The History of Thailand

There is evidence that the area now known as Thailand was occupied by hunter-gatherers from over 40,000 years ago. These became farmers by the end of the Ice Age, keeping chickens, pigs and cattle. Bronze was being worked on by 2000BC which makes Thailand one of the earlier Bronze Age cultures. By 2000 years ago the people of that region had settled in small villages which traded and communicated with each other. It is believed that the ancestors of the Thais were living in South East China and North Vietnam at this time.

Theravada Buddhism is believed to have entered during the second or third century BC when missionaries were sent from India. Dvaravati was a Buddhist kingdom which flourished until the ninth century AD. This civilization maintained religious and cultural links with India and their art, government and religion were influenced by India. Subsequently, around the eleventh century AD, they relinquished power to invading Khmers from Cambodia. Thailand continued to be part of the Khmer empire, ruled by a Cambodian prince. The Khmer kings followed Mahayana Buddhism, but the creed of Theravada Buddhism rose and undermined them.

It is believed that the ancestors of the Thai people were squeezed out of southern China around the fifth century AD into north-east Laos. The spread of Theravada Buddhism via Dvaravati unified the Thais and linked them to the Mon civilization and gave them a sense of being part of the Buddhist community. They infiltrated Thailand until by the end of the twelfth century they formed the majority of the population in Thailand, then under Khmer control. The main administrative base at Lopburi was known as Syam, possibly from the Sanskrit word meaning swarthy.

During the thirteenth century Siam became independent from the Khmers and various small kingdoms were set up. During this time the Thais continued to establish their culture, religion (Theravada Buddhism) and government. A script for their language was developed. The Mongols continued to threaten Siam and attacks were resisted. By 1540, the kingdom of Ayutthaya covered most of the area of modern-day Thailand and the other kingdoms had decreased in significance. This kingdom had adopted the hierarchy and etiquette of the Khmer government at Angkor. The King was an object of awe, remote and inaccessible.

In the sixteenth century Burma besieged Ayutthaya with a huge army and established a vassal king. Naresuan defied the Burmese and re-established Thai control twenty years later. The Thais started trading with Europe. Ayutthaya flourished for most of the eighteenth century until 1766 when the Burmese attacked Ayutthaya for the last time, and Ayutthaya gave in the following year.

The Thais regrouped, and Ayutthaya having been laid waste, eventually re-established themselves at Bangkok. The Burmese continued to attempt to attack but were repelled. In 1827 Laos invaded but were resisted and Vientiane was laid to waste except for the Buddhist temples. Shortly after, the king had to go to war with Cambodia to save Buddhism. During this century Western colonialism was seen as a threat and defences were set up.

The King Rama IV, known as Mongkut, was concerned that Buddhism was not taken as seriously in Siam and set up a strict Buddhist sect. He established diplomatic contacts with the West and encouraged trading with the British, realising that the Thais would not be able to repel a British invasion. He maintained links with all the Western powers and avoided forming a close relationship with one power to avoid being annexed. Thus Siam was not affected by the colonialism which was expanding throughout the rest of South East Asia. Mongkut's son, Chulalongkorn, worked hard to modernize Thailand, but met with much resistance from the older ministers and by the end of his reign nepotism and corruption were still rife. Modernization continued under his successor, after an internal coup was resisted, with reforms such as monogamy and compulsory education being introduced.

Siam remained neutral during the First World War and after the war began to impose Thai laws and taxes on foreigners living in Thailand. The Great Depression in the 1930s affected Thailand. On 24 June 1932, a coup was staged and 150 years of absolute monarchy was ended. The King was given symbolic significance only and a constitutional government was set up. In 1939 Siam was renamed Thailand : it was argued that the name Siam had been imposed by external forces.

During the Second World War the Prime Minister of Thailand decided to reclaim territory from the French and invaded western Cambodia and part of Laos. However the following year, in 1941, the Japanese invaded Thailand at nine points. Initially the Thais resisted but had to back down and subsequently allied themselves with Japan. After the Japanese were defeated in 1944 by the West, Thailand was forced to restore the annexed areas of Cambodia and Laos.

There was much political unrest in the years following the Second World War and the Thais felt threatened by the spread of communism. During the Vietnam War during the 1960s, Laos and Cambodia supported the communists by allowing their troops to pass through southern Laos and north east Cambodia. The Thais began to conduct military operations in Laos, supported by the Americans. The increase of Americans on Thai soil led to the economy being boosted and tradition Thai values being questioned. During the 1970s there were attempts to establish democracy, amid riots and demonstrations. These days governments are elected and there is a King with no political power.


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