With a long and distinguished history as one of the great powers of South-east Asia, Thailand today finds itself once more in a period of relative calm, under the leadership of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), led by Prayuth Chan-ocha, the prime minister. The NCPO, which has held office since 2014, represents the latest configuration of power in the country, which has lived through a succession of constitutional changes in recent years. Despite all of these developments, however, some fundamentals of Thai society and politics remain unchanged, with continuity most clearly represented by the country’s current head of state, King Bhumibol Adulyadej, or Rama IX, who has been on the throne since 1946, making him the world’s longest-reigning monarch.
Thais are understandably proud of their heritage, which stretches back many centuries. This inheritance also includes the unique characteristic that amongst all South-east Asian nations, Thailand was never successfully colonised by the European empires. Thais are also proud of the major strides their country has made in recent decades in economic development, turning itself from a low-income, rural and agricultural economy into a manufacturing and industrial powerhouse for the wider region and beyond.
The territory now occupied by Thailand was once more widely known as Siam. The first references to its inhabitants, the Siamese, date from around the 12th century, when they represented a rival mandala, or centre of power, to the neighbouring Khmer kingdom. The Thai mandala was originally centred on the city of Ayutthaya and on its king, with his power and influence radiating throughout the then-heavily forested lands of the Chao Phraya River basin. This influence then extended further, into what is now Laos, Malaysia, Cambodia, Vietnam and Myanmar. Indeed, by the 17th century, visiting French ambassadors were able to compare the city of Ayutthaya favourably with Paris.
This kingdom was a strongly Buddhist one, with some major Hindu influences. The king, an absolute monarch, was at the centre of the Ayutthaya mandala, with his power radiating outwards along the largely riverine trade routes of the region. According to the beliefs underpinning this conception of the state, the king was also thought to be an avatar of Vishnu and as a righteous ruler, by following the rule of law, the king made the world revolve around him Yet Ayutthaya’s position, with rival mandalas to the east, north and south, meant that its history was also one of conquest and resistance to invasion. The Burmese kingdoms to the north mounted the most frequent attacks, with a fourth siege of the city in 1593 still celebrated on January 18 as Royal Thai Armed Forces Day. Thailand also pushed into Burmese territory, but the end of Ayutthaya came in 1767, when the Burmese finally sacked the city.
Following this period, a series of power struggles gave rise to the Chakri dynasty, which still rules today, and a new capital, Bangkok. In the 19th century, this new dynasty found itself under pressure from growing French colonial influence in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos to the east and British colonial power in Malaysia and Burma. Diplomatic skill by rulers such as King Mongkut, who reigned between 1851 and 1868, and King Chulalongkorn, who reigned between 1868 and 1910, managed to preserve the kingdom’s independence, with the present boundaries of Thailand being largely fixed during this time.
In 1932, however, young military officers and civil servants launched a revolution that introduced constitutional monarchy to Thailand – as Siam became known from 1939 onwards. During the Second World War, Thailand allied itself with Japan, obtaining several provinces of what is now Cambodia after a short conflict with French colonial troops. At the end of the war, these provinces were returned to Cambodia, yet disputes over borders periodically flare up.
After the war, Thailand developed a strong alliance with the US. The country’s soldiers fought in Korea and the country itself became a major base for US operations during the wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The 1960s also saw rapid economic development, with US aid and investment a major motor for this, as well as efforts by successive Thai governments to accelerate the country’s development.
Changing Of The Guard
These economic developments also brought demographic changes and, in particular, the growth of Thailand’s middle class. In 1973, this led to demands for a change from military rule to civilian. This was followed by a period of electoral government, but also increased polarisation between left and right. In response, in 1976 the military came back to power, with the next years characterised by a succession of short-lived military and civilian constitutions. A key figure in the 1980s was Prem Tinsulanonda, who was prime minister from 1980-88. He is now head of the Privy Council.
The 1990s began with another coup, in 1991, which was followed by elections that ushered in a period of rule by a number of different political parties, leading up to a new constitution. The Asian financial crisis then hit the country hard in 1997. Debates over these events and the subsequent IMF intervention led to the electoral victory of Thaksin Shinawatra in 2001. Thaksin was then ousted in 2006 by the military, led by the commander-in-chief Sonthi Boonyaratglin, who then abrogated the 1997 constitution. At this time, Thaksin went into exile.
This was then quickly followed, however, by a return to electoral politics under a 2007 constitution. Yet much division in the country between supporters of Thaksin (known as red shirts) and his opponents (known as yellow shirts) also followed. Both sides organised mass demonstrations and occupations, with their party political groupings changing names and leaders as the existing ones were banned or forced into exile. Among the red shirt groupings have been the initial Thai Rak Thai government of Thaksin himself; the successor People’s Power Party, in office from 2007-08; and the Pheu Thai Party (PTP), in power from 2011-14. The yellow shirt parties have included the Democrats, in power under Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva from 2008-11. The two sides also had their own popular fronts – the red shirt dominated National Democratic Alliance against Dictatorship (UDD) and the yellow shirt People’s Alliance for Democracy. Violent clashes between these groups came in 2010, when the UDD organised a mass occupation of central Bangkok, eventually broken up by the armed forces. Under the PTP, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, Thaksin’s youngest sister, moved to enable her elder brother to return to Thailand from exile. She also introduced some controversial and widely criticised policies, particularly over rice subsidies. A protest movement, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC), began working against this and other examples of what was becoming widely seen as an ineffective and corrupt administration. Clashes began in Bangkok between rival groups in 2013, after the dissolution of parliament by Yingluck prior to fresh elections. These clashes and continuing instability then led in May 2014 to the 12th coup d’etat since 1932, led by General Prayuth.
Looking To The Future
Since then, Thailand has been ruled by the NCPO, which has also received the support of the king. The council contains the heads of the air force and navy, the Royal Thai Armed Forces HQ and the police. It also has a board of consultants, composed of many former ministers, a former governor of the Bank of Thailand and a former member of the Thai Monetary Policy Committee.
The NCPO’s stated goals are to restore stability and to enact reforms. In February 2016, the council thus announced that it was in the process of drafting a new constitution (the 2007 constitution was abrogated in 2014) with elections scheduled for 2017. The new constitution will likely see a National Strategic Reform and Reconciliation Committee established that may be able to act in future to take over power, should an emergency once more develop.
In early 2016, there was an expectation that the draft constitution would be put to a nationwide referendum in July or August. If the constitution is approved, it is then scheduled to go to a government-appointed National Legislative Assembly, which will decide how next to proceed, with its deliberations also determining the future form of the Constitutional Court and the National Anti-Corruption Commission. The concern of those drafting the new constitution is to ensure that it can help the nation avoid the instability witnessed in recent years, when some members of the red and yellow factions moved out of the country’s political institutions and onto the streets. Bringing reconciliation and renewed unity to Thai politics may thus be the most difficult task the council faces as it now seeks to write the next chapter of Thailand’s long and distinguished history.