Thai people, who originally lived in southwestern China, migrated into mainland Southeast Asia over a period of many centuries. The oldest known mention of their existence in the region by the exonym Siamese is in a 12th-century inscription at the Khmer temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which refers to syam, or “dark brown”, people. “Siam” may have originated from the Sanskrit śyāma “dark”, referring to the relative skin colour of its native people. Chinese: 暹羅; pinyin: Xiānluó was the name for the northern kingdom centred on Sukhothai and Sawankhalok, but to the Thai themselves, the name of the country has always been Mueang Thai.

The country’s designation as Siam by Westerners likely came from the Portuguese, the first Europeans to give a coherent account of the country. Portuguese chronicles noted that the Borommatrailokkanat, king of the Ayutthaya Kingdom, sent an expedition to the Malacca Sultanate at the southern tip of the Malay Peninsula in 1455. Following their conquest of Malacca in 1511, the Portuguese sent a diplomatic mission to Ayutthaya. A century later, on 15 August 1612, The Globe, an East India Company merchantman bearing a letter from King James I, arrived in “the Road of Syam”. “By the end of the 19th century, Siam had become so enshrined in geographical nomenclature that it was believed that by this name and no other would it continue to be known and styled.”

Indianised kingdoms such as the Mon, the Khmer Empire and Malay states of the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra had ruled the region. The Thai established their own states: Ngoenyang, the Sukhothai Kingdom, the Kingdom of Chiang Mai, Lan Na and the 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 European colonial rule because the French and the British decided it would be a neutral territory to avoid conflicts between their colonies. After the end of the absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand endured sixty years of almost permanent military rule before the establishment of a democratically elected-government system. In 2014 there was yet another coup d’état.

Ancient civilizations

Prior to the arrival of the Thai people and culture into what is now Thailand, the region hosted a number of indigenous Austroasiatic-speaking and Malayo-Sumbawan-speaking civilisations. However, little is known about Thailand before the 13th century, as the literary and concrete sources are scarce and most of the knowledge about this period is gleaned from archaeological evidence. Similar to other regions in Southeast Asia, Thailand was heavily influenced by the culture and religions of India, starting with the Kingdom of Funan around the first century until the Khmer Empire. Indian influence on Siamese culture was partly the result of direct contact with Indian settlers, but mainly it was brought about indirectly via the Indianised kingdoms of Dvaravati, Srivijaya and the Khmer Empire. E. A. Voretzsch believes that Buddhism must have been flowing into Thailand from India at the time of the Indian emperor Ashoka of the Maurya Empire and into the first millennium after Christ. Later Thailand was influenced by the south Indian Pallava dynasty and north Indian Gupta Empire.


The Chao Phraya River in what is now central Thailand had once been the home of the Mon Dvaravati culture, which prevailed from the 7th century to the 10th century. The existence of the civilisations had long been forgotten by the Thai when Samuel Beal discovered the polity among the Chinese writings on Southeast Asia as “Duoluobodi”. During the early 20th century archaeologists led by George Coedès made excavated in what is now Nakhon Pathom Province and found it to be a centre 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 U Thong (in modern U Thong District, Suphan Buri Province). The inscriptions of Dvaravati were in Sanskrit and Mon using the script derived from the Pallava alphabet of the South Indian Pallava dynasty.

The religion of Dvaravati is thought to be Theravada Buddhism 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 Empire of India. The most prominent production of Dvaravati art are dharmachakras, 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.

Dvaravati was not a kingdom but a network of city-states paying tribute to more powerful ones according to the mandala political model. Dvaravati culture expanded into Isan as well as south as far as the Kra Isthmus. Dvaravati was a part of ancient international trade as Roman artefacts were also found and Dvaravati tributes to the Tang Chinese court are recorded. The culture lost power around the 10th century when they submitted to the more unified Lavo-Khmer polity.

Si Kottaboon

In what is modern Isan, another Indianised kingdom, Si Kottaboon, rose with the capital of Nakhon Phanom. The territory of Si Khottaboon encompassed mostly northern Isan and central Laos.

Southern Thailand

Below the Kra Isthmus was the place of Malay civilisations. Primordial Malay kingdoms are described as tributaries to Funan by second-century Chinese sources, though most of them proved to be tribal organisations instead of full-fledged kingdoms. From the sixth century on, two major mandalas ruled southern Thailand, the Kanduli and the Langkasuka. Kanduli centred on what is now Surat Thani Province and Langasuka in Pattani Province.

Southern Thailand was the centre of Hinduism and Mahayana Buddhism. The Tang monk Yijing stopped at Langkasuka to study Pali grammar and Mahayana during his journey to India around 800. At that time, the kingdoms of Southern Thailand quickly fell under the influences of the Malay kingdom of Srivijaya from Sumatra. Rajendra Chola I of the Chola dynasty invaded the Tambralinga Kingdom in southern Thailand in the 11th century.


According to the Cāmadevivaṃsa, the city of Hariphunchai (modern Lamphun) was founded by hermits. Camadevi, a princess of the Lavo Kingdom, was invited to rule the city around 700. However, this date is considered too early for the foundation of Hariphunchai as Camadevi brought no dharmachakras to the north.[clarification needed] Hariphunchai may be a later (10th century) offshoot of the Lavo Kingdom or instead related to the Thaton Kingdom.

