The Thais migrate from southern China via northern Laos during the first millennium AD, and establish the first Thai kingdom in 1238 at Sukhothai, overthrowing the Khmer empire, but later fell into decline and become subject to the Ayutthaya kingdom in 1365.
The kingdom of Ayutthaya exists for four hundred years, from 1350 to 1767. It is high power in Southeast Asia. Thai kings are absolute monarchs, seen as being “the lord of the land” and “divine king”, a concept adopted from the Khmer tradition. The king stands at the apex of a highly stratified social and political hierarchy. Ayutthaya is friendly towards foreign traders, including the Chinese, Indians, Japanese and Persians, and later the British, Portuguese, French, Spanish and Dutch, permitting them to set up villages outside the city walls. But with its neighbors, Ayutthaya has to fight constant wars for territories – with Chiang Mai in the north, with the Vietnamese, the Cambodians, and the Laotians in the east. Its most active enemy is Burma in the west. Burma defeats Ayutthaya twice. The first time in 1569, after which King Naresuan drives the Burmese out and restores independence. In the second defeat in 1767, the city is ransacked and left in ruins. The Thai military commander, who later becomes King Taksin, in 1769 moves the capital to Thonburi, across the Chao Phraya River from the present capital, Bangkok. King Taksin later develops a mental disorder and in 1782 is deposed by his general, Chaophraya Chakree, who becomes King Rama I, the first king of the present Chakri dynasty. He decides to move to the village of Bang Makok on the island of Rattanakosin, which soon becomes the city of Bangkok.
The period during the first three reigns is a time of consolidation of the kingdom’s power, punctuated by periodic conflicts with Burma, Vietnam and the Lao states. The later period is one of engagement with the colonial powers of Britain and France, in which Siam manages to be the only Southeast Asian country not to be colonized by a European country. King Rama IV, or King Mongkut, comes to the throne in 1851, determines to save Siam from European colonial domination by forcing modernization on his reluctant subjects. In 1855 a mission leads by the Governor of Hong Kong, Sir John Bowring arrives in Bangkok with demands for immediate changes, backed by the threat of force. The King readily agrees to his desire for a new treaty, which restricts import duties to 3 %, abolishes royal trade monopolies, and grants extraterritoriality to British subjects. Other western powers soon demand and get similar concessions. The king hopes that by giving the economic concessions they required, the British would help save Siam from the French, who already occupied southern Vietnam and eastern Cambodia. King Rama V, or King Chulalongkorn, continues his father’s reform by turning an absolute monarchy based on relations of power into a modern, centralized nation-state. He abolishes slavery, builds railways and telegraph lines, ties the currency to the gold standard, and establishes an advanced taxation system. King Rama VI (Vajiravudh), being educated in England, carries on his father’s modernization program, by making primary education compulsory, and founding Chulalongkorn University. He promotes nationalism by establishing the Wild Tiger Corps, a paramilitary organization of Siamese citizens of good character willing to make sacrifices for the king and the country. In 1917 Siam declares war on Germany, mainly to gain favor with the British and the French. As a result, the U.S., France and Britain agree to Siam’s request to repeal the unfair treaties signed in the nineteenth century. His death brings his younger brother to the throne in 1925. On June 24, 1932, while the king is holidaying at the seaside, the Bangkok garrison revolts and seizes power, leads by a group of 49 officers known as “the Promoters.” Thus ends 150 years of absolute monarchy during the Rattanakosin era. The military comes to power in the bloodless coup d’état of 1932, which transforms the government of Thailand from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. King Prajadhipok initially accepts this change but later surrenders the throne to his ten-year-old nephew, King Rama VIII.
The history of Thailand from 1932 to 1973 is dominated by the military dictatorship, which is in power for much of the period. The new government carries out some critical reforms. The currency goes off the gold standard, allowing a trade to recover. Serious efforts are made to expand primary and secondary education. Elected local and provincial governments are introduced, and in 1937 democratic development is brought forward when direct elections are held for the National Assembly, although political parties are still not allowed. Thammasat University is founded, at the initiative of Preedee Phanomyong, one of the “Promoters”. After some conflicts among the Promoters, General Phibunsongkram (better known as Phibun) emerges as Prime Minister in 1938. His regime soon develops some fascist characteristics: arresting political opponents, a campaign against the Chinese businessmen, closing Chinese schools and newspapers, and building up the cult of the leader. He also changes the country’s name from Siam to Prathet Thai, or Thailand, meaning “land of the free”. During the Second World War, the allies the country with Japan but is ousted from the office towards the end of the war. In March 1946 Preedee becomes the first democratically elected Prime Minister, but only briefly before he is forced to resign amid suspicion that he had been involved in the sudden and mysterious death of the young King Rama VIII. The army seizes power and makes Phibun Prime Minister, starting another round of political suppression. The regime is much helped, however, by a postwar boom which gathered pace through the 1950s, fuelled by rice exports and U.S. aid. Thailand’s economy begun to diversify, while the population and urbanization increases. By 1955 Phibun is losing his leading position in the army to younger rivals led by General Sarit Thanarat and General Thanom Kittikachorn. The military stages a bloodless coup in 1957, ending Phibun’s career for good. Thanom becomes Prime Minister until 1958, then yields his place to Sarit, the real head 6 of the regime. Sarit holds almost absolute power until his death in 1963 when Thanom again takes the lead. The administrations of Sarit and Thanom are strongly supported by the U.S. Thailand formally becomes a U.S. ally by sending troops to Vietnam and Laos and allowing the U.S. to open airbases in the east of the country to conduct its bombing war against North Vietnam. The Vietnam War hastens the modernization and westernization of Thai society. The American presence and the exposure to western culture that came with it affect almost every aspect of Thai life. The population began to grow explosively as the standard of living rose, and a flood of people starts to move from the villages to the cities, and above all to Bangkok. Thailand had 30 million people in 1965, while by the end of the 20th century the population had doubled.
