moved the royal capital across the river to Bangkok and ruled as the first king of the Chakri dynasty. In 1809 his son, Loet La, took the throne and reigned until 1824. Both monarchs assumed the task of restoring the culture, which had been severely damaged by the Burmese decades earlier.
The third Chakri king, Phra Nang Klao (1824-1851), went beyond reviving tradition and developed trade with China while increasing domestic agricultural production. He also established a new royal title system, posthumously conferring 'Rama I' and 'Rama II' upon his two predecessors and taking the title 'Rama III' for himself. During Nang Klao's reign, American missionary James Low brought the first printing press to Siam and produced the country's printed document in Thai script. Missionary Dan Bradley published the Thai newspaper, the monthly Bangkok Recorder, from 1844 to 1845.
Rama IV, commonly known as King Mongkut (Phra Chom Klao to the Thais), was a colourful and innovative Chakri king. He originally missed out on the throne in deference to his half-brother, Rama III, and lived as a Buddhist monk for 27 years. During his long monastic term he became adept in the sanskrit, pali, Latin and English languages, studied western sciences and adopted the strict discipline of local Mon monks. He kept an eye on the outside world and, when he took the throne in 1851, immediately courted diplomatic relations with a few european nations, while avoiding colonisation.
King Mongkut loosened Thai trade restrictions and many western powers signed trade agreements with the monarch. He also sponsored Siam's second printing press and instituted educational reforms, developing a school system along European lines. Although the king courted the west, he did so with caution and warned his subjects: 'Whatever they have invented or done which we should know of and do, we can imitate and learn from them, but do not wholeheartedly believe in them'. Mongkut was the first monarch to show Thai commoners his face in public; he died of malaria in 1868.
His son, King Chulalongkorn (known to the Thais as Chula Chom Klao or Rama V, 1868-1910), continued Mongkut's tradition of reform, especially in the legal and administrative realms. Educated by European tutors, Chula abolished prostration before the king as well as slavery and corvee (state labour). Siam further benefited from relations with European nations and the USA: railways were built, a civil service established and the legal code restructured. Though Siam still managed to avoid European colonisation, the king was compelled to concede territory to French Indochina (Laos in 1893 and Cambodia in 1907) and British Burma (three Malayan states in 1909) during his reign.
Chula's son, King Vajiravudh (Mongkut Klao or Rama VI, 1910-1925), was educated in Britain and during his rather short reign introduced compulsory education and other educational reforms. He further 'westernised' the nation by making the Thai calendar conform to western models. His reign was somewhat clouded by a top-down push for Thai nationalism that resulted in strong anti-Chinese sentiment.
In 1912 a group of Thai military officers unsuccessfully attempted to overthrow the monarchy, the first in a series of 20th century coup attempts that has continued to the present day. As a show of support for the Allies in WWI, Rama VI sent 1300 Thai troops to France in 1918.
While Vajiravudh's brother, King Prajadhipok (Pokklao or Rama VII, 1925-1935) ruled, a group of Thai students living in Paris became so enamoured of democratic ideology that they mounted a successful in 1932 against absolute monarchy in Siam. This bloodless revolution led to the development of a constitutional monarchy along British lines, with a mixed military-civilian group in power.
In 1935 the king abdicated without naming a successor and retired to Britain. The cabinet promoted his nephew, 10-year-old Ananda Mahidol, to the throne as Rama VIII, though Ananda didn't return to Thailand from school in Switzerland until 1945. Phibul (Phibun) Songkhram, a key military leader in the 1932 coup, maintained an effective position of power from 1938 until the end of WWII.
Under the influence of Phibul's government the country's name was officially changed from 'Siam' to 'Thailand' in 1939. 'Thai' is considered to have the connotation of 'free'.
Ananda Mahidol ascended the throne in 1945 but was shot dead in his bedroom under mysterious circumstances in 1946.Although there was apparently no physical evidence to suggest assassination, three of Ananda's attendants were arrested two years after his death and executed in 1954. His brother, Bhumibol Adulyadej, succeeded him as Rama IX.
World War II & Postwar periods:
During their invasion of South-East Asia, the Japanese outflanked Allied troops in Malay and Myanmar in 1941. The Phibul government complied with the Japanese in this action by allowing them into the Gulf of Thailand; consequently the Japanese troops occupied a portion of Thailand itself. Phibul declared war on the USA and Britain in 1942 but Seni Pramoj, the Thai ambassador in Washington, refused to deliver the declaration. Phibul resigned in 1944 under pressure from the Thai underground resistance (known as Thai Seri), and after V-J Day in 1945. Seni became premier.
In 1946 Seni and his brother Kukrit were unseated in a general election and democratic civilian group took power under Pridi Phanomyong, a law professor who had been instrumental in the 1932 revolution. Pridi's civilian government, which changed the country's name back to 'Siam', ruled for a short time, only to be overthrown by Phibul, now marshal, in 1947.
