Thailand occupies the western half of the Indochinese peninsula and the northern two-thirds of the Malay Peninsula in southeast Asia. Its neighbors are Burma (Myanmar) on the north and west, Laos on the north and northeast, Cambodia on the east, and Malaysia on the south. Thailand is about the size of France.
The Thais first began settling their present homeland in the 6th century, and by the end of the 13th century ruled most of the western portion. During the next 400 years, they fought sporadically with the Cambodians to the east and the Burmese to the west. Formerly called Siam, Thailand has never experienced foreign colonization. The British gained a colonial foothold in the region in 1824, but by 1896 an Anglo-French accord guaranteed the independence of Thailand. A coup in 1932 demoted the monarchy to titular status and established representative government with universal suffrage.
At the outbreak of World War II, Japanese forces attacked Thailand. After five hours of token resistance Thailand yielded to Japan on Dec. 8, 1941, subsequently becoming a staging area for the Japanese campaign against Malaya. Following the demise of a pro-Japanese puppet government in July 1944, Thailand repudiated the declaration of war it had been forced to make in 1942 against Britain and the U.S.
By the late 1960s the nation's problems largely stemmed from conflicts brewing in neighboring Cambodia and Vietnam. Although Thailand had received $2 billion in U.S. economic and military aid since 1950 and had sent troops (paid by the U.S.) to Vietnam while permitting U.S. bomber bases on its territory, the collapse of South Vietnam and Cambodia in spring 1975 brought rapid changes in the country's diplomatic posture. At the Thai government's insistence, the U.S. agreed to withdraw all 23,000 U.S. military personnel remaining in Thailand by March 1976.
A Military Coup and Government Failure
Three years of civilian government ended with a military coup on Oct. 6, 1976. Political parties, banned after the coup, gained limited freedom in 1980. The same year, the national assembly elected Gen. Prem Tinsulanonda as prime minister. Prem continued as prime minister following the 1983 and 1986 elections.
Fleeing from Laos, Vietnam, and the murderous regime of Cambodia's Pol Pot, refugees flooded into Thailand in 1978 and 1979. Despite efforts by the United States and other Western countries to resettle them, a total of 130,000 Laotians and Vietnamese were living in camps along the Cambodian border in mid-1980.
On April 3, 1981, a military coup against the Prem government failed. Another coup attempt on Sept. 9, 1985, was crushed by loyal troops after ten hours of fighting in Bangkok. In Feb. 1991, yet another coup yielded another junta, which declared a state of emergency and abolished the constitution. A scandal over a land-reform program caused the fall of the government in May 1995. A succession of governments followed.
Economic Collapse and Subsequent Growth
Following several years of unprecedented economic growth, Thailand's economy, once one of the strongest in the region, collapsed under the weight of foreign debt in 1997. The Thai economy's downfall set off a chain reaction in the region, sparking the Asian currency crisis. The Thai government quickly accepted restructuring guidelines as a condition of the International Monetary Fund's $17 billion bailout. Thailand's economy, while far from completely recovered, continued to improve over the next several years.
Thaksin Shinawatra, head of the Thai Rak Thai Party, became prime minister in Jan. 2001. The hugely popular Thaksin, a billionaire telecommunications mogul, was indicted in Dec. 2000 on corruption charges but acquitted in Aug. 2001.
The Violent Drug Trade and Insurgency; A Tsunami Devastates
In Feb. 2003, Thaksin announced plans to eliminate the drug trade from Thailand within three months. When the operation concluded at the end of April, nearly 2,300 people had been killed. Government officials claimed responsibility for about 35 of the casualties, blaming drug dealers and gang members for the other deaths. Human rights activists, however, suspected police forces had been overly aggressive in their campaign.
Violence has plagued Thailand's Muslim-dominated southern provinces since the beginning of 2004, with armed insurgents attacking police stations, security stations, and military depots. Nearly 800 people have been killed in the attacks, which officials attribute to Islamic militants. The violence intensified in July 2005, prompting Thaksin to declare a state of emergency in the south. Pattani Province was rocked by attacks in Feb. 2007, when some 30 coordinated bombs exploded at bars, hotels, and electricity transmitters. While the insurgents have been vague in explaining their motivation for such attacks, the most recent bombings suggest they are targeting Buddhists as well as other Muslims.
