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A brief history of Thailand

The early inhabitants of Southeast Asia date back as far as 8,000 BC, and were simple hunter-gatherers. However, a slow southwestwardly migration of Austronesian (Thai, Malaysian, Indonesian) and Austro-Asiatic (Mon, Khmer, Vietnamese) speaking settlers, from China, gradually pushed out the native Australo-Melanesian speaking inhabitants. These new settlers brought with them Chinese agricultural practices based on intensive rice production, so that by about 4,000 BC rice was being cultivated throughout the region, and from about 3,000 BC metalworking started.

By the 6 th century AD numerous agricultural based, feudal kingdoms had emerged but were soon enveloped by the westward expansionism of the Khmer rulers of Angkor, in modern day Cambodia.

By 1238 the Thai people had thrown off Cambodian rule and under King Sri Intaratitya taken over Sukhothai, the first true capital of the Thai people. This expansion of the Thai kingdom was due to the increase in Mongol incursions into southern China, and the subsequent increase in the migration of Thai-speaking settlers southwestwards into Southeast Asia. At about the same time King Mengrai created a new power base centred on modern day Chang Mai.

Also, by 1351 King U Thong, of Chinese origin, had established another kingdom further south at Ayutthaya. Ayutthaya soon rose to greatness and Thai armies pushed the Khmers back out of newly formed Siam, and between 1353 –57 even managed to sack Angkor, the great capital of the Khmer emperors. By 1419 Sukhothai had been reduced to a vassal state and only Chang Mai remained defiant to the rulers of Ayutthaya.

In the 16 th century, the reunification of Siam’s northern neighbour Burma, after the Mongol invasions, and an increasing rivalry with Siam led to the sacking of Chang Mai in 1558 and by 1569 Ayutthaya itself fell to the marauding Burmese. The invasion was short lived however, and in 1595 the Siamese had managed to capture Chang Mai from the Burmese. Growth in international trade, and a large rice surplus, led to the flourishing of Ayutthaya and at its heights had a population of around 100,000 people, about 10% of the entire population of Siam at the time.

Internal unrest and continued conflict with Burma, largely a Buddhist driven conflict over the right to the title cakkavatti, or ‘Universal Monarch’, led again to the sacking of Ayutthaya in 1767. This time however the destruction was more complete and Ayutthaya was never rebuilt. From this disaster the great military leader Phraya Taksin founded a new capital at Thonburi and by 1767 had reunified the country. In 1782 the capital was moved across the river by the founding member of the Chakri dynasty (still the ruling dynasty today), Rama I, to its present day location at Bangkok. Unlike the rest of Southeast Asia, Siam remained free of colonial rule throughout the 19 th century, by tactfully playing off the French, Dutch and British against one another.

In 1932 a peaceful coup turned the country into a constitutional monarchy, but shortly after the king abdicated and this in turn led to military rule. Siding with the Japanese during the Second World War, Siam now became known as Thailand and acted as a major base for the Japanese throughout the war. Military rule continued again after the war until in 1973 a student uprising led to the formation of a coalition government. This was short lived however as internal factionalism and border unrest with newly communist Cambodia and Laos led to its downfall in 1976, and an inevitable return to military rule.

New elections in 1979 eventually led to a period of relative stability which lasted up to 1991, when a bloodless coup brought the military back into power. The coup was justified on the premise that the existing Chatichai government was corrupt and that the economy was on the verge of collapse. Bloody demonstration retuned the country to democratic rule in 1992 and by the start of the 21 st century the Thai economy along with others in the region seems to be heading in the right direction.

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