Hariphunchai was the centre of Theravada in the north. The kingdom flourished during the reign of King Attayawong who built Wat Phra That Hariphunchai in 1108. The kingdom had strong relations with the Mon Kingdom of Thaton. During the 11th century, Hariphunchai waged lengthy wars with the Tai Ngoenyang Kingdom of Chiang Saen. Weakened by Tai invasions, Hariphunchai eventually fell in 1293 to Mangrai, king of Lan Na, the successor state of the Ngoenyang Kingdom.

Arrival of the Tais

The most recent and accurate theory about the origin of the Tai people stipulates that Guangxi in China is really the Tai motherland instead of Yunnan. A large number of Tai people known as the Zhuang still live in Guangxi today. Around 700 CE, Tai people who did not come under Chinese influence settled in what is now Điện Biên Phủ in modern Vietnam according to the Khun Borom legend. Based on layers of Chinese loanwords in proto-Southwestern Tai and other historical evidence, Pittayawat Pittayaporn (2014) proposed that this migration must have taken place sometime between the 8th-10th centuries. From there, the Tais began to radiate into northern highlands and founded the cities of Luang Prabang and Chiang Saen District.

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 CE. For the first time, the Tai people made contact with the Indianized civilisations of Southeast Asia. Through Hariphunchai, the Tais of Chiang Saen adopted Theravada Buddhism and Sanskrit royal names. Wat Phrathat Doi Tong, constructed around 850, signified the piety of Tai people on the Theravada religion. Around 900, major wars were fought between Chiang Saen and Hariphunchai. 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 CE, Chiang Saen was destroyed by an earthquake with many inhabitants killed. A council was established to govern the kingdom for a while, and then a local Wa man known as Lavachakkaraj was elected king of the new city of Chiang Saen or Ngoenyang. The Lavachakkaraj dynasty would rule over the region for about 500 years.

Overpopulation might have encouraged the Tais to seek their fortune further southwards. By 1100 CE, the Tai had established themselves as Po Khuns (ruling fathers) at Nan, Phrae, Songkwae, Sawankhalok, and Chakangrao on the upper Chao Phraya River. These southern Tai princes faced Khmer influence from the Lavo Kingdom. Some of them became subordinates to it.


Around the 10th century, the city-states of Dvaravati merged into two mandalas, the Lavo (modern Lopburi) and the Suvarnabhumi (modern Suphan Buri). According to a legend in the Northern Chronicles, in 903, a king of Tambralinga invaded and took Lavo and installed a Malay prince on 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 the Khmer throne and became Suryavarman I, thus bringing Lavo under Khmer domination through marital union. Suryavarman I also expanded into the Khorat Plateau (later styled “Isan”), constructing many temples.

Suryavarman, however, had no male heirs and again Lavo was independent. After the death of King Narai of Lavo, 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 Theravadin Mon Dvaravati city into a Hindu Khmer one. Lavo became the entrepôt of Khmer culture and power of the Chao Phraya river basin. The bas-relief at Angkor Wat shows a Lavo army as one of the subordinates to Angkor. 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“.

Sukhothai Kingdom (1238–1438)

Thai city-states gradually became independent of the weakened Khmer Empire. It is said that Sukhothai Kingdom was established as a strong sovereign kingdom by Sri Indraditya in 1238. A political feature which “classic” Thai historians call “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 Ram Khamhaeng, who tradition and legend states established the Thai alphabet, but after his death in 1365, Sukhothai 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 eastern state of Lan Na centred in Chiang Mai. King Mangrai was its founder. This city-state emerged in the same period as Sukhothai. Evidently Lan Na 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 Lan Na and Ayutthaya also constantly took place and Chiang Mai was eventually subjugated, becoming Ayutthaya’s vassal.

Lan Na’s independent history ended in 1558, when it finally fell to the Burmese. It was dominated by Burma until the late-18th 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 20th century they were annexed and became part of modern Siam, the country that is now called “Thailand”.

Ayutthaya period (1351–1767)

The city of Ayutthaya was on a small island, encircled by three rivers. Due to its defensible location, Ayutthaya quickly became powerful, politically, and economically. Ayutthaya’s name is derived from Ayodhya, an Indian holy city.

The first ruler of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, King Uthong (r. 1351-1369), 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 Dharmaśāstra, a legal code based on Hindu sources and traditional Thai custom. The Dharmaśāstra remained a tool of Thai law until late in the 19th century.

In 1511 Duke Afonso de Albuquerque dispatched Duarte Fernandes as an envoy to the Ayutthaya Kingdom, known then to Europeans as the “Kingdom of Siam”. This contact with the West during the 16th century led to a period of economic growth as lucrative trade routes were established. Ayutthaya became one of the most prosperous cities in Southeast Asia. According to George Modelski, Ayutthaya is estimated to have been the largest city in the world in 1700 CE, with a population around one million. Trade flourished, with the Dutch and Portuguese among the most active foreigners in the kingdom, together with the Chinese and Malayans.

The Ayutthaya Period is known as “golden age of medicine in Thailand” due to progress in the field of medicine at that time.

Medieval Thailand

Burmese wars

Starting in the middle of the 16th century, the kingdom came under repeated attacks by the Taungoo Dynasty of Burma. The Burmese–Siamese War (1547–49) began with a Burmese invasion and a failed siege of Ayutthaya. A second siege (1563–64) led by King Bayinnaung forced King Maha Chakkraphat to surrender in 1564. The royal family was taken to Bago, Burma, with the king’s second son Mahinthrathirat installed as a vassal king. In 1568, Mahinthrathirat revolted when his father managed to return from Bago as a Buddhist monk. The ensuing third siege captured Ayutthaya in 1569 and Bayinnaung made Mahathammarachathirat his vassal king.