On Dec. 26, 2004, a tremendously powerful tsunami ravaged 12 Asian countries. Thailand reported about 5,300 casualties.
Fallout from a Corrupt Government
Thaksin made history in the Feb. 2005 elections, becoming the first prime minister to serve two consecutive terms. His Thai Rak Thai Party won in a landslide. He was criticized during his first term for alleged corruption, for failing to control the insurgency in the south, and for an ineffective response to Thailand's avian flu outbreak, but his deft handling of the tsunami crisis increased his popularity in the days leading up to the election. A year later, however, Thaksin faced intense criticism when he sold his family's share of a communications company for nearly $2 billion without paying taxes. About 60,000 demonstrators gathered in Bangkok and called for his resignation. In addition, two of his cabinet members resigned in protest. Facing mounting criticism over the sale, Thaksin dissolved parliament in late February and called for early elections. He announced his resignation in April, just days after his Thai Rak Thai Party won 57% of the vote in national elections. After leaving office for seven weeks, Thaksin again returned to the role of prime minister.
In September 2006, the military, led by Gen. Sondhi Boonyaratkalin, staged a bloodless coup and declared martial law while Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was at the meeting of the UN General Assembly in New York. In October, Surayud Chulanont, a respected retired general, was sworn in as prime minister. The military council that installed Chulanont announced that a new general election will be held in late 2007, after a new constitution had been written.
In May 2007, a constitutional court found the political party of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Thai Rak Thai, guilty of election fraud and banned it from participating in government for five years.
A New Constitution and the End of Military Rule
In the country's first referendum, held in August 2007, Thailand voted in favor of a new constitution, which set the stage for parliamentary elections and a return to democracy after a year of military rule. In December's parliamentary elections, the People Power Party, which supports former prime minister Thaksin, won 233 out of 480 seats in parliamentary elections, a clear rebuke to military rule. Thaksin, who had been in self-imposed exile in London, said he would return to Thailand but not enter politics. Samak Sundaravej, of the People Power Party, was elected prime minister by Parliament in January 2008, thus completing the transition back to democracy. Samak, a controversial and contentious figure, called himself a "proxy" for Thaksin and said he would work to tackle poverty in rural Thailand. In the 1970s and 1990s, Samak supported violent crackdowns on students and pro-democracy campaigners.
Thaksin returned to Thailand in February 2008 after 17 months in exile. He said he was prepared to face corruption charges related to property he acquired from a state agency during his tenure as prime minister. In July, his wife, Pojaman Shinawatra, was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to three years in jail. Thaksin failed to appear for a court appearance in August and fled with his wife to London. He left behind about $2 billion in assets that was frozen by the military when it assumed power in 2006. He said he would not receive a fair trial in Thailand.
In July, Unesco, the cultural arm of the United Nations, designated the Preah Vihear temple, which sits on the Cambodian side of the Cambodian-Thai border, as a UN World Heritage Site. The move stirred nationalist emotions on both sides and fueled the tension between the countries. Both countries moved troops to disputed land near the temple. Squirmishing broke out between Cambodian and Thai troops in October 2008, and two Cambodian soldiers were killed.
The People's Alliance for Democracy and Protesting Status Quo
In August 2008, thousands of protesters, called People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), staged a sit-in outside the government buildings in Bangkok, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, who they call a proxy for Thaksin. Demonstrators were seeking to change the governing and electoral process that has empowered the rural majority, who PAD members say are “ill educated,” at the expense of the elite. The PAD has recommended introducing an appointed, rather than elected, legislature. About a week into the sit-in, pro-government protesters launched a counter-demonstration, which turned violent, prompting the government to declare a state of emergency. The military and police did not enforce the state of emergency, however. In a press conference, army commander Gen. Anupong Paochinda declared neutrality in the conflict. "We are not taking sides," he said. "If the nation is the people, we are the army of the people."
Samak was forced to resign in September when Thailand's Constitutional Court ruled that he violated the constitution, which prohibits working in the private sector while in office, by being paid to appear on the cooking show "Tasting and Complaining." Somchai Wongsawat, the first deputy prime minister, became acting prime minister. Parliament elected him prime minister on September 17, 298 to 163.
