Thailand emerging as a regional power

The Kingdom of Thailand, encompassing 513,120 sq km, lies within the Indochinese Peninsula of continental South-east Asia. The country is straddled by the Andaman Sea and the Gulf of Thailand to the west and east respectively, the latter of which is an arm of the South China Sea. Land borders are shared with Myanmar to the west, Laos to the north-east, Cambodia to the east and Malaysia to the south. Contained within it is a diverse physical terrain, ranging from the extensive Dawna Hills along the Myanmar border, to the agriculturally rich Khorat Plateau and numerous islands scattered on either side of the Kra Isthmus.

Regions

Thailand is sub-divided into 76 provinces, along with the special administrative area of the capital Bangkok. Groupings of the provinces into culturally and geographically distinct regions are vary, but five clusters are broadly agreed upon.

Northern Thailand extends along the nation’s borders with Myanmar and Laos, and is characterised by its seasonal variation owing to hilly terrain and higher elevation than the remainder of the kingdom. Thailand’s northeast, colloquially known as Isan, is culturally distinct and is located on the Khorat Plateau, bounded by the naturally occurring border of the Mekong River with Laos directly across. Traditionally deriving its economy from agriculture, Isan and its population share numerous similarities with their neighbours in Laos, especially with respect to language, history and cuisine.

The eastern region of the nation extends between the capital and the Cambodian border, and has played an important role in Thailand’s industrial development in serving as the location of industrial estates and the Laem Chabang port along the eastern seaboard. Central Thailand is the most populous region, containing the capital and generally extending along the contours of the Chao Phraya River. Lastly, southern Thailand is located on the Malay Peninsula and extends to the border with Malaysia, containing many of the country’s tourism-attracting islands as well as the Muslim demographic minority concentrated within its southernmost provinces.

History

While the present territory on which Thailand sits was first settled as early as the sixth century, the Kingdom of Thailand was formally established in the 14th century, with the Sukhothai and Ayutthaya kingdoms generally being considered the predecessors to the modern state. Thais are proud to consider themselves the only South-east Asian nation never to have been colonised. This was accomplished through a series of diplomatic manoeuvres, the foremost of which was the 1896 Anglo-French accord guaranteeing the kingdom its independence, and cementing its role as a buffer between English and French colonies in the region. In 1932, a constitutional monarch was established in Thailand following a coup, with a representative government based on universal suffrage. The kingdom was known as Siam until 1939, and briefly again between 1945 and 1949.

No serious challenges to Thailand’s sovereignty presented themselves until the Japanese invasion during the Second World War. Later conflicts, such as those on the Indochinese Peninsula in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos in the 1960s, influenced the region greatly, though Thailand successfully avoided direct conflict and civil war itself.

The US served as a close ally to the kingdom during this period, providing it with around $2bn in economic and military aid while Thailand permitted US military bases to exist within its territory. US forces were asked to remove their military presence following the 1975 conclusion of the Vietnam War as Thailand reformed its diplomatic policies in peacetime. However, the 1970s saw some domestic political unrest, with stability challenged during intermittent periods of military rule and a during number of civil demonstrations.

Economy

Economic progress arose out of relative political and civil stability in the 1980s, as booming markets saw the country make significant economic advancements. Growth rates were strong, averaging between 6% and 8% throughout the latter part of the decade, with sustained double-digit growth in the decade following, peaking at 12% growth annually between 1988 and 1990.

Despite strong growth, Thailand received the worst of the Asian economic crisis in 1997-98, when previously soaring Asian markets were brought to an abrupt halt. Thailand became mired in deep economic recession, with local companies, banks and financial institutions encountering serious financial problems, and exports declining by 1996, raising doubts about the central bank’s ability to maintain the Thai baht’s peg against the US dollar. Capital outflows ensued, with a multitude of international investors removing or losing their capital, leaving sectors with previously high foreign investment, such as real estate, exposed. The Asian economic crisis was, of course, not unique to Thailand alone, with other high-achieving Asian markets including Indonesia, Malaysia and South Korea being heavily impacted as well.