Using the death of King Rama VIII as a pretext, Phibul suspended the constitution and reinstated 'Thailand' as the country's official name in 1949. Phibul's government took an extreme anti-communist stance, refused to recognise the newly declared People's Republic of China and became a loyal supporter of French and US foreign policy in South-East Asia.
In 1951 power was wrested from Phibul by General Sarit Thanarat, who continued the tradition of military dictatorship. However, Phibul somehow retained the actual title of premier until 1957 when Sarit finally had him exiled. Elections that same year forced Sarit to resign and go abroad for 'medical treatment'; he returned in 1958 to launch another coup. This time he abolished the constitution, dissolved the parliament and banned all political parties, maintaining effective power until he died of cirrhosis in 1963. From 1964 to 1973 the Thai nation was ruled by army officers Thanom Kittikachorn and Praphat Charusathien. During this time Thailand allowed the USA to es- tablish several army bases within its borders in support of the US campaign in Vietnam.
Reacting to political repression, 10,000 Thai students publicly demanded a real constitution in June 1973. In October of the same year the military brutally suppressed a large demonstration at Thammasat University in Bangkok, but King Bhumibol and General Krit Sivara, who sympathised with the students, refused to support further bloodshed, forcing Thanom and Praphat to leave Thailand. Oxford-educated Kukrit Pramoj took charge of a 14 party coalition govermnent and steered a leftist agenda past a conservative parliament. Among Kukrit's lasting achievements were a national minimum wage, the repeal of anti-communist laws and the ejection of US military forces from Thailand.
Polarisation & Stabilisation:
Kukrit's elected constitutional government ruled until October 1976 when students demonstrated again, this time protesting against Thanom's return to Thailand as a monk. Thammasat University again became a battlefield as border patrol police and right-wing, paramilitary civilian groups (Nawaphon, the Red Guards and the Village Scouts), assaulted a group of 2000 students holding a sit-in. In the fracas, it is estimated that hundreds of students were killed and injured; and more than a thousand were arrested. Using public disorder as an excuse, the military stepped in and installed a new right-wing government with Thanin Kraivichien as premier.
In October 1977 the military replaced Thanin with the more moderate General Kriangsak Chomanand in an effort to conciliate antigovernment factions. When this failed, the military-backed position changed hands again in 1980, leaving Prem Tinsulanonda at the helm. By this time the PLAT had reached a peak force numbering around 10,000. A 1981 coup attempt by the 'Young Turks' failed when Prem fled Bangkok for Khorat in the company of the Royal Family. Prem served as prime minister through 1988 and is credited with the political and economic stabilisation of Thailand in the post-Vietnam War years . His administration is also considered responsible for a gradual democratisation of Thailand that culminated in the 1988 election of his successor, Chatichai Choonhavan.
On 23 February 1991, in a move that shocked Thailand observers around the world, the military overthrew the Chatichai administration in a bloodless coup and handed power to the newly formed National Peace-Keep ing Council (NPKC), headed by General Suchinda Kraprayoon. Although it was Thailand's 19th coup attempt and one of 10 successful coups since 1932, it was only the second coup to overthrow a democratically-elected civilian government. Chatichai lasted longer than any other elected prime minister in Thailand's history: two years and seven months. Charging Chatichai's civilian government with corruption and vote-buying, the NPKC abolished the 1978 constitution and dissolved the parliament. Rights of public assembly were curtailed but the press was closed down for only one day.
A general election in March 1992 ushered in a five party coalition government with Narong Wongwan, whose Samakkhitham (Justice Unity) Party received the most votes, as premier.
In May 1992, several huge demonstrations demanding Suchinda's resignation - led by charismatic Bangkok governor Chamlong Srimuang - rocked Bangkok and larger provincial capitals. Chamlong won the 1992 Magsaysay Award (a humanitarian service award issued by a foundation in the Philippines) for his role in galvanising the public to reject Suchinda. After street confrontations between the protesters and the military near Bangkok's Democracy Monument resulted in nearly 50 deaths and hundreds of injuries, Suchinda resigned, having been premier for less than six weeks. The military-supported government also agreed to institute a constitutional amendment requiring that the prime minister come from the ranks of elected MPs. Anand Panyarachun was reinstated as interim premier, winning praise from several circles for his fair and efficient administration.
In July 1997, following several months of warning signs that almost everyone in Thailand and in the international community chose to ignore, the Thai currency fell into a deflationary tailspin and the national economy crashed to a virtual halt. In September 1997 Thai parliament voted in a new constitution that guaranteed - at least on paper - more human and civil rights than had hitherto been codified in Thailand. As the first national charter to be prepared under civilian auspices, the 'people's constitution' fostered great hope in a people emotionally battered by the ongoing economic crisis.
Optimists, on the other hand, see Suchinda's hasty resignation as a sign that the military coup, as an instrument of change in Thailand, was only a minor detour on the country's road towards a more responsive and democratic national government. Corruption remains a problem, though the Berlin-based watchdog Transparency International recently dropped Thailand from its top 10 list in the annual Corruption Perception Index. Without question, Thailand's revised and amended constitution strengthens the nation's future claim to democratic status and political stability, even while the economy remains shaky.