The Kingdom of Thailand (ราชอาณาจักรไทย — Ratcha Anachak Thai) is a country at the center of the Indochinese peninsula in Southeast Asia. With a total area of 198,120 square miles (513,120 square kilometers), Thailand is the world’s 50th largest country. It is the 20th most populous country in the world, with 67,959,000 people (2015 estimate). Officially called the Kingdom of Rattanakosin (อาณาจักรรัตนโกสินทร์ — Anachak Rattanakosin) from 1782 until 1939, it has always been called Mueang Thai by its citizens. Until the nation was renamed Thailand (“land of the free”) on June 24, 1939, most outsiders referred to it as Siam (สยาม). It was officially renamed the Royal Kingdom of Siam (พระราชอาณาจักรสยาม) from 1945 to May 11, 1949, after which it again reverted to Thailand.
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and has switched between parliamentary democracy and military junta for decades, the latest coup being in May 2014 by the National Council for Peace and Order. Its capital and most populous city is Bangkok. It is bordered to the north by Myanmar and Laos, to the east by Laos and Cambodia, to the south by the Gulf of Thailand and Malaysia, and to the west by the Andaman Sea and the southern extremity of Myanmar. Its maritime boundaries include Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand to the southeast, and Indonesia and India on the Andaman Sea to the southwest.
Thailand comprises several distinct geographic regions, partly corresponding to the provincial groups. The north of the country is the mountainous area of the Thai highlands, with the highest point being Doi Inthanon in the Thanon Thong Chai Range at 8,415 feet (2,565 meters) above sea level. The northeast, Isaan, consists of the Khorat Plateau, bordered to the east by the Mekong River. The center of the country is dominated by the predominantly flat Chao Phraya river valley, which runs into the Gulf of Thailand. Southern Thailand consists of the narrow Kra Isthmus that widens into the Malay Peninsula. Politically, there are six geographical regions which differ from the others in population, basic resources, natural features, and level of social and economic development. The diversity of the regions is the most pronounced attribute of Thailand’s physical setting.
The Chao Phraya and the Mekong rivers are the indispensable water courses of rural Thailand. Industrial scale production of crops use both rivers and their tributaries. The Gulf of Thailand covers 124,000 square miles (320,000 km²) and is fed by the Chao Phraya, Mae Klong, Bang Pakong, and Tapi rivers. It contributes to the tourism sector owing to its clear shallow waters along the coasts in the southern region and the Kra Isthmus. The eastern shore of the Gulf of Thailand is an industrial center of Thailand with the kingdom’s premier deepwater port in Sattahip and its busiest commercial port, Laem Chabang.
The Andaman Sea is a precious natural resource as it hosts the most popular and luxurious resorts in Asia. Phuket, Krabi, Ranong, Phang Nga and Trang, and their islands, all lay along the coasts of the Andaman Sea and, despite the 2004 tsunami, they are a tourist magnet for visitors from around the world. Plans have resurfaced for a canal which would connect the Andaman Sea to the Gulf of Thailand, analogous to the Suez and the Panama Canals. The idea has been greeted positively by Thai politicians as it would cut fees charged by the Port of Singapore, improve ties with China and India, lower shipping times, and eliminate pirate attacks in the Strait of Malacca, and support the Thai government’s policy of being the logistical hub for Southeast Asia. The canal, it is claimed, would improve economic conditions in the south of Thailand, which relies heavily on tourism income, and it would also change the structure of the Thai economy by making it an Asia logistical hub. The canal would be a major engineering project and has an expected cost of US $20–30 billion.
According to George Cœdès, the word Thai (ไทย) means “free man” in the Thai language, “differentiating the Thai from the natives encompassed in Thai society as serfs.” A famous Thai scholar argued that Thai (ไท) simply means “people” or “human being”, since his investigation shows that in some rural areas the word “Thai” was used instead of the usual Thai word khon (คน) for people.
While Thai people will often refer to their country using the polite form prathet Thai (ประเทศไทย), they most commonly use the more colloquial term mueang Thai (เมืองไทย) or simply Thai, the word mueang, archaically meaning a “city-state”, commonly used to refer to a city or town as the center of a region. Ratcha Anachak Thai (ราชอาณาจักรไทย) means “kingdom of Thailand” or “kingdom of the Thai”. The Thai national anthem (เพลงชาติ), written by Luang Saranupraphan during the extremely patriotic 1930s, refers to the Thai nation as prathet Thai. The first line of the national anthem is: prathet thai ruam lueat nuea chat chuea thai (ประเทศไทยรวมเลือดเนื้อชาติเชื้อไทย), “Thailand is the unity of Thai flesh and blood.”
