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( PRATHET THAI )  'Land of The free'



   The Kingdom of Thailand, located in South east Asia on the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea, shares boundaries with Myanmar (Burma) on the west and north west, Laos on the east and northeast, Cambodia on the southeast, and Malaysia on the south. Known also as Siam (before 1939 and from 1945 to 1949), the country was named Thailand, meaning "land of the free," in 1939. Thailand, although rich in rubber and in mineral resources, was never colonized by Europeans and has existed as a unified monarchy since 1350.

   The capital, BANGKOK, an attractive blend of Western and Thai architecture, was established in 1782. The history of Thailand before settlement by the Thais remains in dispute. It is believed that Mons inhabited the region and that Thailand was controlled first by the Mon kingdom of Subarnabhumi, with a capital at U Thong. The Funan Empire dominated after the 3rd century; and the Mon kingdom of Dvaravati (c.550-1253), with the capital at Nakon Pathom, after c.675. Dvaravati became (11th century) a vice royalty under the KHMER EMPIRE. Ethnic Thai make up about 80% of the population; ethnic Chinese about 12%; and Malays, living mainly on the peninsula, about 4%.

    There are scattered MON communities in central Thailand, and KHMER and other "hill people" in the northeast and along the border with Burma. Thai is spoken by about 97% of the population. Malay, Chinese, Lao, and other languages are spoken by minorities, and English is used in government and commerce.

   Theravada Buddhism is professed by about 95%, and the Malays are predominantly Muslim. Even in the densely settled Chao Phraya delta population densities are generally lower than in other Asian rice-growing nations. Thailand is predominantly rural. Bangkok is the largest urban area, followed by CHIANG MAI in the north.

    Thai culture has its roots in Hinduism and Buddhism, which reached Thailand from India after the 3d century by way of the Three Pagodas Pass in the Bilauktaung Range west of the central region. Thailand's written literature dates from the 13th century, when the modern system of Thai writing was introduced. The golden age in Thai arts occurred during the 13th and 14th centuries and is reflected at its best in the many temples (wats) surviving from that period. The Thais, who cultivated wet rice and who were attracted by the agricultural potential of the watery Chao Phraya basin, began migrating into the region from south China in the 11th century and established the kingdoms of Sukhothai and Chiang Mai.

    Sukhothai (1238-1419) overpowered Dvaravati by 1238 and, maintaining friendly relations with Chiang Mai, gained control by absorbing the Khmers. In the 14th century the Thai kingdom of Ayutthaya (1350-1767) subdued Sukhothai and other small kingdoms and became a regional center of wealth and power. Portuguese envoys arrived in 1511--the first Europeans to visit Siam--but, unlike the rest of Southeast Asia, Thailand never became a European colony. Burmans destroyed the capital at Ayutthaya in 1767, and a new era, the Bangkok Period (1767-1932), began with the establishment of a new capital at Thon Buri, across the Chao Phraya from modern Bangkok. The present royal house is descended from General Chakkri, the second king of this period.

     In the 19th century King MONGKUT, or Rama IV (r. 1851-68), who ruled as an absolute monarch, began to modernize Thailand. His son CHULALONGKORN, or Rama V (r. 1868-1910), intensified the process by abolishing slavery and introducing railroads, telegraph services, and scientific education. This exposure to Western ideas culminated in a bloodless revolution by the Thai elite in 1932, who demanded replacement of the nation's absolute monarchy with a constitutional government limiting the powers of the king. The revolution also began the struggle between military and civilian groups for control of the government, a continuing feature of Thai political life today.

Copyright 1998 USMTA Inc.  All rights reserved. Revised: October 16, 2004.