The unrest took a dramatic turn on October 7, when two people were killed and more than 400 wounded in fighting between security forces and anti-government protesters. Demonstrators, tyring to prevent the inauguration of Somchai, barricaded lawmakers inside the Parliament building and the army was deployed. PAD protesters were buoyed by an October ruling by Thailand's anticorruption court that found Thaksin guilty of corruption over a land deal. The court sentenced him to two years in prison. On November 25, the protesters shut down Bangkok's Suvarnaabhumi Intnerantional Airport, creating a national crisis and stranding tourists. The next day, Thailand's army chief, General Anupong Paochinda, urged Prime Minister Somchai to resign and call new elections. Somchai refused to heed Anupong's advice and then declared a state of emergency and authorized the police and military to evict the protesters.
Thailand's Constitutional Court disbanded the governing People Power Party on Dec. 2, ruling that it engaged in fraud during the 2007 elections. The decision forced Somchai from power and banned party members from politics for five years. Supporters of Thaksin maintained their parliamentary majority and said they will attempt to continue governing by forming a new party. The ruling prompted protesters to end their blockade of Suvarnaabhumi International Airport. First deputy prime minister, Chaovarat Chanweerakul, became caretaker prime minister. Days later, on Dec. 15, Parliament elected Abhisit Vejjajiva, the head of the Democrat Party, as prime minister. Abhisit drew most of his support from the educated middle class of Thailand.
Anti-Government Protests Continue and Turn Deadly
By April of 2009, mass political unrest had returned to Thailand. Protesters loyal to former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, called red shirts, interrupted a meeting of Asian leaders that was being held at a Thai resort. Prime minister Abhisit Vejjajiva quickly cancelled the meeting and declared a state of emergency. He then ordered the Thai army to break up the protest in the capital of Bangkok. On April 14th, the protestors surrendered and peace was restored to the streets, but Thaksin and his supporters had proven that they remain a threat to Thailand's political stability.
Pro- and anti-Thaksin demonstrations continued throughout 2009, peaking in December when some 20,000 red shirts gathered in Bangkok to demand new elections. Then, in March 2010, about 100,000 red shirts assembled in Bangkok and demanded that Prime Minister Abhisit dissolve Parliament and call new elections. Abhisit refused, but did agree to meet with opposition leaders. At the meeting in late March, he agreed to call new elections but did not set a timetable. Abhisit declared a state of emergency in early April after protesters broke into the Parliament building, prompting government officials to flee the structure by helicopter. The protests continued into May, with the red shirts taking over central Bangkok and essentially crippling the busy metropolis.
In May, Abhisit offered to hold early elections—one of the key demands of the red shirts—if the protesters called off their demonstrations, but they rejected the gesture. Abhisit withdrew his offer and ordered troops to blockade the protest area. What started as a peaceful protest disintegrated into violence, and the military fired upon the protesters, hitting Khattiya Sawatdiphol, a general who sided with the red shirts. He later died of his injuries. His death sparked further violence, and the protesters retaliated with grenade attacks. The red shirts then offered to negotiate with government, but were rebuffed and engaged in large-scale rioting, looting, and the firebombing of several buildings, including Thailand's stock exchange and largest department store. The government cracked down on the movement, and on May 19, the rioters dispersed and protest leaders surrendered and will face terrorism charges. In the 68 days of the protests, 68 people died. The red shirts gained little from their protracted demonstration. If anything, it deepened the division between pro- and anti-government supporters.
Abhisit introduced a five-point plan in June aimed at reconciliation. The plan, though vague, aimed to bridge the economic and social divide that led to the recent turmoil. In addition, Abhisit said he would move to put controls on the news media, which many believe stoked the unrest, consider constitutional reform, appoint a commission to investigate the violence, and reinforce respect of the monarchy.
Party Backed by Thaksin Shinawatra Sweeps 2011 Elections
Border skirmishes with Cambodia flared in April 2011, killing more than 15 people and displacing 60,000. This was the second incident of bloodshed of the year, and diplomatic efforts through the countries' membership in the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) were unsuccessful.
