Proving its mettle: The country has rapidly bounced back from internal and external shocks

The Kingdom of Thailand, formerly known as Siam, covers an area of approximately 514,000 sq km and is situated in the heart of South-east Asia. It lies between the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to its north-east, Myanmar to its north-west and west, Cambodia to the south-east and Malaysia to the south.

The country is made up of 76 provinces, which are divided into districts, sub-districts and villages. The country can be broadly divided into four distinct geographic regions. The central region includes the Bangkok metropolitan area and the basin of the Chao Phraya River, which runs from north to south and flows into the Gulf of Thailand. Next, there is the northern region, which is heavily forested and mountainous, and makes up roughly one-third of Thailand’s total land mass. It encompasses the Khorat Plateau and is bordered to the north and the east by the Mekong River. The southern region, meanwhile, extends roughly from Chumphon, around 460 km south of Bangkok, through the Kra Isthmus along to the Thai-Malaysian border, which is framed by the Gulf of Thailand to the east.

Histrory 

The Kingdom of Thailand was formally established in the mid-14th century, although Thais first began settling in the area as early as the sixth century. By the end of the 13th century, they ruled most of the western region. Known as Siam (“land of the white elephant”) until 1939, Thailand is the only country in South-east Asia to have never been colonised. Although an Anglo-French accord signed in 1896 guaranteed Thailand’s independence as buffer between the two powers, Great Britain had held a colonial foothold in the region since 1824.

In 1932 a coup established a constitutional monarchy in Thailand, with a representative government based on universal suffrage. Thailand’s sovereignty was not seriously challenged until the Second World War, when Japan invaded the country.

International events continued to influence Thailand throughout the 1960s as conflicts arising in neighbouring countries such as Cambodia and Vietnam had a ripple effect on the region. The US remained a close ally during this period; Thailand received around $2bn in economic and military aid from the US and permitted the US to maintain military bases on its territory. Following the conclusion of the Vietnam War in 1975, Thailand changed its diplomatic policies and asked the US to remove its bases. The 1970s were also marked by domestic political unrest, with periods of military rule and civil demonstrations. In 1973 student demonstrations against the military junta turned violent, leading King Bhumibol Adulyadej to give sanctuary to the students in Chitralada Palace. He then expelled the prime minister and removed the ruling junta.

Economy

Economic progress characterised the midto late 1980s, as booming markets and political stability created an enabling environment for expansion. Growth remained strong at roughly 6% and increased to above 8% in 1986, a level it maintained for 10 years. Growth rates hit their peak between 1988 and 1990, averaging around 12% per year.

However, the rapid economic expansion did not last, and the growth years were abruptly halted by the onset of the Asian financial crisis in 1997-98. The economy became mired in a deep recession resulting from the severe financial problems that faced many Thai companies, banks and financial institutions. Exports, which were a significant driver of growth, collapsed in 1996 and raised doubts about the Bank of Thailand’s ability to maintain the baht’s peg against the dollar. A variety of international investors that had previously been investing heavily in the state removed or lost their capital, leaving many sectors of the economy exposed, most notably in the real estate sector, where foreign investment had been particularly high.

Post-crisis, Thai authorities implemented a number of reforms to improve governance and oversight, and the economy steadily rebounded, experiencing average growth of around 5% between 2002 and 2007. As a major exporter, the international downturn that came in 2008 tempered Thailand’s growth, and in 2011 the economy took a major hit due to widespread flooding that shut down factories and crippled exports.

Observers often use the phrase “Teflon economy” when describing Thailand’s resilience to persevere through and quickly recover from external and internal shocks. And although current political uncertainty is hampering business sentiment, the long-term outlook for the country remains solid.

Climate

Under the Köppen Climate classification system, Thailand is described as having a tropical monsoon climate, characterised by warm temperatures and high humidity levels. However, variations are found between the north and south. The south has both a rainy and a dry season. The rainy season differs between the west and east coasts. The south-west monsoons generally bring heavy storms from April to October, while the east coast rains begin in September and end in December. The north has a savannah climate with three different and distinct seasons. The first is a mild and sunny winter with temperatures in the mid-20°C range from November through February. A hot summer season follows extending roughly from March through May, with temperatures hovering between 28°C and 37°C and lasting until the monsoon arrives. The rainy season typically begins in late June and continues through to October.

Religion & Culture

The dominant religion in Thailand is Hinayana Buddhism or Theravada Buddhism, similar to that practised in other countries in the region, including Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. Buddhists make up roughly 94% of the total population, while Muslims account for around 3.9%, Confucians 1.7% and Christians approximately 0.65%.

Naturally, Buddhism forms an integral part of Thai culture, acting not only as the dominant religious faith, but also comprising the base of many of the country’s rituals, its monarchy and the national identity.

The country’s tri-colour flag emphasises this influence with the two white stripes representing Buddhism. The white stripes run alongside red bands symbolising the colour of the nation, while a blue stripe represents the monarchy. Religion also influences the country’s art, literature and architecture. Buddhist temples, shrines and intricate statues decorated in gold are a ubiquitous feature of the Thai landscape.

Many Buddhist males above the age of 21 are ordained for a period between five days and three months at least once during their lifetimes. This ritual often takes place during the rainy season when monks stop their travels and remain in their monasteries. To this day, the custom is supported by the Thai government and forms an important part of a young adult male’s life. As a result, even male civil servants are allowed to leave their positions for up to three months to complete their monastic duties.

Population

Thailand’s population, as measured by the World Bank, stood at 66.79m in 2012, ranking 19th in the world. The average annual population growth rate came in at 0.57% in 2011, and many organisations, including the World Bank, forecast a contraction of the population by 2020. Thailand is undergoing rapid urbanisation, and Bangkok alone is home to around 9m people, according to figures from the UN.

Of the population, 78% are ethnically Thai, but within this group a significant range of dialects and diversity of customs exists. The largest minority group is the ethnic Chinese, which comprise 11% of the population. The Chinese community is mainly centred in Bangkok, especially in the thriving Chinatown district of the city. Other prominent ethnic groups include Malays, Cambodians, Indians and Vietnamese.

Language

The majority of the local population speaks Thai. The language can be traced to the Tai language family that has its roots in the Austric language group. Four main Tai languages are spoken across the country, the most common being Central Thai or Bangkok Thai. The others include Southern Thai, Northern Thai and Laotian, commonly referred to as North-eastern Thai. The Thai language is believed to have originated in the region now bordering Vietnam and China.

Natural Resources 

Thailand is home to an abundance of natural resources. Metallic resources include lead, tin, tungsten, tantalum, zinc, iron and silver. Gold deposits are located in Phichit, Loei, Narathiwat, Phetchabun and Prachinburi.

In terms of energy resources, Thailand has both onshore and offshore natural gas and oil fields. According to figures from the Oil and Gas Journal, Thailand’s proven oil reserves stood at 453m barrels in January 2013, an increase of 11m barrels from the year prior. Overall, this is not enough to meet domestic demand, and Thailand is South-east Asia’s second-biggest importer of oil after Singapore.

Reducing dependence on imports and vulnerability to volatile international energy prices are central aims of the government’s drive to increase the contribution of renewables, particularly solar and wind, to around 40% of the energy mix by 2020.

Other natural resources include natural gas, fluorite, gypsum, lignite, rubber, timber and a multitude of locally harvested food products as well as fish from the sea.

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