Thailand, or Siam as it was called until 1939, has never been colonised by a foreign power in history, unlike its south and southeast Asian neighbours. Despite periodic invasion by the Burmese and the Khmers, and brief occupation by the Japanese in WWII, the kingdom has never been externally controlled for long enough to dampen the Thai’s individualism.
The earliest civilisation in Thailand history is believed to have been that of the Mons in central Thailand, who brought a Buddhist culture from the Indian subcontinent. In the 12th century, this met a Khmer culture moving from the east, the Sumatran-based Srivijaya culture moving north, and citizens of the Thai state of Nan Chao, in what is now southern China, migrating south. Thai princes created the first Siamese capital in Sukhothai and later centres in Chiang Mai and, notably, Ayuthaya.
The Burmese invasions
The Burmese military invaded Siam in both the 16th and 18th centuries, capturing Chiang Mai and destroying Ayuthaya. The Thais expelled the Burmese and moved their capital to Thonburi. In 1782, the current Chakri dynasty was founded by King Rama I and the capital was moved across the river to Bangkok. In the 19th century, Siam remained independent by deftly playing off one European power against another.
The 20th century and the military coup
The 20th century brought great change to Siam. Modern Thai history begins with the military coup of 1932, which shifted power from the king to a coalition of military and elected officials. In 1939, the country changed its name from Siam to Thailand. During WWII, the Thai government sided with the Japanese. After the war, Thailand was dominated by the military and experienced more than twenty military coups and military countercoups interspersed with short-lived experiments with democracy. Democratic elections in 1979 were followed by a long period of stability and prosperity as power shifted from the military to the business elite.
In February 1991 a military coup ousted the Chatichai government, but bloody demonstrations in May 1992 led to the reinstatement of a civilian government with Chuan Leekpai at the helm. This coalition government collapsed in May 1995 over a land-reform scandal but replacement prime minister Banharn Silpa-archa was no better. Dubbed a ‘walking ATM’ by the Thai press, he was forced to relinquish the prime ministership just over a year later after a spate of corruption scandals. Ex-general and former deputy PM Chavalit Yongchaiyudh headed a dubious coalition until late 1997, when veteran pragmatist Chuan Leekpai retook the reins.
In 1997 the Thai baht pretty much collapsed, dragging the economy (and many other southeast Asian economies) down in a screaming heap. In August the International Monetary Fund stepped in with a bailout package of austerity measures, which – although it slowed Thailand’s growth dramatically and hit the poor hardest – seemed to have turned things around by early 1998. By the turn of the new century, Thailand’s economy had stopped going into free fall, but rebuilding had only just begun. Genuine attempts to weed out corruption seem underway, but the poverty-stricken of Thailand are still wary of promises and agitating for more reforms.