The importance of the concept of ‘Thainess’, and the difficulties and contradictions in defining that term, are key to understanding Thai culture and as a background to understanding how contemporary Thailand functions. Thailand is a democratic country but is periodically ruled by not elected military Governments with a powerful group of also not elected elites having a strong influence on the way the Country is governed. Thailand is strongly nationalistic but at the same thrives on the influx of foreigners as visitors, investors and most importantly a migrant workforce. Thai people have a high minded moral sense focused around religion and family but at the same time Thailand has a plague of corruption endemic in every sphere and a social structure where men, if financially successful, are permitted to have other partners alongside their wife. Unity of the Thai nation is a key part of the national identity yet at the same time the country is in a very real sense divided between the richer part of the country involved in industry and tourism and the poorer part of the country engaged in farming, and again the Buddhist majority and the Muslim minority of the South. The list of contradictions is endless, yet at the same time the country functions when it shouldn’t and at the heart of explaining and understanding this is the concept of ‘Thainess’.
History of Thailand
Based on archaeological evidence Thailand has been inhabited by modern humans for at least 40,000 years. Early visitors from the more advanced cultures in neighbouring countries, particularly India and the Khmer people of Cambodia, left a strong influence on the primitive early communities, the cultural imprint of which is still evident in the language and Buddhist/Hindu religious tradition of contemporary Thailand. Thailand as a nation did not, however, emerge until the 13th Century with the waning of the Khmer Empire which had for centuries been the regional superpower in South East Asia.
Chedi at Wat Po in Bangkok
From the 13th Century to the 18th Century Thailand’s political and governmental history is one of smaller kingdoms completing with each other and foreign kingdoms for control of land and people. At this point in time a more distinctive sense of cultural identity emerged and the beginning of the sense of ‘Thainess’ to link together people occupying what is now Thailand.
The 18th Century marked another important turning point in the creation of Thailand with the King of Ayutthaya (King Thaksin) being forced out of Ayutthaya by invading Burmese forces and resettling in the Bangkok area. After supplanting the rulers of the existing kingdom on the western banks of the Chao Phraya river King Thaksin (who became King Rama 1) established a new and more powerful dynasty that come to unite by means of conquest, marriage and compromise other parts of Thailand to form a nation. The current King of Thailand is a direct descendent of King Thaksin.
From the 18th Century to 1932, when absolute monarchy was replaced by constitutional monarchy with a legislature, Thailand developed under the leadership of a series of Kings and powerful advisers. During this period, particularly under the reign of King Rama V, many of the most important social reforms took place. Before King Rama V around a third of Thai people were effectively slaved owned by the person upon whose land they lived. with little or no rights. Thailand was also a polygamous society with men having multiple wives if they could afford to do so. This changed under King Rama V who abolished this system of slavery, outlawed polygamy, and introduced wider access to education.
Democracy in Thailand
The transition to democracy in Thailand has not run smoothly, and the current political situation in Thailand is open to be viewed as another stage in that transition. Following the abolition of absolute monarchy, a year later in 1933 the law was amended to allow the citizens of Thailand the right to vote to choose who half of the people who sat in that legislature with the other half being appointed by the group of military officer, government officials and other influential people who were part of a movement to abolish absolute monarchy. In this sense from the outset it was clear that the end of absolute monarchy in Thailand did not mean that Thai people would get to choose who governed them.
For the next 40 years, between 1933 and 1973, Thailand was mostly ruled by a series of military governments. Democratically elected governments lasted only short periods of time. Thailand as a nation was facing a number of challenges during this period which were unhelpful to the development of democracy, such as a world wide conflict, regional conflicts, and internal conflict with a communist movement who sought to abolish both elite and democratic institutions, ; countries in crisis often look to non-democratic leaders to solve problems.
1973 marked another turning point when the military leader of that time was displaced by student protests and had to flee the country. For the next three democratic ideals and debate started to flourish, until that is in 1976 when the military stage a brutal crackdown on the student protest movement (many were shot dead) and military government was re-established.
The cycle of coups displacing democratic governments went on with frequency until 1992. In 1991 the military has displaced the government of Chatchai Chunhawan which was believed to be extremely corrupt even by the standards of country where corruption is endemic amongst public officials. The Thai people were not disapproving of the overthrow of the corrupt government but staged large street protests in 1992 when the coup leader tried to appoint himself prime minister until the next elections were due to take place.
The period without a coup, from 1991 to 2006, can be roughly divided into two parts. Up to the 1997 financial crisis and the period after. The 1997 financial crisis undermined the democratically elected government of the day and along with it many of the political elites of the day. Into this vacuum came Thaksin Shinawatra, a successful businessman with close connections to the 1991 coup makers, with a new political party and a range of policies which appealed to poorer people in Thailand granting wider access to education, health case and funding for poorer communities. His government was very popular, however, the perception was that it was also very corrupt and guilty of significant human rights abuses. In 2006 the military stepped in again and removed the Shinawatra government from power.
Whenever elections were held again following the 2006, politicians closed associately with the now exiled Thaksin Shinawatra (including his sister), won convincing victories supported by a largely poor rural electorate in the populous North and North-East of the country. Following further accusations of corruption around a government initiative to attempt to make Thailand’s already very successful rice growing industry even more successful and months of protests in Bangkok and the South of Thailand, the military again staged coup in 2014 to remove the government of Thaksin Shinawatra’s sister, Yingluck, and set up a military government which has remained in power ever since.