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The history of Thailand begins with the migration of the Tai-Lao speaking people from their ancestral home in southern China into mainland southeast Asia around the 10th century AD. Prior to this, Indianized kingdoms such as the Mon, Khmer and Malay kingdoms ruled the region. The Thais established their own states starting with Sukhothai, Chiang Saen and Chiang Mai as Lanna Kingdom and then Ayutthaya kingdom. These states fought each other and were under constant threat from the Khmers, Burma and Vietnam. Much later, the European colonial powers threatened in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but Thailand survived as the only Southeast Asian state to avoid colonial rule. After the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand endured sixty years of almost permanent military rule before the establishment of a democratic elected-government system.


Initial states of Thailand

Prior to the southwards migration of the Tai people from Yunnan in the 10th century, the Indochina peninsula had been a home to various indigenous animistic communities for as far back as 500,000 years ago. The recent discovery of Homo erectus fossils such as Lampang man is but one example. The remains were first discovered during excavations in Lampang province, Thailand. The finds have been dated from roughly 1,000,000-500,000 years ago in the Pleistocene. There are myriad sites in Thailand dating to the Bronze (1500 BC-500 BC) and Iron Ages (500 BC-AD 500). The most thoroughly researched of these sites are located in the country's Northeast, especially in the Mun and Chi River valleys. The Mun River in particular is home to many 'moated' sites which comprise mounds surrounded by ditches and ramparts. The mounds contain evidence of prehistoric occupation.

Around the first century of the Christian era, according to Funan epigraphy and the records of Chinese historians (Coedes), a number of trading settlements of the South appear to have been organized into several Indianised states, among the earliest of which are believed to be Langkasuka and Tambralinga.

Ancient Civilizations

Prior to the arrival of the Tai people and culture into what is now Thailand, the region had hosted a number of indigenous Mon-Khmer and Malay civilizations. Yet few are known about Thailand before the thirteenth century as the literary and concrete sources are scarce and most of the knowledge come from archeological evidences and assumptions.



A 13 meter long reclining Buddha, Nakhon Ratchasima

The Chao Phraya valley in what is now Central Thailand had once been the home of Mon Dvaravati culture, which prevailed from the 7th century to the 10th century.[1] The existence of the civilizations had long been forgotten by the Thai when Samuel Beal discovered the polity among the Chinese writings on Southeast Asia as “Tou-lo-po-ti”. During the early 20th century the archeologists led by George Coédes made grand excavations on what is now Nakorn Pathom and found it to be a center of Dvaravati culture. The constructed name Dvaravati was confirmed by a Sanskrit plate inscription containing the name “Dvaravati”.

Later on, many more Dvaravati sites were discovered throughout the Chao Phraya valley. The two most important sites were Nakorn Pathom and Uthong (in the present Suphanburi Province). The inscriptions of Dvaravati were in Sanskrit and Mon using the script derived from the Pallava script of the Pallava dynasty. The religion of Dvaravati is thought to be Theravada through contacts with Sri Lanka, with the ruling class also participating in Hindu rites. The Dvaravati art, including the Buddha sculptures and stupas, showed strong similarities to those of the Gupta dynasty. The most prominent production of Dvaravati art are the Thammachakras or the Stone Wheels signifying Buddhist principles. The eastern parts of the Chao Phraya valley were subjected to a more Khmer and Hindu influence as the inscriptions are found in Khmer and Sanskrit.[2]

Dvaravati was not a kingdom but a network of city-states paying tributes to more powerful ones according to the mandala model. Dvaravati culture expanded into Isan as well as southwards as far as the Isthmus of Kra. Dvaravati was a part of ancient international trade as Roman artifacts were also found and Dvaravati tributes to the Tang court are recorded. The culture came to an end around the tenth century when it was replaced by a more unified Lavo-Khmer polity.