However, lessons were learned and Thailand’s GDP growth accelerated throughout the early 2000s, topping 7% by 2003 and not dropping below 5% until the 2008 global financial crisis. The effects of the crisis lasted two years and recovery was difficult, with the Kingdom seeing negative growth in 2009, immediately rebounding to 7.5% growth the following year and plunging again to below 1% in 2011. Political unrest and government policy brought on yet another decline in economic growth, with World Bank data showing GDP growth at 2.8% and 0.9% in 2013 and 2014, respectively. Estimated growth in 2015 was back at around 2.5%, with the Thai private sector driving the economy forward despite challenging conditions.

Population & Language

Thailand is currently the 20th most populous nation in the world, with a 2015 estimate of 67,959,000 inhabitants, making it the third most populous in ASEAN, following Indonesia and Vietnam. Population growth stands at around 0.3%, which is relatively low for an Asian nation, giving Thailand the designation of an ageing nation, though this figure has picked up since 2007. Bangkok is the predominant centre of national population and culture, accounting for around 8.3m people in the city proper and near 15m in the greater metropolitan region, with no other city topping the 1m mark.

Ethnic Thais comprise over 95% of the population, although significant ethnic intermixing has taken place with other groups, such as the Chinese, for many decades, while notable minorities include people from Myanmar, among others. The majority of the population speaks Thai, the roots of which can be traced to the Tai-Kadai language group. Dialects include the predominant central Thai, as well as southern Thai, northern Thai and Laotian, commonly spoken in the north-eastern region of Isan.

Religion & Culture

The predominant religion in Thailand is Theravada Buddhism, which permeates strongly in Thai national and cultural identity. Around 94.6% of the Thai population identifies as Buddhist, with other notable religions in the country including Islam, which is practiced by 4.6% of the population and mostly concentrated within the southernmost provinces, and Christianity, which is practiced among 0.7% of the population.

The Theravada Buddhism practiced in Thailand is similar to that followed in other nations in South and South-east Asia, including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. Its strong role in the kingdom’s identity extends to the national flag, with the two white stripes representing Buddhism, the red stripes at the extremes representing the colour of the nation, and the blue stripe at the centre representing the monarchy. Buddhist temples, shrines and statues, often decorated in gold, are ubiquitous to the Thai landscape, and the religion is widely credited with influencing national art, literature and architecture as well. The seven days of the week are also each associated with a Buddhist colour; yellow for Monday, pink for Tuesday, green for Wednesday, orange for Thursday, blue for Friday, purple for Saturday and red for Sunday. It is not uncommon for local dress to adopt this system of colour coordination, and it is considered a sign of respect for visitors to follow suit.

Climate

Thailand is characterised as having a tropical monsoon climate under the Koppen climate classification system, with warm temperatures and high humidity year-round, despite regions such as the north having more seasonal variation. The rainy season differs between the west and east coasts, with the monsoons bringing heavy storms between April and October and east coast rains ranging from September to December.

The nation’s north has a unique environment, which has a savannah climate and three distinct seasons, ranging from mild and sunny winters between November and February to hot summers between March and May, with temperatures fluctuating between 20°C and 37°C within the span of the year. The rainy season in the north typically lasts between June and October.

Natural Resources

Rich in natural resources, Thailand is home to metallic deposits including tin, tungsten, tantalum, zinc, iron and silver, while gold deposits are also found in the provinces of Pichit, Loei, Narathiwat, Phetchabun and Prachinaburi. Energy resources possessed by the nation include both onshore and offshore oil and gas fields.

Thailand held around 453m barrels in proven oil reserves as of 2013, and approximately 70% of these crude reserves and nearly all of the condensate reserves are located offshore. Reserves have increased in recent years, having stood at nearly 100m barrels in 1987 and increased to 300m barrels by 1997, while the reserve rate has remained relatively constant as new discoveries have balanced out the depletion of oil reserves. Recent years have seen oil consumption outstrip production, and the nation remains the second-largest importer of oil in South-east Asia after Singapore. The harnessing of solar and wind power, along with other renewable resources, has been heavily promoted recently in Thailand’s drive toward achieving energy security, efficiency and diversification. Other natural resources present in the country include natural gas, fluorite, gypsum, lignite, rubber, timber, and agricultural and fish products.

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