After Bayinnaung’s death in 1581, Uparaja Naresuan proclaimed Ayutthaya’s independence in 1584. The Thai fought off repeated Burmese invasions (1584–1593), capped by an elephant duel between King Naresuan and Burmese heir-apparent Mingyi Swa in 1593 during the fourth siege of Ayutthaya in which Naresuan famously slew Mingyi Swa. The Burmese–Siamese War (1594–1605) was a Thai attack on Burma, resulting in the capture of the Tanintharyi Region as far as Mottama in 1595 and Lan Na in 1602. Naresuan even invaded mainland Burma as far as Taungoo in 1600, but was driven back.

Ayutthaya expanded its sphere of influence over a considerable area, ranging from the Islamic states on the Malay Peninsula, the Andaman seaports of present-day India, the Angkor 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 politics. Outlying principalities became more and more independent, ignoring the capital’s orders and decrees.

In the 18th century, the last phase of the kingdom arrived. The Bamar people, who had taken control of Lan Na 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 outer and inner 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.

Thonburi period (1768–1782)

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. Despite its complete defeat and occupation by Burma, Siam made a rapid recovery. The resistance to Burmese rule was led by a noble of Chinese descent, Taksin, a capable military leader. Initially based at Chanthaburi in the southeast, within a year he had defeated the Burmese occupation army and re-established a Siamese state with its capital at Thonburi on the west bank of the Chao Phraya, 20 km from the sea. In 1768 he was crowned as King Taksin (now officially known as “Taksin the Great”).

Unification war of five separate states

After the sacking of Ayutthaya, the country had fallen apart, due to the disappearance of the central authority. Besides King Taksin, who had organized his force in the southeastern provinces, Prince Teppipit, King Boromakot’s son, who had been unsuccessful in a diversionary action against the Burmese in 1766, had set himself up as the ruler of Phimai holding sway over the eastern provinces including Nakhon Ratchasima or Khorat, while the Governor of Phitsanulok, whose first name was Ruang (Thai:เรือง), had proclaimed himself independent, with the territory under his control extending to the province of Nakhon Sawan. North of Phitsanulok was the town of Sawangburi (known as Fang in Uttaradit Province), where a Buddhist monk named Ruan had made himself a prince, appointing fellow monks as army commanders. He had himself pursued Buddhist studies at Ayutthaya with such excellent results that he had been appointed the chief monk of Sawangburi by King Boromakot. The southern provinces as far north as Chumphon, a Pra Palad who was the acting Governor of Nakhon Si Thammarat declared his independence and raised himself to a princely rank.

Having firmly established his power at Thonburi, King Taksin set out to reunify the old kingdom, crushing regional rivals. After a temporary repulse by the Governor of Phitsanulok, he concentrated on the defeat of the weakest one first. Prince Teppipit of Phimai was quelled and executed in 1768. Chao Narasuriyawongse, one of Taksin’s nephews, was substituted for him as governor. King Taksin himself led an expedition against him and took it, but the prince disappeared and could not be found again.

In dealing with the Prince of Nakhon Si Thammarat, who was taken prisoner by the loyal Governor of Pattani, the king not only pardoned him but also favoured him with a residence at Thonburi.

Sinicization of Siam

In Thonburi period, the beginning of the Chinese mass immigration fell to Siam. Through the availability of Chinese workers, trade, agriculture and craftsmen flourished. However, the first Chinese rebellions had to be suppressed. However, later due to stress and many factors, King Taksin went mad. After a coup d’état removing Taksin from power was restored by General Chakri (later becoming Rama I), Taksin was sentenced to death on Wednesday, 10 April 1782.

Rattanakosin period (1782–present)

General Chakri succeeded Taksin in 1782 as Rama I, the first king of the Chakri dynasty. In the same year he founded a new capital city across the Chao Phraya River in an area known as Rattanakosin Island. (While settlements on both banks were commonly called Bangkok, both the Burney Treaty of 1826 and the Roberts Treaty of 1833 refer to the capital as the City of Sia-Yut’hia. In the 1790s, Burma was defeated and driven out of Siam, as it was then called. Lan Na also became free of Burmese occupation, but was reduced to the Kingdom of Chiang Mai. The king of the new dynasty was installed as a tributary ruler of the Chakri monarch.

Restoration under Rama I

After the coup of removing Taksin, it is probable that Chakri and his family had planned the ascent to the throne already during his predecessor Taksin. After his coronation, he operated a systematic bloody extermination of the followers of Taksin, which corresponds to the typical approach of the usurpers in Thai history.

The new dynasty moved the capital of Thonburi to Rattanakosin, today’s Bangkok. Bangkok had previously been a small settlement with a fort, but it was strategically located on the eastern shores of the Chao Phraya river and was known among the foreign traders as the ‘key to Siam’. New palaces and temples were built. The Emerald Buddha and Wat Phra Kaeo were founded. The king’s goal was to transfer the old splendor of Ayutthaya to the new capital. In his new capital, Rama I crowned himself in 1785 in a splendid ceremony.

During the reign of Rama I, the foreign policy was still focused on the threat represented by Burma. Burma’s new king Bodawpaya ordered the nine Burmese armies in a surprise attack against Siam, while in 1786 the Burmese army invaded the Three Pagoda Pass. It came to the “Nine Armies’ Wars“. In all cases, the Siamese remained victorious after the fighting. In 1805 Lanna (North Thailand) was largely brought under control of Bangkok. Rama I also attempted unsuccessfully to conquer the important trading ports of Tenasserim.