Si Kottaboon

While the Dvaravatians ruled Chao Phraya, Isan was the place of the Si Kottaboon culture, which belonged to the native Mon-Khmer people. Si Kottaboon is regarded as a stem culture of Dvaravati with Mon scripts and oval-shaped cities. The Thammachakras of Dvaravati became the Semas or Stone Leaves of Si Kottaboon. The culture tolerated the Khmer Chenla expansions around the seventh century. The southeasternmost part of Isan was the heartland of the Chenla kingdom that expanded over the southern Funan around the seventh century.

Southern Thailand

Below the Isthmus of Kra was the place of Malay civilizations. Primordial Malay kingdoms are described as tributaries to Funan by 2nd century Chinese sources – though most of them proved to be tribal organizations instead of full-fledged kingdoms.[3] From the sixth century onwards, two major mandalas ruled Southern Thailand – the Kanduli and the Langkasuka. Kanduli centered on what is now Surat Thani Province and Langasuka on Pattani. Southern Thailand was the center of Hinduism and Mahayana. The Tang dynasty monk I Ching stopped at Langkasuka to study Pali grammar and Mahayana during his journey to India around 800 AD. At that time, the kingdoms of Southern Thailand quickly fell under the influences of the Malay kingdom of Srivijaya from Sumatra.

Classical Era

From about the tenth century to the fourteenth century Thailand was known through archeological findings and a number of local legends. The period saw the Khmer domination over a large portion of Chao Phraya basin and the Isan. The expansion of Tai people and culture southwards also happened during the classical era.


Wat Phra Prang Sam Yod in Lopburi

Around the tenth century, the city-states of Dvaravati coalesced into two mandalas – the Lavo (modern Lopburi) and the Supannabhum (modern Suphanburi). According to a legend in the Northern Chronicles, in 903, a king of Tambralinga invaded and took Lavo and installed a Malay prince to the Lavo throne. The Malay prince was married to a Khmer princess who had fled an Angkorian dynastic bloodbath. The son of the couple contested for the Khmer throne and became Suryavarman I, thus bringing Lavo under Khmer domination through personal union. Suryavarman I also expanded into Isan, constructing many temples.

Suryavarman, however, had no male heirs and again Lavo was independent. King Anawratha of Bagan invaded Lavo in 1057 and took a Lavo princess as his wife. The power of the Lavo kingdom reached the zenith in the reign of Narai (1072 - 1076). Lavo faced Burmese invasions under Kyanzittha, whose mother was the Lavo princess, in 1080 but was able to repel. After the death of Narai, however, Lavo was plunged into bloody civil war and the Khmer under Suryavarman II took advantage by invading Lavo and installing his son as the King of Lavo.

The repeated but discontinued Khmer domination eventually "Khmerized" Lavo. Lavo was transformed from a Theravadic Monic Dvaravati city into a Hindu Khmer one. Lavo became the entrepôt of Khmer culture and power of the Chao Phraya basin. The bass relief at Angkor Wat showed a Lavo army as one of the subordinates to Angkor. However, one interesting note is that a Tai army was shown as a part of Lavo army, a century before the establishment of the Sukhothai kingdom.


A Buddha from Wat Kukkut, Lamphun

According to the Jamadevivamsa, the city of Hariphunchai (modern Lamphun) was founded by the hermits; Jamadevi, a Lavo princess, was invited to rule the city in around 700 AD. However, the date is considered too early for the foundation of Hariphunchai as Jamadevi brought no Thammachakras to the north. Hariphunchai may be a later (about the tenth century) offshoot of the Lavo kingdom or instead related to the Thaton kingdom.

Hariphunchai was the center of Theravada in the north. The kingdom flourished during the reign of King Attayawong who built the Dhatu of Hariphunchai in 1108. The kingdom had strong relations to another Mon kingdom of Thaton. During the eleventh century, Hariphunchai waged lengthy wars with the Tai Ngoenyang kingdom of Chiang Saen. Weakened by Tai invasions, Hariphunchai eventually fell in 1293 to Mangrai the Great, king of Lanna, the successor state of the Ngoenyang kingdom.