A shift in internal politics occurred in early July 2011 when the Pheu Thai party, backed by former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, won a majority in Parliament, securing 265 of the 500 seats—enough to form a single-party government. Yingluck Shinawatra, the younger sister of Thaksin Shinawatra, became prime minister, pledging to overcome the country's Thaksin-based divisions. Sensing the benefits of strength in numbers, Yingluck reached out to several smaller parties to form a coalition. Pheu Thai defeated the Democrats, the party of the educated middle class that had been in power since 2008.
Elections Held Despite Anti-Government Protests
In Feb. 2013, the government of Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra agreed to peace talks with leaders of the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (BRN), one of the oldest and most formidable rebel insurgent groups operating in the country's south. The provinces of Yala, Pattani, and Narathiwat are home to ethnic Malays and form a Muslim majority. Resistance to Buddhist rule turned violent in 2004; since then more than 5,400 people have been killed.
In early November 2013, Thailand's lower house passed a bill granting amnesty to those accused of offenses committed after the coup of 2006, during which Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra was ousted by the military. Thaksin, facing charges of corruption and abuse of power, would be covered under the amnesty law. More than 10,000 demonstrators took to the streets to protest the bill's passage. The bill, however, failed to pass the Senate. Anti-government protests continued into December, with thousands of people taking to the streets to demand the resignation of Yingluck Shinawatra, who they say is a puppet of her brother, former prime minister Thaksin. On Dec. 9, Yingluck dissolved parliament and called for early elections, scheduled for February 2014. The opposition, which largely represents the urban middle class, feels the rural majority has accumulated too much power and elections would not solve the problem. Instead, it demanded that parliament be replaced with an unelected People's Council and that the king appoint a prime minister.
Despite ongoing protests, elections were held on Feb. 2, 2014. The opposition, which boycotted the vote, disrupted the election by preventing the delivery of ballot boxes to about 11% of the precincts and by preventing some people from registering as candidates. The country's Constitutional Court ruled in March that the election was invalid. A new election was set for July. Few expected there would be marked progress in another election.
Thailand's Constitutional Court ordered Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra to resign in May 2014 after ruling that she abused power in 2011 when she removed a civil servant from his post and replaced him with a relative. It was considered a blatantly political ruling that risked a return to violent protests. Deputy Prime Minister Niwattumrong Boonsongpaisan took over as acting prime minister. Both anti- and pro-government protests continued, and the anti-government demonstrators shut down several government buildings and took over the prime minister's office.
Military Stages a Coup
On May 20, 2014, Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, the army chief, declared martial law throughout the country. He ordered the closure of 12 television stations and more than 1,000 radio stations. He said the move was to restore peace and order and requested that both sides stop protesting. He explicitly said the military was not launching a coup—something it has carried out on numerous occasions. "We urge people not to panic. Please carry on your daily activities as usual. The imposition of martial law is not a coup d'état," Gen. Prayuth said. U.S. officials were skeptical of Prayuth's motives, and the State Department called on the military to "honor its commitment to make this a temporary action to prevent violence, and to not undermine democratic institutions."
Two days later, Gen. Prayuth announced that he had indeed seized power from the interim government in a coup. He said the coup was necessary because "of the violence in Bangkok and many parts of the country that resulted in loss of innocent lives and property." It was the second military coup in less than 10 years. The military held power for more than a year after the last coup, in 2006.
In Aug. 2014, Gen. Prayuth was elected prime minster by the military-dominated National Legislative Assembly whose members had been handpicked by Gen. Prayuth. The assembly voted to impeach former prime minister Yingluck Shinawatra in January 2015, claiming rice subsidies she gave farmers amounted to corruption because the farmers were paid more than the market rate. Under terms of the impeachment, Yingluck was banned from politics for five years. The military government formally charged her with corruption and negligence in February 2015. Her trial began in May. The subsidies helped rural farmers, the core of Yingluck's supporters.
On Aug. 17, 2015, a bomb exploded inside Erawan Shrine, a popular site for tourists in Bangkok. The blast killed 20 and injured at least 123 others. No one claimed responsibility for the bombing. It was the worst explosion by far in a series of them since the military took power in the May 2014 coup. A second bomb exploded in Bangkok the following day, but no one was injured. Police searched for a suspect.
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