At the time of Rama I, Cambodia was practically administered as a province of Siam, as the rival Vietnam had to deal with internal problems. Only when the new Vietnamese emperor Gia Long had ascended to the throne was the influence of Siam in Cambodia again contested. Relations with Vietnam took on a prominent place in this epoch. There were no significant relations with the European colonial powers during the reign of Rama I.

One of the most important achievements of Rama I was the codification of all the country’s laws into a work of 1,700 pages called the Three Seals Law. This law remained valid in its basic traits until the beginning of the twentieth century.

Siam also had a high level of cultural achievement. The Buddhist canon (Pāli Canon) was collected and reformulated within the framework of a Grand Council. The arts were promoted, as well as the construction of new palaces and temples in the capital. Literature and theater also thrived; in this epoch were produced works such as the important, 3,000-page Ramakian. Works from Chinese, Mon, Javanese, Persian, and Indian languages were translated into Thai.

Rama I, the first king of the Chakri dynasty, continued the traditions of Ayutthaya in many respects. However, the new empire was still more tightly centralized than its predecessors. A particularly important innovation was the stronger emphasis on rationality in the relationship between the monarch and his subjects. Rama I was the first king in the history of the country who justified his decisions before the highest officials.

Maintaining the status quo under Rama II and Rama II

King Rama II (Phra Phutthaloetla) was the son of Rama I. His accession to the throne was accompanied by a plot, during which 40 people were killed. The calmness of the interior and the exterior, which during the reign of Rama II and his successor Rama III (Phra Nang Klao), prevailed mainly through giving in to conflicts and building good relations influential clans in the country.

During Rama II’s reign, The reign was a cultural renaissance after the massive wars that plague the First Reign; particularly in the fields of arts and literature. Poets employed by Rama II included Sunthorn Phu the drunken writer (Phra Aphai Mani) and Narin Dhibet (Nirat Narin).

Foreign relations initially dominated relations with the neighboring states, while those of the European colonial powers came into the background. In Cambodia and Laos, Vietnam gained the supremacy, which Rama II initially accepted. When a rebellion broke out in Vietnam, under Rama III. 1833-34 tried to subdue the Vietnamese militarily, but this led to a lossy defeat of the Siamese troops. In the 1840s, however, the Khmer himself succeeded in expelling the Vietnamese, which subsequently led to a higher influence of Siams in Cambodia. At the same time Siam remained sent tribute to China.

There was a serious touch with English colonial interests when Siam conquered the Sultanate Kedah on the Malay Peninsula in 1821. Kedah belonged to the sphere of interest of Great Britain; In the following year, the Siam must recognize the pre-conquest status after tough negotiations with the English envoy John Crawfurd. There is also the timid resumption of trade and missionary activity in this epoch. In particular, English traders such as Robert Hunter (exploiter of “Siamese twins”) or James Hayes, but also missionaries like Jacob Tomlin, Karl Gützlaff, Dan Beach Bradley and Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix became active in Siam. In 1825 an agreement was signed with the English emissary Henry Burney; Siam had to recognize British colonial possessions on the Malay Peninsula. This agreement was not least due to the rapid English success in the First Anglo-Burmese War.

A potentially dangerous event occurred with the Anouvong’s Rebellion in 1827, when the troops of the actually tributary king Anouvong of Kingdom of Vientiane advanced towards Bangkok. They could, however, be destroyed, which strengthened the position of Siams in Laos; All Lao-populated areas west of the Mekong were relocated to Thai provinces in Isan.

Under Rama II and Rama III. Culture, dance, poetry and above all the theater reached a climax. In the temple Wat Pho was built by Rama III, known as the first university of the country.

The reign of Rama III. Was finally marked by a division of the aristocracy with regard to foreign policy. A small group of advocates of the takeover of Western technologies and other achievements were opposed by conservative circles, who came for a stronger foreclosure. Since the kings Rama II and Rama III. To the conservative-religious circles, largely dominated an isolationist tendency.

The death of Rama III. In 1851 also signified the end of the old traditional Siamese monarchy: there were already clear signs of profound changes, which had to be implemented by the two successors of the king.

Modernization under Rama IV and Rama V

When King Mongkut ascended the Siamese throne, he was severely threatened from the neighboring states. The colonial powers of British and France had already advanced into territories which originally belonged to the Siamese sphere of influence. Mongkut and his successor Chulalongkorn (Rama V) recognized this situation and tried to strengthen the defense forces of Siam by modernization, to absorb Western scientific and technical achievements, thus avoiding colonization.

The two monarchs, who ruled in this epoch, were the first with Western formation. King Mongkut had lived 26 years as a wandering monk and later as an abbot of Wat Bowonniwet. He was not only skilled in the traditional culture and Buddhist sciences of Siam, but he had also dealt extensively with modern western science, drawing on the knowledge of European missionaries and his correspondence with Western leaders and the Pope. He was the first Siamese monarch to speak the English language.

As early as 1855, John Bowring, the British governor in Hong Kong, appeared on a war ship in at the mouth of the Chao Phraya River. Under the influence of British’s achievements in neighboring Burma, King Mongkut signed the so-called “Bowring Treaty,” which abolished the royal foreign trade monopoly, abolished import duties, and granted Britain a most favorable clause. The Bowring Treaty meant the integration of Siams into the world economy, but at the same time the royal house lost its most important sources of income. Similar treaties were concluded with all Western powers in the following years, such as 1862 with Prussia and 1869 with Austria-Hungary. From the Prussian emissary count Friedrich Albrecht zu Eulenburg comes a much-respected travel report about Siam. The survival diplomacy, which Siam had cultivated abroad for a long time, reached its climax in this epoch.