My first visit to Thailand occurred in early June 2003 and I have lived in Phuket full-time since April 2006. Throughout this time, I have blogged extensively about the culture, religion, royalty, and history of this region. Articles on “A Stamp A Day” dealing with the pre-Thailand history of Rattanakosin include the issuer article about Siam #1 (1883) and the April 6th celebration of Chakri Day; blog entries dealing with various aspects of the late King Bhumiphol Adulyadej’s life include one about his Coronation in 1950 and his participation in the 1967 Southeast Asian Games which eventually led to the establishment of Thai National Sports Day. I am sure that I will write more about King Bhumiphol in the coming months, particularly as the conclusion of his year-long Funeral Rites in late October approaches. I have yet to blog about the current King Maha Vajiralongkorn; his birthday is July 28 — a new national holiday — and a stamp will be issued to mark the occasion (and has been heavily promoted in the press here). Interestingly enough, the first new definitive stamps to be released under the new reign will not bear his image and a new series of banknotes has just been announced that will portray the late king, Vajiralongkorn’s father.
On September 11, 1938, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram (แปลก พิบูลสงคราม) replaced Phraya Phahol as Prime Minister and Commander of the Royal Siamese Army. He had been one of the leaders of the military branch of the People’s Party (Khana Ratsadon) that staged a coup d’état and overthrew the absolute monarchy in 1932. Then-Lieutenant Colonel Phibunsongkhram rose to prominence as a man-on-horseback. As prime minister, he immediately consolidated his position by rewarding several members of his own army clique with influential positions in his government.
Phibunsongkhram began to increase the pace of modernization in Thailand. He supported fascism and nationalism. Together with Luang Wichitwathakan, the Minister of Propaganda, he built a leadership cult in 1938 and thereafter. Photographs of Phibunsongkhram were to be found everywhere, and those of the abdicated King Prajadhipok were banned. His quotes appeared in newspapers, were plastered on billboards and were repeated over the radio.
“Aimed to uplift the national spirit and moral code of the nation and instilling progressive tendencies and a newness into Thai life”, a series of Cultural Mandates were issued by the government. These mandates encouraged that all Thais were to salute the flag in public places, know the new national anthem, and use the Thai language, not regional dialects. 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, as opposed to traditional, 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, etc.) was prescribed. Similarly, people were encouraged to eat with a fork and spoon, rather than with their hands as was customary. Phibunsongkhram saw these policies as necessary, in the interest of progressivism, to change Thailand in the minds of foreigners from an undeveloped and barbaric country into a civilized and modern one.
Phibun’s administration encouraged economic nationalism. Anti-Chinese policies were imposed, and the Thai people were to purchase as many Thai products as possible and therefore destroy the Chinese proportion in markets. In a speech in 1938, Luang Wichitwathakan, himself of Chinese ancestry, followed Rama VI’s book Jews of the East in comparing the Chinese in Siam to the Jews in Germany, which at the time were suffering of severe discrimination.
In 1939, Phibunsongkhram changed the country’s name from Siam to Thailand (Prathet Thai) (ประเทศไทย). This was directed against the ethnic diversity in the country (Malay, Chinese, Lao, Shan, etc.) and was based on the idea of a “Thai race”, a Pan-Thai nationalism whose program was the integration of the Shan, the Lao and other Tai peoples, such as Vietnam, Burma and South China, into a “Great Kingdom of Thailand” (มหาอาณาจักรไทย). In 1941, in the midst of World War II, he decreed January 1 as the official start of the new year instead of the traditional April 13.
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 (October 1940 to May 1941) with Thai territorial gains in the French colonies Laos and Cambodia. In celebration of the victory, Phibun called himself Than phu nam (ท่านผู้นำ), “the leader”, to run a personality cult around him.
While ardently pro-Japanese at the beginning, Phibunsongkhram and his administration soon distanced themselves from Japan following the aftermath of the French-Thai War. Following the peace talks, the Japanese gained the right to occupy French Indo-China. Being threatened by war, Phibunsongkhram stated that the Japanese would be the transgressors. The administration also realized that Thailand would have to fend for itself when the Japanese invasion came, considering its deteriorating relationships with the major Western powers in the area.
The Thai government declared neutrality. When the Japanese invaded Thailand on December 8, 1941, (because of the international date line this occurred an hour and a half before 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 December 21, 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 January 25, 1942, Thailand 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, the 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 May 10, 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 armored reconnaissance groups and supported by the air force, engaged the retreating Chinese 93rd Division. Kengtung, the main objective, was captured on May 27. 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. Phibunsongkhram went to stay at the army headquarters in Lopburi.