Arrival of the Tais

The most recent and accurate theory about the origin of the Tai people stipulated that Guangxi province in China is really the Tai motherland instead of Yunnan province. A large number of Tai people, known as the Zhuang, still live in Guangxi today. Around 700 AD, Tai people who did not come under Chinese influence settled in what is now Dien Bien Phu in modern Vietnam according to the Khun Borom legend. From there, the Tais began to radiate into northern highlands and founded the cities of Luang Prabang and Chiang Saen.

The Simhanavati legend tells us that a Tai chief named Simhanavati drove out the native Wa people and founded the city of Chiang Saen around 800 AD. For the first time, the Tai people made contact with the Indianized civilizations of Southeast Asia. Through Hariphunchai, the Tais of Chiang Saen adopted Theravada Buddhism and Sanskrit royal names. The Dhatu of Doi Tung, constructed around 850 AD, signified the piety of Tai people on the Theravada religion. Around 900 AD, major wars were fought between Chiang Saen and Hariphunchai. The Mon forces captured Chiang Saen and its king fled. In 937, Prince Prom the Great took Chiang Saen back from the Mon and inflicted severe defeats on Hariphunchai.

Around 1000 AD, Chiang Saen was destroyed by an earthquake with all the inhabitants killed. A council was established to govern the kingdom for a while, and then a local Wa man known as Lavachakkaraj was elected the King of the new city of Chiang Saen or Ngoenyang. The Lavachakkaraj dynasty would rule over the region for about 500 years.

The overpopulation might have encouraged the Tais to seek their fortune further southwards. By 1100 AD, the Tai had established themselves as Po Khuns (ruling fathers) at Nan, Phrae, Songkwae, Sawankhalok, Chakangrao, etc. on the upper Chao Phraya valley. These southern Tai princes faced Khmer influence from Lavo. Some of them became subordinates to the Lavo-Khmer polity.

Chao Phraya Basin under the Tai

There are several legends about the Tai coming to rule mandalas of Central Thailand including Lavo and Suphannabhum. The Suphannabhum mandala had been independent from Khmer influence and composed originally the Western Provinces of modern Thailand including Suphanburi, Ratchaburi, and Phetchaburi.

In the twelfth century, the Tai Po Khuns of the upper Chao Phraya coalesced around the Po Khun of Sukhothai - an important Khmer outpost. With the weakened Khmer authority, Po Khun Si Nau Namthom of Sukhothai gained the autonomy of upper Chao Phraya valley. However, during the reign of Jayavarman VII, the Khmer power was strengthened and the Tai Po Khuns were subdued and brought under Khmer suzerainty. Suphannabhum was also weakened by Khmer invasions and only the city of Suphanburi itself was left.

Sukhothai and Lanna

The ruins of Wat Mahathat, Sukhothai Historical Park

Thai city-states gradually became independent from the weaker Khmer Empire. It is said that Sukhothai was established as a sovereign, strong kingdom by Pho Khun Si Indrathit in 1238 AD. A political feature called by 'classic' Thai historians as, 'father governs children' existed at this time. Everybody could bring their problems to the king directly; as there was a bell in front of the palace for this purpose. The city briefly dominated the area under King Ramkhamhaeng, who established the Thai alphabet, but after his death in 1365 it fell into decline and became subject to another emerging Thai state: the Ayutthaya kingdom in the lower Chao Phraya area.

Another Thai state that coexisted with Sukhothai was the northern state of Lanna, centred in Chiang Mai. King Phya Mangrai was its founder. This city-state emerged in the same period as Sukhothai. Evidently Lanna became closely allied with Sukhothai. After the Ayutthaya kingdom had emerged and expanded its influence from the Chao Phraya valley, Sukhothai was finally subdued. Fierce battles between Lanna and Ayutthaya also constantly took place and Chiang Mai was eventually subjugated, becoming Ayutthaya's 'vassal'.

Lanna's independent history ended in 1558, when it finally fell to the Burmese; thereafter it was dominated by Burma until the late eighteenth century. Local leaders then rose up against the Burmese with the help of the rising Thai kingdom of Thonburi of king Taksin. The 'Northern City-States' then became vassals of the lower Thai kingdoms of Thonburi and Bangkok. In the early twentieth century they were annexed and became part of modern Siam, the country now called Thailand.