The integration into the global economy meant to Siam that it became a sales market for Western industrial goods and an investment for Western capital. The export of agricultural and mineral raw materials began. Including, the three products rice, pewter and teakwood were used to produce 90% of the export turnover. King Mongkut actively promoted the expansion of agricultural land by tax incentives, while the construction of traffic routes (canals, roads and later also railways) and the influx of Chinese immigrants allowed the agricultural development of new regions.

Mongkut’s son, Chulalongkorn (Rama V) was ascended to the throne in 1868. He was the first Siamese king to have a full Western education, having been taught by a British governess, Anna Leonowens, whose place in Siamese history has been fictionalised as The King and I. At first Rama V’s reign was dominated by the conservative regent, Chaophraya Si Suriyawongse, but when the king came of age in 1873 he soon took control. He created a Privy Council and a Council of State, a formal court system and budget office. He announced that slavery would be gradually abolished and debt-bondage restricted.

Western Colonialism and Losses of territories

The two kings, Mongkut and Chulalongkorn, had to see how both France and Great Britain continued to expand their colonial territories in Southeast Asia and encircle Siam so that from the west, the British (conquering India, Burma and Malaya), from the east, the French (conquering South Vietnam, Vietnam and claimed the protection of Cambodia. In this period Siam also lost extraterritorial rights to Western countries.

The construction of Kra Isthmus Canal, which a group of entrepreneurs pursued around the engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, did not occur after British intervention. The British had conquered Burma in the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885. A major event was the Paknam incident, when, on July 13, 1893, French cannon boats headed the Chao Phraya River toward Bangkok and were fired by the Siamese coastal fort, led to the Franco-Siamese War. In the same year, Siam was compelled to conclude a treaty with France, in which the territory of Laos, located east of the Mekong river, was annexed to French Indochina. The French forced Siam to refrain from any influence on his former vassal state. In 1887, the Indo-Chinese Union was founded. In 1896, British and French concluded a treaty which made a border between the their colonies, Siam was defined as buffer state.

After the Franco-Siamese War, King Chulalongkorn realized the threat of the western colonial powers, and made an intention to accelerated the extensive reforms in the administration, the military, the economy and society. It thus ended the development of Siam from a traditional feudalist structure based on personal domination and dependencies, whose peripheral areas were only indirectly bound to the central power (the King), to a centrally-governed national state with established borders and modern political institutions.

The Anglo-Siamese Treaty of 1909 defined the modern border between Siam and British Malaya, The treaty stated that Siam relinquished their claims over Kelantan, Terengganu, Kedah and Perlis to Great Britain, 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.

In 1904, 1907 and 1909, there were new border corrections in favor of France and Great Britain. When King Chulalongkorn died in 1910, Siam had the borders of today’s Thailand. In 1910 he was peacefully succeeded by his son Vajiravudh, who reigned as Rama VI. He had been educated at Sandhurst military academy and at the Oxford, and was an anglicised Edwardian gentleman. Indeed, one of Siam’s problems was the widening gap between the Westernised royal family and upper aristocracy and the rest of the country. It took another 20 years for Western education to extend to the rest of the bureaucracy and the army.

Nation formation under Vajiravudh

The successor of King Chulalongkorn was King Rama VI in October 1910, better known as Vajiravudh. He had studied law and history as the Siamese crown prince in Great Britain. After his ascension to the throne, he forgave important officials for his devoted friends, who were not part of the nobility, and even less qualified than their predecessors, an action which had hitherto been unprecedented in Siam. In his reign (1910-1925) many changes were made, which brought Siam closer to modern countries. For example, the Gregorian Calendar was introduced, all the citizens of his country had to accept a Family names, women were encouraged to wear skirts and long hair fringements and a citizenship law, Principle of the “Ius sanguinis” was adopted. In 1917 the Chulalongkorn University was founded and school education was introduced for all 7 to 14-year-olds.

King Vajiravudh was a favor of literature, theater, he translated many foreign literatures into Thai. He created the spiritual foundation for a kind of Thai nationalism, a phenomenon unknown in Siam. He was based on the unity of nation, Buddhism, and kingship, and demanded loyalty from his subjects to all these three institutions. King Vajiravudh also took refuge in an irrational and contradictory anti-Sinicism. As a result of the mass immigration, in contrast to previous immigration waves from China, women and entire families had also come into the country, which meant that the Chinese were less assimilated and retained their cultural independence. In an article published by King Vajiravudh under a pseudonym, he described the Chinese minority as Jews of the East.

King Vajiravudh also created some new social associations, for example the Wild Tiger Corps (1911), a kind of Scout movement.

In 1912, a Palace revolt, plotted by young military officers, tried unsuccessfully to overthrow and replace the king. Their goals were to change the system of government, overthrowing the ancien régime and replacing it with a modern, Westernised constitutional system, and perhaps to replace Rama VI with a prince more sympathetic to their beliefs. but the king went against the conspirators, and sentenced many of them to long prison sentences. The members of the conspiracy consisted of military and the navy, the status of the monarchy, had become challenged.