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 favorable 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.
Khuang Abhaiwongse replaced Phibunsongkhram as Prime Minister, ostensibly to continue relations with the Japanese, but in reality secretly assisting the Seri Thai.
British, Indian troops, and U.S. observers landed in September 1945, and during their brief occupation of parts of the country, disarmed the Japanese troops. After repatriating them home, the British left in March 1946. U.S. 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. An Anglo-Thai Peace Treaty was signed on January 1, 1946, and an Australian–Thai Peace Treaty on April 3. France refused to permit admission of Thailand to the United Nations until Indochinese territories annexed during the war were returned.
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 U.S. aid was received.
In December 1945, the young King Ananda Mahidol 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.
In November 1947, Royal Thai Army units under the control of Phibunsongkhram carried out a coup which forced then Prime Minister Thawal Thamrong Navaswadhi to resign. Khuang was again installed as Prime Minister as the military coup risked international disapproval. Pridi Phanomyong was persecuted. He was, however, aided by British and American intelligence officers, and thus managed to escape the country. On April 8, 1948, the military forced Khuang out of office and Phibunsongkhram assumed his second premiership.
On October 1, 1948, the unsuccessful Army General Staff Plot was launched to topple the government of Phibunsongkhram. As a result, more than fifty army and reservist officers and several prominent supporters of Pridi Phanomyong were arrested. A Palace Rebellion in 1949 was another failed coup attempt. Its plotters’ aim was to overthrow the government of Phibunsongkhram and to restore his main civilian rival Pridi Phanomyong to the Thai political scene.
Instead of the fascism that characterized his first premiership, Phibunsongkhram and his regime promoted a façade of democracy. American aid was received in large quantities following Thailand’s entry into the Korean War as part of the United Nations’ multi-national allied force in the Cold War against the communists.
Phibunsongkhram’s anti-Chinese campaign was resumed, with the government restricting Chinese immigration and undertaking various measures to restrict economic domination of the Thai market by those of Chinese descent. Chinese schools and associations were once again shut down. Despite open pro-Western and anti-Chinese policies, in the late 1950s Phibunsongkhram arranged to send to China two of the children of Sang Phathanothai, his closest adviser, with the intention of establishing a backdoor channel for dialogue between China and Thailand. The girl, aged eight, and her brother, aged twelve, were sent to be brought up under the assistants of Premier Zhou Enlai as his wards. The girl, Sirin Phathanothai, later wrote The Dragon’s Pearl, an autobiography telling her experiences growing up in the 1950s and 1960s among the leaders of China.
On June 29, 1951, Phibunsongkhram was attending a ceremony aboard the U.S. Navy dredge Manhattan when he was taken hostage by a group of naval officers, who then quickly confined him on board the Thai navy flagship HTMS Sri Ayutthaya. Negotiations between the government and the coup organizers swiftly broke down, leading to violent street fighting in Bangkok between the Navy and the Army, which was supported by the Air Force. Phibunsongkhram was able to swim back ashore when the Sri Ayutthaya was bombed by the Royal Thai Air Force. With their hostage gone, the sailors and marines were forced to lay down their arms.
On November 29, 1951, the Silent Coup was staged by the Army-led Coup Group and it consolidated the military’s hold on the country. It reinstated the Constitution of 1932, which effectively eliminated the Senate, established a unicameral legislature composed equally of elected and government-appointed members, and allowed serving military officers to supplement their commands with important ministerial portfolios.
At the end of Phibunsongkhram’s second term, suspicions of fraudulent practices during an election emerged. The American-equipped Royal Thai Army played a major role in the coup d’état of 1957, and the United States was “deeply involved”. The resulting unrest led to a second coup in October 1958 by Field Marshal Sarit Dhanaraj, who had earlier sworn to be Phibun’s most loyal subordinate. Sarit was supported by many royalists who wanted to regain a foothold. Phibunsongkhram was then forced into exile in Japan, where he lived until his death in 1964.
The 1958 coup began a long tradition of U.S.-backed military regimes in Thailand. Sarit held power until his death in 1963, when General Thanom Kittikachorn again took the lead. The regimes of Sarit and Thanom were strongly supported by the United States. Thailand had formally become a U.S. ally in 1954 with the formation of the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO).