Siamese embassy to Louis XIV in 1686, by Jacques Vigouroux Duplessis
Ayutthaya in the 17th century

The city of Ayutthaya was located on a small island, encircled by three rivers. Due to its superior location, Ayutthaya quickly became powerful, politically and economically. Ayutthaya had different, various names ranging from 'Ayothaya', derived from Ayodhya, an Indian holy city,'Krung Thep', 'Phra Nakorn' and 'Dvaravati'.

The first ruler of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, King Ramathibodi I (ruled 1351 to 1369), made two important contributions to Thai history: the establishment and promotion of Theravada Buddhism as the official religion – to differentiate his kingdom from the neighbouring Hindu kingdom of Angkor – and the compilation of the Dharmashastra, a legal code based on Hindu sources and traditional Thai custom. The Dharmashastra remained a tool of Thai law until late in the 19th century. In the 417 years of existence, the Ayutthaya kingdom was frequently plagued by internal fighting but this did not prevent its rise as a major power on mainland Southeast Asia.

Ayutthaya's culture and traditions became the model for the next period in Thai history, the Bangkok based Rattanakosin Kingdom of the Chakri Dynasty.

Beginning with the Portuguese in the 16th century, Ayutthaya, known to the Europeans as 'Kingdom of Siam', came into contact with the West. It became one of the most prosperous cities in East Asia. According to George Modelski, Ayutthaya is estimated to have been the largest city in the world in 1700 CE, with a population of around 1 million.[4] Trade flourished with the Dutch and French among the most active foreigners in the kingdom together with the Chinese and Japanese.

The Ayutthaya period is known as "Golden age of medicine in Thailand" due to progress in the field of medicine at that time.[5]

Ayutthaya expanded its sphere of influence over a considerable area, ranging from the Islamic states on the Malay Peninsula, the Andaman ports of present day Myanmar, the Ankhor kingdom of Cambodia, to states in northern Thailand. In the 18th century, the power of the Ayutthaya Kingdom gradually declined as fighting between princes and officials plagued its political arena. Outlying principalities became more and more independent, ignoring the capital's orders and decrees.

In the 1700s, the last phase of the kingdom arrived. The Burmese, who had taken control of Lanna and had also unified their kingdom under the powerful Konbaung Dynasty, launched several blows against Ayutthaya in the 1750s and 1760s. Finally, in 1767, after several months of siege, the Burmese broke through Ayutthaya's walls, sacked the city and burned it down. The royal family fled the city and Ayutthaya's last king Ekkathat died of starvation ten days later while in hiding. The Ayutthaya royal line had been extinguished. Overall there had been 33 kings in this period, including an unofficial king.

Five dynasties ruled the Ayutthaya Kingdom:

  1. U-Thong Dynasty which consisting of 3 kings
  2. Suphanabhumi Dynasty consisting of 13 kings
  3. Sukhothai Dynasty consisting of 7 kings
  4. Prasart Thong (Golden Tower) Dynasty consisting of 4 kings
  5. Bann Plu Dynasty consisting of 6 kings

Thonburi and Bangkok period

The borders of Indochina in 1824

After more than 400 years of power, in 1767, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya was brought down by invading Burmese armies, its capital burned, and the territory split. General Taksin managed to reunite the Thai kingdom from his new capital of Thonburi and declared himself king in 1769. However, Taksin allegedly became mad, and he was deposed, taken prisoner, and executed in 1782. General Chakri succeeded him in 1782 as Rama I, the first king of the Chakri dynasty. In the same year he founded the new capital city at Bangkok, across the Chao Phraya river from Thonburi, Taksin's capital. In the 1790s Burma was defeated and driven out of Siam, as it was then called. Lanna also became free of Burmese occupation, but the king of a new dynasty who was installed in the 1790s was effectively a tributary ruler of the Chakri monarch.