In the early 1970s university students help to bring some of the local protests out on to the national stage. By the late 1960s, however, more elements in Thai society become openly critical of the military government, increasingly incapable of dealing with the country’s problems and unwilling to restore democracy. It is not only the student activists but also the business community that begun to question the leadership of the government as well as its relationship with the United States. In the end, it is the students that play a decisive role in the fall of the Thanom-Prapas junta. In October 1973, thousands of students hold a protest at the Democracy Monument demanding democracy. Workers later join them, as well as people in business and other ordinary citizens, and the crowd swelling to several hundred thousand. On October 14, the police and the military try to break up the group by firing on students gathering at Thammasat University. With chaos reigning on the streets, King Bhumibol intervenes by ordering Thanom and Prapas to leave the country. The junta is fallen, at the cost of 1,577 lives.
The post-1973 years has seen a difficult and sometimes bloody transition from military to civilian rule. The political “revolution” in October 1973 lead to a new constitution and free elections. However, the polls in 1975 – 76 fail to produce a stable civilian government. The sharp increase in oil prices in 1974 lead to recession and inflation, weakening the government’s position. When Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia fell to communist forces in 1975, public opinion in Thailand is swung back to the right. The army and the right-wing parties fight back against the student radicals through paramilitary groups such as the Village Scouts and the Red Gaurs. Matters come to a head in October when Thanom returns to Thailand. Equally fierce counter-protests meet violent student protests. On October 6, 1976, the army unleashes the paramilitaries and creates the orgy of violence, in which hundreds of students are tortured and killed, to suspend the constitution and resume power. The new and ultra-conservative government carries out a sweeping purge of the universities, the media, and the civil service. Thousands of students, intellectuals and other leftists flee Bangkok and join the Communist Party’s insurgent forces in the north and north-east, operating from safe bases in Laos.
Much of the 1980s saw a process of democratization overseen by the King and Prem. The two preferred constitutional rule and acted to put an end to violent military interventions. The insurgency ends, and most of the ex-student guerillas return to Bangkok under an amnesty. The army returns to its barracks, and yet another constitution is promulgated, creating an appointed Senate to balance the popularly elected National Assembly. Prem holds office for eight years, surviving two more general elections in 1983 and 1986, and remains personally popular. In 1988 fresh elections bring General Chatichai Choonhavan to power. But Chatichai proves both incompetent and corrupt.
Another general election is held in 1992, and the military strongman General Suchinda accepts the invitation from a coalition of parties to become Prime Minister, confirming the widespread suspicion that the new government is going to be a military regime in disguise. Suchinda’s action brings hundreds of thousands of people out in the most massive demonstrations ever seen in Bangkok, leads by the former governor of Bangkok, Major-General Chamlong Srimuang. Suchinda brings military units personally loyal to him into the city and tries to suppress the demonstrations by force, leading to a massacre in the heart of the town in which hundreds die. The King intervenes: he summons Suchinda and Chamlong to a televised audience. The result of this is the resignation of Suchinda.
Since 1992, the governments have been democratically elected, and PMs include Chuan Leekpai (1992-1995 and 1998 – 2000), 10 Banharn Silpa-acha (1996), General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh (1996-1997), and Thaksin Shinawatra (since 2001). The Asian Financial Crisis in 1997 confronted Chavalit. After coming under intense criticism for his handling of the crisis, Chavilit resigns in November 1997, and Chuan returns to power. In January 2001 Thaksin has a sweeping victory at the polls. In power, Thaksin presides over the rapid recovery of the Thai economy. The dominance of Thaksin, whose rule was highly personalized and somewhat authoritarian (private company CEO-style), is seen by many commentators as an unhealthy development. Mainly due to his populist policies, Thaksin wins an even more significant majority at elections in February 2005, securing his second consecutive term. In January 2006, he sells off his family holding in Shin Corporation for the 73,000 million baht without paying any tax and is accused of being immoral and having a conflict of interest. Mass rallies are held outside Parliament House, and many call for his resignation. In February Thaksin responds by calling a snap election in April, which is boycotted by the opposition and is later nullified by the court. Continuing protests in Bangkok against Thaksin lead to a bloodless military coup on 19 September 2006 which ousted the Thaksin government. His Thai Rak Thai Party is disbanded, and he is forced to remain in exile abroad. A new government headed by General Surayud Chulanon, a retired army general and a Privy Council member, is appointed to oversee the drafting of a new constitution and organize a general election. In the 23 December 2007 election, no party gained an absolute majority. However, Thaksin still proves to be highly popular, particularly in the North and Northeast, because the People Power Party whose leader, Samak Sundaravej, openly support Thaksin’s policies managed to win the highest parliamentary seats and, as of January 2008, is given the first chance to form a government.
Thailand has had 20 constitutions and charters since 1932, including the latest and current 2017 Constitution. Throughout this time, the form of government has ranged from military dictatorship to electoral democracy. Thailand has had the 4th most coups in the world. “Uniformed or ex-military men have led Thailand for 55 of the 83 years” between 1932 and 2009. Since May 2014, Thailand has been ruled by a military junta, the National Council for Peace and Order. The politics of Thailand is conducted within the framework of a constitutional monarchy, whereby a hereditary monarch is head of state. The current King of Thailand is Vajiralongkorn (or Rama X) since October 2016. The constitution limits the powers of the king, and he is primarily a symbolic figurehead.