While the war in Indochina was being fought between the Vietnamese and the French, Thailand (disliking both equally) stayed aloof, but once it became a war between the U.S. and the Vietnamese communists, Thailand committed itself strongly to the U.S. side, concluding a secret agreement with the United States in 1961, sending troops to Vietnam and Laos, and allowing the U.S. to use airbases in the east of the country to conduct its bombing war against North Vietnam. The Vietnamese retaliated by supporting the Communist Party of Thailand’s insurgency in the north, northeast, and sometimes in the south, where guerrillas co-operated with local discontented Muslims. In the postwar period, Thailand had close relations with the U.S., which it saw as a protector from communist revolutions in neighboring countries. The Seventh and Thirteenth U.S. Air Forces were headquartered at Udon Royal Thai Air Force Base.
Agent Orange, a herbicide and defoliant chemical used by the U.S. military as part of its herbicidal warfare program, Operation Ranch Hand, was tested by the United States in Thailand during the war in Southeast Asia. Buried drums were uncovered and confirmed to be Agent Orange in 1999. Workers who uncovered the drums fell ill while upgrading the airport near Hua Hin District, 100 km south of Bangkok. Vietnam-era veterans whose service involved duty on or near the perimeters of military bases in Thailand anytime between February 28, 1961, and May 7, 1975, may have been exposed to herbicides and may qualify for VA benefits. A declassified Department of Defense report written in 1973, suggests that there was a significant use of herbicides on the fenced-in perimeters of military bases in Thailand to remove foliage that provided cover for enemy forces.
The Vietnam War hastened the modernization and Westernization of Thai society. The American presence and the exposure to Western culture that came with it had an effect on almost every aspect of Thai life. Before the late 1960s, full access to Western culture was limited to a highly educated elite in society, but the Vietnam War brought the outside world face to face with large segments of the Thai society as never before. With U.S. dollars pumping up the economy, the service, transportation, and construction industries grew phenomenally as did drug abuse and prostitution. The traditional rural family unit was broken down as more and more rural Thais moved to the city to find new jobs. This led to a clash of cultures as Thais were exposed to Western ideas about fashion, music, values, and moral standards.
The population began to grow explosively as the standard of living rose, and a flood of people began to move from the villages to the cities, and above all to Bangkok. Thailand had 30 million people in 1965, while by the end of the 20th century the population had doubled. Bangkok’s population had grown tenfold since 1945 and had tripled since 1970.
Educational opportunities and exposure to mass media increased during the Vietnam War years. Bright university students learned more about ideas related to Thailand’s economic and political systems, resulting in a revival of student activism. The Vietnam War period also saw the growth of the Thai middle class which gradually developed its own identity and consciousness.
Economic development did not bring prosperity to all. During the 1960s many of the rural poor felt increasingly dissatisfied with their condition in society and disillusioned by their treatment by the central government in Bangkok. Efforts by the Thai government to develop poor rural regions often did not have the desired effect in that they contributed to the farmers’ awareness of how bad off they really were. It is interesting to note that it was not always the poorest of the poor who joined the anti-government insurgency. Increased government presence in the rural villages did little to improve the situation. Villagers became subject to increased military and police harassment and bureaucratic corruption. Villagers often felt betrayed when government promises of development were frequently not fulfilled. By the early 1970s rural discontent had manifested itself into a peasant’s activist movement.
Student demonstrations had started in 1968 and grew in size and numbers in the early 1970s despite the continued ban on political meetings. In June 1973, nine Ramkhamhaeng University students were expelled for publishing an article in a student newspaper that was critical of the government. Shortly after, thousands of students held a protest at the Democracy Monument demanding the re-enrollment of the nine students. The government ordered the universities to shut, but shortly afterwards allowed the students to be re-enrolled.
In October, another 13 students were arrested on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government. This time the student protesters were joined by workers, businessmen, and other ordinary citizens. The demonstrations swelled to several hundred thousand and the issue broadened from the release of the arrested students to demands for a new constitution and the replacement of the current government.
On October 13, 1973, the government released the detainees. Leaders of the demonstrations, among them Seksan Prasertkul, called off the march in accordance with the wishes of the king who was publicly against the democracy movement. In a speech to graduating students, he criticized the pro-democracy movement by telling students to concentrate on their studies and leave politics to their elders (military government).
As the crowds were breaking up the next day, on October 14, many students found themselves unable to leave because the police blocked the southern route to Rajavithi Road. Cornered and overwhelmed by the hostile crowd, the police responded with teargas and gunfire. The military was called in, and tanks rolled down Ratchadamnoen Avenue and helicopters fired down at Thammasat University. A number of students commandeered buses and fire engines in an attempt to halt the progress of the tanks by ramming into them. With chaos on the streets, King Bhumiphol opened the gates of Chitralada Palace to the students who were being gunned down by the army. Despite orders from Thanom that the military action be intensified, army commander Kris Sivara had the army withdrawn from the streets.