The heirs of Rama I became increasingly concerned with the threat of European colonialism after British victories in neighboring Burma in 1826. The first Thai recognition of Western power in the region was the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United Kingdom in 1826. In 1833, the United States began diplomatic exchanges with Siam, as Thailand was called until 1939, and again between 1945 and 1949. However, it was during the later reigns of King Mongkut (1804-1868), and his son King Chulalongkorn (1853-1910), that Thailand established firm rapprochement with Western powers. It is a widely held view in Thailand that the diplomatic skills of these monarchs, combined with the modernising reforms of the Thai Government, made Siam the only country in South and Southeast Asia to avoid European colonisation. This is reflected in the country's modern name, Prathet Thai or Thai‐land, used since 1939 (although the name was reverted to Siam during 1945–49), in which prathet means "nation" and thai means "free".

The Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 defined the modern border between Siam and British Malaya by securing Thai authority over the provinces of Pattani, Yala, Narathiwat and Satun, which were previously part of the semi‐independent Malay sultanates of Pattani and Kedah. A series of treaties with France fixed the country's current eastern border with Laos and Cambodia.

End of Absolute Monarchy and Military rule

The Siamese revolution of 1932 was led by a group of young military officers and civil servants. The group held key figures, ministers who were of the royal blood as hostages while the king, Rama VII, was at the summer palace in Hua Hin. The coup, usually called 'The Revolution of 1932', transformed the Government of Thailand from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. The cabinet was presided by the prime minister. Military men always played a significant role in the politics even before 1932. Already in 1912, during the Rama VI reign, young soldiers had been arrested who had plotted a coup urging a constitution and a change of the king's status.

King Rama VII, Prajadhipok initially accepted this change, granting the Constitution but later abdicated from his position due to conflicts with the government. The revolutionary government decided to install his ten year old nephew, Ananda Mahidol as the new monarch. Upon his abdication, King Prajadhipok said that the duty of a ruler was to reign for the good of the whole people, not for a selected few. Thai politics ran into turmoil as the revolutionary government plunged into factions; military and intellectuals. A coup and a rebellion took place. Eventually the military faction took control. The regime became evidently authoritarian under the prime minister Luang Phibulsongkram, one of the members of the Revolutionary military wing.

The young King Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII) died in 1946 under somewhat mysterious circumstances, the official explanation being that he shot himself by accident while cleaning his gun. He was succeeded by his brother Bhumibol Adulyadej, the longest reigning king of Thailand, and very popular with the Thais. Although nominally a constitutional monarchy, Thailand was ruled by a series of military governments, most prominently led by Luang Phibunsongkhram and Sarit Dhanarajata, interspersed with brief periods of democracy.

In early January 1941, Thailand invaded French Indochina, beginning the French-Thai War. The Thais, better equipped and outnumbering the French forces, easily reclaimed Laos. The French decisively won the naval Battle of Koh Chang.

The Japanese mediated the conflict, and a general armistice was declared on January 28. On May 9 a peace treaty was signed in Tokyo, with the French being coerced by the Japanese into relinquishing their hold on the disputed territories.

On December 8, 1941, a few hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan demanded the right to move troops across Thailand to the Malayan frontier. Japan invaded Thailand and engaged the Thai army for six to eight hours before Phibunsongkhram ordered an armistice. Shortly thereafter Japan was granted free passage, and on December 21, 1941, Thailand and Japan signed a military alliance with a secret protocol wherein Tokyo agreed to help Thailand regain territories lost to the British and French (i.e. the Shan States of Burma, Malaya, Singapore, & part of Yunnan, plus Laos & Cambodia) Subsequently, Thailand undertook to 'assist' Japan in its war against the Allies. NOTE: Japan's distrust of Thailand extended to the point of rearming their 'ally' with controlled munitions, including the famous Siamese Mauser, which was manufactured in an unusual caliber. The Seri Thai (Free Thai Movement) was an underground resistance movement against Japan that was supported by the United States and operated freely, often with support from members of the Royal family (Prince Chula Chakrabongse) and members of the government.