World War 1

In 1917 Siam declared war on German Empire and Austria-Hungary, mainly to gain favour with the British and the French. Siam’s token participation in World War I secured it a seat at the Versailles Peace Conference, and Foreign Minister Devawongse used this opportunity to argue for the repeal of the 19th century unequal treaties and the restoration of full Siamese sovereignty. The United States obliged in 1920, while France and Britain delayed until 1925. This victory gained the king some popularity, but it was soon undercut by discontent over other issues, such as his extravagance, which became more noticeable when a sharp postwar recession hit Siam in 1919. There was also the fact that the king had no son. He obviously preferred the company of men to women (a matter which of itself did not much concern Siamese opinion, but which did undermine the stability of the monarchy due to the absence of heirs).

Thus when Rama VI died suddenly in 1925, aged only 44, the monarchy was already in a weakened state. He was succeeded by his younger brother Prajadhipok.

By 1925–1926, Siamese extraterritorial rights were restored a period of 5 years thereafter.

Modern Thailand

End of absolute monarchy, and military rule

Siamese revolution of 1932

A small circle from the rising bourgeoisie of former students (all of whom had completed their studies in Europe – mostly Paris), supported by some military men, seized power from the absolute monarchy on June 24, 1932 in an almost nonviolent revolution. This was also called the “Siamese Revolution“. The group, which called themselves Khana Ratsadon or sponsors, gathered officers, intellectuals and bureaucrats, who represented the idea of refusal of the absolute monarchy.

The Khana Ratsadon installed a constitutional monarchy with Prajadhipok as king at the top – a corresponding constitution was proclaimed on 10 December of the year. On the same day, the experienced and rather conservative lawyer Phraya Manopakorn Nititada, was appointed as first Siamese Prime Minister. By selecting a non-party head of government, the Khana Ratsadon wanted to avoid the suspicion that the coup had only been carried out in order to come to power itself. However, the overthrow of the monarchy did not lead to free elections, political unions were forbidden. Bureaucracy and the military shared the power in the National Assembly. The constitution was annexed to the monarchist ideology (“nation, religion, king”) as a fourth pillar.

In the following period it became clear how heterogeneous the group of Khana Ratsadon was, and it fell into several rival wings, especially those of the high officers, the younger officers and the civilians. For the predecessor of the liberal and civilian wing, Pridi Phanomyong it was not done with the mere change of government form. He sought a profound transformation of the country’s social and economic system. To this end, he presented an economic plan in January 1933, which became known as a “Yellow Cover Dossier” (Thai: สมุดปกเหลือง). Among other things, he proposed the Nationalization of farmland, Industrialization by Public Company, general health care and pension insurance. The King, the rather conservative Prime Minister Phraya Manopakorn, but also the high-ranking officers in the Khana Ratsadon around Phraya Songsuradet and even Pridi’s friend and co-worker Prayun Phamonmontri.

Fearing that Pridis’s liberal wing, who had the majority in the National Assembly, would decide to take a decision, Phraya Manopakorn dissolved the parliament in April, imposed the emergency, and rescinded the constitutional part, which had not yet been a year old. He imposed a law against Communist activities, which was directed not so much against the almost insignificant Communist Party of Thailand, but rather against the alleged Communist projects Pridis. However, the younger officers of the Khana Ratsadon resisted and countered the oppressive actions of Phraya Manopakorn lead to another coup d’état only one year later, in June 1933, resulting in the appointment of Phraya Phahon as Siam’s second prime minister.

After the fall of Phraya Manopakorn, Phraya Phahon became the new Prime Minister. In his reign, the younger officers of the Khana Ratsadon, chiefly their leader Phibunsongkhram, played a decisive role. Pridi Phanomyong was expelled from the charge of communism, but his economic plan was largely ignored. Only a few of his ideas, such as the expansion of primary schools and industrialization with state enterprises, were gradually implemented. In 1933, Pridis founded the Thammasat University in Bangkok, which with its liberal self-image has remained a symbol of freedom and democracy. At the same time, the nationalist group led by Phibunsongkhram strengthened in the People’s Party, oriented to the totalitarian ideas of Italy, Germany, Japan, but also the “young Turks” (Kemal Ataturk).

Civil War and Rebellion

The many unsettled constitutional roles of the crown and the dissatisfaction with Khana Ratsadon’s seizure of power culminated in October 1933 in a counter-coup, the Boworadet Rebellion staged by royalist factions. The royalists were led by Prince Boworadet, a grandson of Mongkut and one-time minister of defence, led an armed revolt against the government. He mobilised various provincial garrisons and marched on Bangkok, capturing the Don Muang Aerodome along the way, this led Siam into small-scale civil War, The prince accused the government of disrespecting the king and promoting communism, and he demanded that the government leaders resign. He had hoped that some of the garrisons in the Bangkok area would join the revolt, but they remained loyal to the government. Meanwhile, the navy declared itself neutral and left for its bases in the south. After heavy fighting in the northern outskirts of Bangkok, the royalists were finally defeated and Prince Boworadet left for exile in French Indochina. After the Boworadet rebellion, King Prajadhipok abdicated the throne and left Siam never to return, he exiled in England, He was replaced as king by his nine-year-old nephew Prince Ananda Mahidol (King Rama VIII), who at that time was attending school in Lausanne, Switzerland, the Khana Ratsadon believing that he would be more pliable than Prajadhipok.

After the Boworadet Rebellion, Plaek Pibulsonggram influences over politics increased, to purge the country of his political enemies and rivals (one of them just happened to be Phraya Songsuradet). The roots of the rebellion began during the Coup d’état of June 1933, when Phraya Phahon Phonphayuhasena ousted Phraya Manopakorn Nititada and replace Phibun as Prime Minister. Phraya Songsuradet was a supporter of Phraya Manopakorn and many of his companions were barred from politics for life by Phibun.