The king condemned the government’s inability to handle the demonstrations and ordered Thanom, Praphas, and Narong to leave the country, and notably condemned the students’ supposed role as well. At 18:10, Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn resigned from his post as prime minister. An hour later, the king appeared on national television, asking for calm, and announcing that Field Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn had been replaced with Dr. Sanya Dharmasakti, a respected law professor, as prime minister.
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 October 6, 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. He was popular with the urban, suburban, and rural poor for his populist social programs. His rule came under attack from elites who saw danger in his “parliamentary dictatorship”. In mid-2005, Sondhi Limthongkul, a well-known media tycoon, became the foremost Thaksin critic. Eventually Sondhi and his allies developed the movement into a mass protest and later unified under the name of People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD).
On September 19, 2006, after the dissolution of parliament, Thaksin became head of a 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 supported by anti-Thaksin elements in civil society and the Democrat Party. A general election on December 23, 2007, restored a civilian government, led by Samak Sundaravej of the People’s Power Party, as a successor to Thai Rak Thai.
The People’s Power Party formed a government with five smaller parties. Following several court rulings against him in a variety of scandals, and surviving a vote of no confidence, and protesters blockading government buildings and airports, in September 2008, Sundaravej was found guilty of conflict of interest by the Constitutional Court of Thailand (due to being host of a TV cooking program), and thus, ended his term in office.
He was replaced by PPP member Somchai Wongsawat. As of October 2008, Wongsawat was unable to gain access to his offices, which were occupied by protesters from the People’s Alliance for Democracy. On December 2, 2008, Thailand’s Constitutional Court in a highly controversial ruling found the Peoples Power Party (PPP) guilty of electoral fraud, which led to the dissolution of the party according to the law. It was later alleged in media reports that at least one member of the judiciary had a telephone conversation with officials working for the Office of the Privy Council and one other person. The phone call was taped and has since circulated on the Internet. In it, the callers discuss finding a way to ensure the ruling PPP party would be disbanded. Accusations of judicial interference were leveled in the media but the recorded call was dismissed as a hoax. However, in June 2010, supporters of the eventually disbanded PPP were charged with tapping a judge’s phone.
Immediately following what many media described as a “judicial coup”, a senior member of the armed forces met with factions of the governing coalition to get their members to join the opposition and the Democrat Party was able to form a government, a first for the party since 2001. The leader of the Democrat Party, and former leader of the opposition, Abhisit Vejjajiva was appointed and sworn-in as the 27th Prime Minister, together with a new cabinet, on December 17, 2008.
In April 2009, protests by the National United Front of Democracy Against Dictatorship (UDD, or “Red Shirts”) forced the cancellation of the Fourth East Asia Summit after protesters stormed the Royal Cliff Hotel venue in Pattaya, smashing the glass doors of the venue to gain entry, and a blockade prevented the Chinese premier at the time, Wen Jiabao, from attending.
About a year later, a set of new Red Shirts protests resulted in 87 deaths (mostly civilian and some military) and 1,378 injured. When the army tried to disperse protesters on April 10, 2010, the army was met with automatic gunfire, grenades, and fire bombs from an opposition faction in the army. This resulted in the army returning fire with rubber bullets and some live ammunition. During the time of the Red Shirt protests against the government, there were numerous grenade and bomb attacks against government offices and the homes of government officials. Gas grenades were fired at Yellow Shirt protesters who were protesting against the Red Shirts and in favor of the government, by unknown gunmen killing one pro-government protester, the government stated that the Red Shirts were firing the weapons at civilians. Red Shirts continued to hold a position in the business district of Bangkok and it was shut down for several weeks.
On July 3, 2011, the opposition Pheu Thai Party, led by Yingluck Shinawatra (the youngest sister of Thaksin Shinawatra), won the general election by a landslide (265 seats in the House of Representatives, out of 500). She had never previously been involved in politics, Pheu Thai campaigning for her with the slogan “Thaksin thinks, Pheu Thai acts”. Yingluck was the nation’s first female prime minister and her role was officially endorsed in a ceremony presided over by King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The Pheu Thai Party is a continuation of Thaksin’s Thai Rak Thai party.
Protests recommenced in late 2013, as a broad alliance of protesters, led by former opposition deputy leader Suthep Thaugsuban, demanded an end to the Thaksin regime. A blanket amnesty for people involved in the 2010 protests, altered at the last minute to include all political crimes, including all convictions against Thaksin, triggered a mass show of discontent, with numbers variously estimated between 98,500 (the police) and 400,000 (an aerial photo survey done by the Bangkok Post), taking to the streets. The Senate was urged to reject the bill to quell the reaction, but the measure failed. A newly named group, the People’s Democratic Reform Committee (PDRC) along with allied groups, escalated the pressure, with the opposition Democrat party resigning en masse to create a parliamentary vacuum. Protesters demands variously evolved as the movement’s numbers grew, extending a number of deadlines and demands that became increasingly unreasonable or unrealistic, yet attracting a groundswell of support. They called for the establishment of an indirectly elected “people’s council”, in place of Yingluck’s government, that would cleanse Thai politics and eradicate the Thaksin regime.