After Japan's defeat in 1945, with the help of Seri Thai, Thailand was treated as a defeated country by the British and French, although American support mitigated the Allied terms. Thailand was not occupied by the Allies, but it was forced to return the territory it had regained to the British and the French. In the postwar period Thailand had relations with the United States, which it saw as a protector from the communist revolutions in neighboring countries.

Communist guerillas existed in the country from early '60s up to 1987, counting almost 12,000 full-time fighters at the peak of movement,but never posed a serious threat to the state.

Recently, Thailand also has been an active member in the regional Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), especially after democratic rule was restored in 1992.


Post-1973 has been marked by a struggle to define the political contours of the state. It was won by the King and General Prem Tinsulanonda, who favored a monarchy constitutional order.

The post-1973 years have seen a difficult and sometimes bloody transition from military to civilian rule, with several reversals along the way. The revolution of 1973 inaugurated a brief, unstable period of democracy, with military rule being reimposed after the 6 October 1976 Massacre. For most of the 1980s, Thailand was ruled by Prem Tinsulanonda, a democratically-inclined strongman who restored parliamentary politics. Thereafter the country remained a democracy apart from a brief period of military rule from 1991 to 1992. The populist Thai Rak Thai party, led by prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, came to power in 2001. Though he was popular with the rural poor for his social programs, his rule came under attack due to several charges: human right abuse, suppression of a free press, conflict of interest, anti- monarchy, and corruption. In mid-2005, Sondhi Limthongkul, a well-know media tycoon, became the foremost Thaksin's critic. Eventually Sonthi and his alliances founded an opposition mass movement called 'the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), beginning its mass street protest.

On September 19, 2006, after the dissolution of the parliament, Thaksin then became the provisional government. While he was in New York for a meeting of the UN, Army Commander-in-Chief Lieutenant General Sonthi Boonyaratglin launched the bloodless September 2006 Thailand military coup d'état. A general election on 23 December 2007 restored a civilian government, led by Samak Sundaravej of the People's Power Party, with close relation to Thaksin.

In mid-2008, the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD) led large protests against the government of Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej, whom they criticized for his ties to former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra. On 26 August 2008, the protesters occupied several government ministries, including the Government House, to force the government to give in to demands.[6] Beginning August 29, protesters disrupted air and rail infrastructure, including Suvarnabhumi airport.[7]. The chaos ended in December when three of the parties that formed the government were dissolved by the Constitutional Court for serious election fraud.[8] After this decision, many previous coalition partners of the government then defected and joined the main opposition party, the Democrat party, to form a new government.[9]


  1. ^ David K. Wyatt, A Short History of Thailand (Yale University Press: New Haven, Connecticutt, 2003) p. 18.
  2. ^ Brown, Robert L. (1996). The Dvaravati wheels of law and the Indianization of South East Asia. Leiden:E.J.Brill
  3. ^ Jacq-Hergoualc'h, Michel, &Hobson, Victoria. (2002). Malay Peninsula: crossroads of maritime silkroads. Leiden:Koninkijke Brill N.V.
  4. ^ George Modelski, World Cities: –3000 to 2000, Washington DC: FAROS 2000, 2003. ISBN 0-9676230-1-4.
  5. ^ Rong Syamananda, A history of Thailand, Chulalongkorn University, 1986, p 92
  6. ^ "Thai protesters 'want new coup'". BBC News. 2008-08-26. Retrieved 2008-09-02. 
  7. ^ Wannabovorn, Sutin (2008-08-30). "Pressure grows on Thai prime minister to resign". Associated Press. Retrieved 2008-09-02. 
  8. ^ "Ousting the prime minister". The Economist. 2 December 2008. Retrieved 2 December 2008. 
  9. ^ "Thailand's Democrat Party, former coalition parties to form new gov't". Retrieved 2008-12-10. 


  • Thongchai Winichakul. Siam Mapped. University of Hawaii Press, 1984. ISBN 0-8248-1974-8
  • Wyatt, David. Thailand: A Short History (2nd edition). Yale University Press, 2003. ISBN 0-300-08475-7

See also


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