During before and after the coup conflicts arose between Songsuradet and Phibulsonggram, who were both Ministers of State and members of the Khana Ratsadon. The “rebellion”, however, did not end there. In the early hours of 29 January 1939 Phibun, with the help of his minister of the interior and director of the Royal Police, ordered the arrest of a further 51 suspects (suspected of being Songsuradet sympathizers). The persons arrested included Prince Rangsit, Prince of Chainat (Thai: พระองค์เจ้ารังสิตประยูรศักดิ์) (a son of King Chulalongkorn), General Phraya Thepahatsadin (Thai: พระยาเทพหัสดิน) (a 62-year-old former commander of the Siamese Expeditionary Force during the First World War), and Phraya Udom Pongphensawad (Thai: พระยาอุดมพงศ์เพ็ญสวัสดิ์ ), a former minister of state. Others arrested included politicians such as members of the People’s Assembly and many were military officers and aristocrats. A further 20 suspects were arrested. On that date Songsuradet received orders from Bangkok stripping him of his command of all units as well as his rank and titles and forcing him to retire from the army without pension. He was also expelled from the country. Fearing death, Songsuradet escaped to Cambodia.

When Phibulsonggram succeeded Phraya Phahon as Prime Minister of Thailand on the 11 September 1938, there were many resistance to his premiership based on his dictatorial style and cronyism. The military, now led by Major General Phibun as Defence Minister, and the civilian liberals led by Pridi as Foreign Minister, worked together harmoniously for several years, but when Phibun became prime minister in December 1938 this co-operation broke down, and military domination became more overt.

Fascist Thailand

In 1938, Phibunsongkhram, an open supporter of Mussolini and Hitler, began moving the government towards the right. By 1942 he issued a series of cultural decrees’ ‘(ratthaniyom)’ or Thai cultural mandates, which reflected the desire for social modernization, but also an authoritarian and exaggerated nationalist spirit. First, in 1939 he changed the country name of Siam to Thailand (Prathet Thai) (Thai: ประเทศไทย). This was directed against the ethnic diversity in the country (Malay, Chinese, Lao, Shan, etc.) and is based on the idea of a “Thai race”, a Pan-Thai nationalism whose program is the integration of the Shan, the Lao and other Tai peoples, such as Vietnam, Burma and South China, into a “Great Kingdom of Thailand” (Thai: มหาอาณาจักรไทย). Other decrees offered the citizens only to call themselves “Thai”, urged the use of regional dialects and other languages, demanded respect for the flag, the national and royal anthem, the purchase of Thai products. Chinese names had to be changed in Thai, candidates for the military academy had to prove that they were “pure-blooded” Thais. Finally, the use of Western clothing and customs (including hats for men and women, gloves and high heels for women, the man should kiss the woman before he went to work) was prescribed.

The defeat of France in Battle of France was now the welcome date for the Thai leadership to begin an attack on the French colony in Indochina. This began with smaller collisions in 1940 and resulted in a war conflict in 1941. It had to accept a heavy defeat in the sea Battle of Ko Chang, dominated however on land and in the air. The Empire of Japan, then already dominant power in the Southeast Asian region, took over the role of the mediator. The negotiations ended the Franco-Thai War with Thai territorial gains in the French colonies Laos and Cambodia. In celebration of the victory, Phibun called himself Than phu nam (Thai: ท่านผู้นำ) (“the leader”) to run a personality cult around him.

World War II

After the Franco-Thai war ended, the Thai government declared neutrality. When the Japanese invaded Thailand on 8 December 1941, a few hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan demanded the right to move troops across Thailand to the Malayan frontier. Phibun turned crisis into opportunity by ordering an armistice. Shortly thereafter Japan was granted free passage, and on 21 December 1941, Thailand and Japan signed a military alliance. Subsequently, Thailand undertook to “assist” Japan in its war against the Allies. Phibun was forced to order a general ceasefire after just one day of resistance and allow the Japanese armies to use the country as a base for their invasions of Burma and Malaya. Hesitancy, however, gave way to enthusiasm after the Japanese rolled their way through Malaya in a “Bicycle Blitzkrieg” with surprisingly little resistance. On 21 December, Phibun signed a military alliance with Japan. The following month, on 25 January 1942, Phibun declared war on Britain and the United States. South Africa and New Zealand declared war on Thailand on the same day. Australia followed soon after. All who opposed the Japanese alliance were sacked from his government. Pridi Phanomyong was appointed acting regent for the absent King Ananda Mahidol, while Direk Jayanama, the prominent foreign minister who had advocated continued resistance against the Japanese, was later sent to Tokyo as an ambassador. The United States considered Thailand to be a puppet of Japan and refused to declare war. When the allies were victorious, United States blocked British efforts to impose a punitive peace.

The Thais and Japanese agreed that Shan State and Kayah State were to be under Thai control. The rest of Burma was to be under Japanese control. On 10 May 1942, the Thai Phayap Army entered Burma’s eastern Shan State, the Thai Burma Area Army entered Kayah State and some parts of central Burma. Three Thai infantry and one cavalry division, spearheaded by armoured reconnaissance groups and supported by the air force, engaged the retreating Chinese 93rd Division. Kengtung, the main objective, was captured on 27 May. Renewed offensives in June and November saw the Chinese retreat into Yunnan. The area containing the Shan States and Kayah State was annexed by Thailand in 1942. They would be ceded back to Burma in 1945.