In response to the protests, Yingluck dissolved parliament on December 9, 2013, and proposed a new election for February 2, 2014, a date that was later approved by the election commission. The PDRC insisted that the prime minister stand down within 24 hours, regardless of her actions, with 160,000 protesters in attendance at Government House on December 9. Yingluck insisted that she would continue her duties until the scheduled election in February 2014, urging the protesters to accept her proposal: “Now that the government has dissolved parliament, I ask that you stop protesting and that all sides work towards elections. I have backed down to the point where I don’t know how to back down any further.”
In response to the Electoral Commission (EC)’s registration process for party-list candidates — for the scheduled election in February 2014 — anti-government protesters marched to the Thai-Japanese sports stadium, the venue of the registration process, on December 22, 2013. Suthep and the PDRC led the protest, which security forces claimed that approximately 270,000 protesters joined. Yingluck and the Pheu Thai Party reiterated their election plan and anticipated presenting a list of 125 party-list candidates to the EC.
On May 7, 2014, the Constitutional Court ruled that Yingluck would have to step down as the prime minister as she was deemed to have abused her power in transferring a high-level government official.
On May 20, 2014, the Royal Thai Army declared martial law and began to deploy troops in the capital, denying that it was a coup attempt. On May 22, the army admitted that it was a coup and that it was taking control of the country and suspending the country’s constitution. On the same day, the military imposed a curfew between the hours of 22:00–05:00, ordering citizens and visitors to remain indoors during this period. On August 21, 2014, the National Assembly of Thailand elected the army chief, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, as prime minister. Martial law was declared formally ended on April 1, 2015. “Uniformed or ex-military men have led Thailand for 55 of the 83 years since absolute monarchy was overthrown in 1932,…” observed one journalist in 2015.
The ruling junta led by Prayuth Chan-o-cha promised to hold new elections, but wants to enact a new constitution before the elections are held. An initial draft constitution was rejected by government officials in 2015. A national referendum, the first since the 2014 coup, on a newly drafted constitution was held on August 7, 2016. There was a 55% turnout of which around 61% voted in favor of the constitution. Under the new constitution an unelected person other than a member of parliament can be appointed as Prime Minister, which would open the post to a military official. The new constitution also gives the National Council for Peace and Order the authority to make all the appointments to the 250-member senate in the next government.
On October 13, 2016, King Bhumibol Adulyadej of Thailand died at the age of 88, in Siriraj Hospital in Bangkok, plunging the country into deep mourning. On the night of December 1, 2016, the fiftieth day after the death of Bhumibol, Regent Prem Tinsulanonda led the heads of the country’s three branches of government to an audience with Vajiralongkorn to invite him to ascend to the throne as the tenth king of the Chakri dynasty which he eventually accepted. The funeral rites for King Bhumiphol are set to conclude on October 29, 2017 with the cremation itself occurring at Sanam Luang adjacent to the Grand Palace in Bangkok on October 26. The one-year mourning period will be lifted on October 30. No date has yet been scheduled for the coronation of His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn but it has been reported that it should occur in December 2017.
Today, I am illustrating one of my favorite aspects of Thai culture, that of the Khon masks associated with the Ramakien (รามเกียรติ์; literally “Glory of Rama” — Thailand’s national epic, derived from the holy revered text of Hindus, Ramayana. On April 2, 2015, Thailand Post released eight 3-baht stamps and a souvenir sheet with the internal issue number of TH-1065 for the annual Thai Heritage Conservation Day issue, always some of the most beautiful stamps released each year. Designed by Miss Euamporn Supharoekchai and printed by the Thai British Security Printing Company Limited, the stamps illustrate masks from the Office of Performing Arts at the Thai Department of Fine Art. These are the masks of Hanuman, Nilipat, Nilanon, Asuraphat, Praya Mahachompu, Pali, Sukrip, and Ongot. Hanuman occurs in both the 16-stamp full sheet and the single-stamp souvenir sheet.
