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This article is about Thailand's ethnic
majority. For other Tai ethnic groups, see Tai peoples
|Regions with significant
| United States
| Hong Kong
| Saudi Arabia
| New Zealand
Predominantly Theravada Buddhism
|Related ethnic groups
Lao, Shan, Ahom, other Tai peoples
The Thai (or Tai) are the main
ethnic group of Thailand
and are part of the larger Tai ethnolinguistic
peoples found in Thailand and adjacent countries in Southeast Asia as
well as southern China. Their
language is the Thai
language, which is classified as part of the Kradai family of languages, and the
majority of Thai are followers of Theravada
Buddhism. The term Thai people may also refer to the
population of Thailand in
general, and not only to ethnic Thais. In this sense, they are also
known as Thailanders.
The precursors of the Thai may have been among the many peoples
that comprised the Yi
and Bai ruled kingdom
of Nanzhao (or Nanman), which dominated Yunnan and much of
northern mainland southeast Asia in the 8th and 9th centuries AD.
These early Thai (known as Tai) emanated out of the Yunnan region and dispersed into the general
area of what is today Thailand. These Tai peoples arrived in
various waves and displaced the earlier native Mon and Khmer populations as
they settled the region with a large group settling in Thailand
during the Sung
period of China roughly around 960 CE. The related Lao people split off from the Tai peoples
and moved into Southeast Asia, mainly Laos, while another kindred people, the Shan, made their way into Myanmar.
The founding of the Sukhothai kingdom
culminated in the emergence of the first Thai nation-state founded
in 1238. Various conflicts in Nanzhao and its successor state the
Dali may have increased migration of the Thai, especially after
the Mongol conquest of the region, and helped establish the Thai as
a regional power. Successful wars with the Mon helped to establish
the kingdom of Lan Na as the
Thai increased their hold in Southeast Asia. The early Thai brought
their Buddhist and Chinese
traditions, but also assimilated much of the native Khmer and Mon culture of Southeast
Asia. (See Thai
Chinese for more details)
A new city-state known as Ayutthaya, named
after the Indian city of Ayodhya, was founded by Ramathibodi (a descendant of Chiang Mai) and emerged
as the center of the growing Thai Empire starting in 1350. Inspired
by the then Hindu-based Khmer Empire (Cambodia), the Ayutthaya Empire's continued
conquests led to more Thai settlements as the Khmer Empire weakened
after their defeat at Angkor
in 1431. During this period, the Thai developed a feudal system as
various vassal states paid homage to the Thai kings. Even as Thai
power expanded at the expense of the Mon and Khmer, the Thai
Ayutthaya faced setbacks at the hands of the Malay at Malacca and were checked by the Toungoo of
Though sporadic wars continued with the Burmese and other
neighbors, Chinese wars with Burma and European intervention
elsewhere in Southeast Asia allowed the Thai to develop an
independent course by trading with the Europeans as well as playing
the major powers against each other in order to remain independent.
The Chakkri dynasty under Rama
I held the Burmese at bay, while Rama
II and Rama
III helped to shape much of Thai society, but also led to Thai
setbacks as the Europeans moved into areas surrounding modern
Thailand and curtailed any claims the Thai had over Cambodia, in dispute with Burma and
Vietnam. The Thai learned
from European traders and diplomats, while maintaining an
independent course. Chinese, Malay, and British influences helped
to further shape the Thai people who often assimilated foreign
ideas, but managed to preserve much of their culture and resisted
the European colonization that engulfed their neighbors. Thailand
is also the only country that was not colonized in Southeastern
Asia area in the early history.
The vast majority of the Thai people live in Thailand, although
some Thai can also be found in other parts of Southeast Asia.
About 60 million live in Thailand alone , while
thousands can also be found in the United States, Laos, Taiwan,
Malaysia, Singapore, Cambodia, Myanmar, the United Kingdom,
Australia, and the United
Arab Emirates. From 3,298 in 1980, there are now an estimated
100,000 migrant Thais living in Germany.
The Thai can be broken down into various regional groups
including the main Thai, northeastern, northern, and southern Thai
with their own regional dialects of their mutually intelligible Thai language.
Modern Central Thai has become more dominant due to official
government policy which was designed to assimilate and unify the
disparate Thai in spite of ethnolinguistic and cultural ties
between the northeastern Thai and the Lao for example.
The modern Thai are predominantly Theravada Buddhist and strongly identify
their ethnic identity with their religious beliefs that include
aspects of ancestor worship (see Culture of Thailand). Indigenous
arts include Muay Thai
(the Thai version of South East Asian kick boxing), Thai
dance, Makruk (Thai
Chess), and Nang yai (shadow play).
The Thai have a literacy rate hovering at 98% and a strong
predilection towards education and national development.
- Girsling, John L.S., Thailand: Society and Politics
(Cornell University Press, 1981).
- Terwiel, B.J., A History of Modern Thailand (Univ. of
Queensland Press, 1984).
- Wyatt, D.K., Thailand: A Short History (Yale
University Press, 1986).