The Seri Thai (Free Thai Movement) was an underground resistance movement against Japan founded by Seni Pramoj, the Thai ambassador in Washington, with the assistance of the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS). Led from within Thailand from the office of the regent Pridi, it operated freely, often with support from members of the royal family such as Prince Chula Chakrabongse, and members of the government. As Japan neared defeat and the underground anti-Japanese resistance Seri Thai steadily grew in strength, the National Assembly forced out Phibun. His six-year reign as the military commander-in-chief was at an end. His resignation was partly forced by his two grandiose plans gone awry. One was to relocate the capital from Bangkok to a remote site in the jungle near Phetchabun in north central Thailand. The other was to build a “Buddhist city” near Saraburi. Announced at a time of severe economic difficulty, these ideas turned many government officers against him.

At war’s end, Phibun was put on trial at Allied insistence on charges of having committed war crimes, mainly that of collaborating with the Axis powers. However, he was acquitted amid intense public pressure. Public opinion was still favourable to Phibun, as he was thought to have done his best to protect Thai interests. His alliance with Japan had Thailand take advantage from Japanese support the expansion of Thai territory in Malay and Burma.


Allied occupation of Thailand (1946)

After Japan’s defeat in 1945, British, Indian troops, and US observers landed in September, and during their brief occupation of parts of the country, disarmed the Japanese troops. After repatriating them home the British left in March 1946. US support for Thailand blunted Allied demands, although the British demanded reparations in the form of rice sent to Malaya, and the French, the return of territories lost in the Franco-Thai War. In exchange for supporting Thailand’s admission to the United Nations, the Soviet Union demanded repeal of anti-communist legislation. Former British POWs erected a monument expressing gratitude to the citizens of Ubon Ratchathani for their kindnesses.

In early-September the leading elements of Major General Geoffrey Charles Evans‘s Indian 7th Infantry Division landed, accompanied by Edwina Mountbatten. Later that month Seni Pramoj returned from Washington to succeed Tawee as prime minister. It was the first time in over a decade that the government was controlled by civilians. But the ensuing factional scramble for power in late-1945 created political divisions in the ranks of the civilian leaders that destroyed their potential for making a common stand against the resurgent political force of the military in the post-war years.

Following the signature by Thailand of the Washington Accord of 1946 the territories that had been annexed after the Franco-Thai War, which included Phibunsongkhram Province, Nakhon Champassak Province, Phra Tabong Province, Koh Kong Province and Lan Chang Province, were returned to Cambodia and Laos.

Moreover, the post-war accommodations with the Allies weakened the civilian government. As a result of the contributions made to the Allied war efforts by the Free Thai Movement, the United States, which unlike the other Allies had never officially been at war with Thailand, refrained from dealing with Thailand as an enemy country in post-war peace negotiations. Before signing a peace treaty, however, Britain demanded war reparations in the form of rice shipments to Malaya. An Anglo-Thai Peace Treaty was signed on 1 January 1946, and an Australian–Thai Peace Treaty on 3 April. France refused to permit admission of Thailand to the United Nations until Indochinese territories annexed during the war were returned. The Soviet Union insisted on the repeal of anti-communist legislation.

Democratic elections and the return of the military

Elections were held in January 1946. These were the first elections in which political parties were legal, and Pridi’s People’s Party and its allies won a majority. In March 1946 Pridi became Siam’s first democratically elected prime minister. In 1946, after he agreed to hand back the Indochinese territories occupied in 1941 as the price for admission to the United Nations, all wartime claims against Siam were dropped and substantial US aid was received.

In December 1945, the young king Ananda Mahidol had returned to Siam from Europe, but in July 1946 he was found shot dead in his bed, under mysterious circumstances. Three palace servants were tried and executed for his murder, although there are significant doubts as to their guilt and the case remains both murky and a highly sensitive topic in Thailand today. The king was succeeded by his younger brother, Bhumibol Adulyadej. In August Pridi was forced to resign amid suspicion that he had been involved in the regicide. Without his leadership, the civilian government foundered, and in November 1947 the army, its confidence restored after the debacle of 1945, seized power. After an interim Khuang-headed government, in April 1948 the army brought Phibun back from exile and made him prime minister. Pridi in turn was driven into exile, eventually settling in Beijing as a guest of the PRC.

Phibun’s return to power coincided with the onset of the Cold War and the establishment of a communist regime in North Vietnam. He soon won the support of the United Nations. Once again political opponents were arrested and tried, and some were executed. During this time, several of the key figures in the wartime Free Thai underground, including Thawin Udom, Thawi Thawethikul, Chan Bunnak, and Tiang Sirikhanth, were eliminated in extra-legal fashion by the Thai police, run by Phibun’s ruthless associate Phao Sriyanond. There were attempted counter-coups by Pridi supporters in 1948, 1949, and 1951, the second leading to heavy fighting between the army and navy before Phibun emerged victorious. In the navy’s 1951 attempt, popularly known as the Manhattan Coup, Phibun was nearly killed when the ship where he was held hostage was bombed by the pro-government air force.

Although nominally a constitutional monarchy, Thailand was ruled by a series of military governments, most prominently led by Phibun, interspersed with brief periods of democracy. Thailand took part in the Korean War. Communist Party of Thailand guerrilla forces operated inside the country from the early-1960s to 1987. They included 12,000 full-time fighters at the peak of movement, but never posed a serious threat to the state.