A number of versions of the Ramakien were lost in the destruction of Ayutthaya in 1767. Three versions currently exist, one of which was prepared in 1797 under the supervision of (and partly written by) King Rama I. His son, Rama II, rewrote some parts of his father’s version for khon drama. Khon (โขน) is a genre of dance drama from Thailand. It is performed by troupes of non-speaking dancers, the story being told by a chorus at the side of the stage. Traditionally, it is performed solely in the royal court, by men in masks accompanied by narrators and a traditional piphat ensemble. A variation of this genre with female performers is called khon phu ying (โขนผู้หญิง). Choreography follows traditional models rather than attempting to innovate. Most khon performances feature episodes from the Ramakien. Costumes are dictated by tradition, with angels, both good and bad, wearing colored masks.
The Ramakien has had an important influence on Thai literature, art and drama. While the main story is identical to that of the Ramayana, many other aspects were transposed into a Thai context, such as the clothes, weapons, topography, and elements of nature, which are described as being Thai in style. Although Thailand is considered a Theravada Buddhist society, the Hindu mythology latent in the Ramakien serves to provide Thai legends with a creation myth, as well as representations of various spirits which complement beliefs derived from Thai animism.
The Ramayana (रामायणम् in Sanskrit), is an ancient Indian epic poem which narrates the struggle of the divine prince Rama to rescue his wife Sita from the demon king Ravana. Along with the Mahabharata, it forms the Sanskrit Itihasa. The epic, traditionally ascribed to the Hindu sage Valmiki, narrates the life of Rama, the legendary prince of the Kosala Kingdom. It follows his banishment from the kingdom by his father King Dasharatha, his travels across forests in India with his wife Sita and brother Lakshmana, the kidnapping of his wife by Ravana, the demon king of Lanka, resulting in a war with him, and Rama’s eventual return to Ayodhya to be crowned king.
The Ramayana is one of the largest ancient epics in world literature. It consists of nearly 24,000 verses (mostly set in the Shloka meter), divided into seven Kandas (books) and about 500 sargas (chapters). In Hindu tradition, it is considered to be the adi-kavya (first poem). It depicts the duties of relationships, portraying ideal characters like the ideal father, the ideal servant, the ideal brother, the ideal wife and the ideal king. The Ramayana was an important influence on later Sanskrit poetry and Hindu life and culture. Like the Mahabharata, Ramayana is not just a story: it presents the teachings of ancient Hindu sages in narrative allegory, interspersing philosophical and ethical elements. The characters Rama, Sita, Lakshmana, Bharata, Hanuman and Ravana are all fundamental to the cultural consciousness of India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and south-east Asian countries such as Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, as well as Thailand.
The Ramayana came to Southeast Asia by means of Indian traders and scholars who traded with the Khmer kingdoms (such as Funan and Angkor) and Srivijaya, with whom the Indians shared close economic and cultural ties. In the late first millennium, the epic was adopted by the Thai people. The oldest recordings of the early Sukhothai kingdom, dating from the thirteenth century, include stories from the Ramayana legends. The history of the legends was told in the shade theater (หนัง — Nang), a shadow-puppet show in a style adopted from Indonesia, in which the characters were portrayed by leather dolls manipulated to cast shadows on a nearby screen while the spectators watched from the other side.
The Thai version of the legends were first written down in the eighteenth century, during the Ayutthaya kingdom, following the demise of the Sukhothai government. Most editions, however, were lost when the city of Ayutthaya was destroyed by armies from Burma (modern Myanmar) in the year 1767.
The version recognized today was compiled in the Kingdom of Rattanakosin under the supervision of King Rama I (1726–1809), the founder of the Chakri dynasty, which still maintains the throne of Thailand. Between the years of 1799 and 1807, Rama I supervised the writing of the well-known edition and even wrote parts of it. It was also under the reign of Rama I that construction began on the Thai Grand Palace in Bangkok, which includes the grounds of the Wat Phra Kaew, the Temple of the Emerald Buddha. The walls of the Wat Pra Kaew are lavishly decorated with paintings representing stories from the Ramakien. and many of the statues there depict characters from it.
Rama II (1766–1824) further adapted his father’s edition of the Ramakien for the khon drama, a form of theater performed by non-speaking Thai dancers with elaborate costumes and masks. Narrations from the Ramakien were read by a chorus to one side of the stage. This version differs slightly from the one compiled by Rama I, giving an expanded role to Hanuman, the god-king of the apes, and adding a happy ending.
Since its introduction to the Thai people, the Ramakien has become a firm component of the culture. The Ramakien of Rama I is considered one of the masterpieces of Thai literature. It is still read, and is taught in the country’s schools.
In 1989, Satyavrat Shastri translated the Ramakien into a Sanskrit epic poem (mahakavya) named Ramakirtimahakavyam, in 25 sargas (cantos) and about 1200 stanzas in 14 meters. This work won eleven national and international awards.
The tales of the Ramakien are similar to those of the Ramayana, though transferred to the topography and culture of Ayutthaya, where the Avatar of Pra Narai (the Thai incarnation of Vishnu, also known as Narayan) is reborn as Pra Ram.
- Phra Narai/Witsanu
- Phra Isuan
- Phra Phrom — with Phra Isuan and Phra Narai, forms the Hindu Trinity
- Phra Uma-thewi — consort of Phra Isuan
- Phra Laksami — consort of Narai
- Phra In — the king of thevadas – lesser celestial deities; father of Pali
- Mali Warat — god of justice; grandfather of Thotsakan
- Phra A-thit (Surya) — the solar deity; father of Sukreep
- Phra Phai — the wind deity; father of Hanuman
- Phra Witsawakam/Witsanukam — the artisan god, responsible for rebuilding Lanka after Hanuman burned it down and creating Khitkhin
- Pra Ram — the son of the king Thotsarot of Ayutthaya and the incarnation of Phra Narai
- Nang Sida — the wife of Phra Ram, who embodies purity and fidelity; Incarnation of Lakshmi
- Phra Lak, Phra Phrot and Pra Satrut — half-brothers of Phra Ram, who represent the reincarnated possessions of Phra Narai
- Thotsarot — often called Thao Thotsarot; king of Ayutthaya and father of Phra Ram and his brothers
- Nang Kaosuriya — one of the three wives of Thotsarot; mother of Phra Ram
- Nang Kaiyakesi — one of the three wives of Thotsarot; mother of Phra Phrot
- Nang Samutthewi — one of the three wives of Thotsarot; mother of Phra Lak and Phra Satrut
Allies of Phra Ram
- Hanuman — god-king of the apes, who supported Phra Ram and acted as the monkey general
- Phali Thirat — king of Khitkhin; elder brother of Sukhrip and uncle of Hanuman
- Sukhrip — viceroy of Kitkin; younger brother of Phali and uncle of Hanuman
- Ongot — ape-prince and son of the Pali Thirat and Nang Montho; cousin of Hanuman
- Phiphek — enstranged brother of Thotsakan; an excellent astrologist who provided valuable information to Phra Ram in defeating Thotsakan
- Chomphuphan — ape-prince; adopted son of Phali, an expert in the healing arts who acted as the troop’s medic
Enemies of Phra Ram
- Thotsakan — king of the demons of Lanka and strongest of Phra Ram’s adversaries; has ten faces and twenty arms, and possesses a myriad of weapons
- Intharachit — a son of Thotsakan; Phra Ram’s second most powerful adversary; uses his bow more than any other weapon. He once fired arrows (Nagabat Arrows) which turned into nagas (or snakes) in mid-air and rained down on Phra Ram’s army. He once had a blessing from the Phra Isuan that he shall not die on land but in the air, and if his severed head were to touch the ground, it will bring down great destruction,
- Kumphakan — brother of Thotsakan and commander of demonic forces
- Maiyarap — king of the Underworld; embodied as a donkey
- Khon, Thut and Trisian — younger brothers of Thotsakan, and the first three to be killed by Phra Ram, in that order
The subject of the souvenir sheet illustrated above is Hanuman, an ardent devotee of Rama. He is one of the central characters in the Ramakien and the various versions of the Ramayana found in the Indian subcontinent and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. As one of the Chiranjivi, he is also mentioned in several other texts, such as the Mahabharata, the various Puranas and some Jain, Buddhist, and Sikh texts. Several later texts also present him as an incarnation of Shiva. Hanuman is the son of Anjana and Kesari and is also son of the wind-god Pawan, who according to several stories, played a role in his birth.
In later literature, Hanuman has been the patron god of martial arts such as wrestling, acrobatics, as well as meditation and diligent scholarship. He symbolizes the human excellences of inner self-control, faith and service to a cause, hidden behind the first impressions of a being who looks like a monkey. He is heroic, brave and steadfastly chaste, much like in the Sanskrit tradition, but not celibate. He marries and has children.
The non-Indian versions of Ramayana, such as the Ramakien, mention that Hanuman had relationships with multiple women, including Svayamprabha, Benjakaya (Vibhisana’s daughter), Suvannamaccha and even Ravana’s wife Mandodari. According to these versions of the Ramayana, Macchanu is son of Hanuman borne by the mermaid Suvannamaccha, daughter of Ravana. He appears wearing a crown on his head, wearing armor, and is depicted as an albino white, strong character with open mouth in action, sometimes shown carrying a trident.