Thailand was originally known as Siam with the term generally referring to people who lived in southwestern China before migrating to other areas of Southeast Asia. The term “Siam” refers to syam, or “dark brown” people and Siamese people were first referred to in the 12th Century. It was during this period that the King of Siam, now the King of Thailand and monarchy first came into existence.
The monarchy in Thailand is understood to have its origins dating back to 1238 and the founding of the Sukhothai Kingdom. In the period 1238 to 1448, the Thai-speaking Sukhothai Kingdom gained dominance in the country expanding southwards although this later became challenged by the Ayutthaya Kingdom that was formed in 1350. The area of Siam was first recognised by Westerners coming from Portugal and it is indeed in Portuguese chronicles that note the Borommatrailokkanat, King of the Ayutthaya Kingdom sending expeditions to the south and the Malay Peninsula in 1455.
It was in 1448 that King Ramesuan joins Ayutthaya and Sukhothai in personal union and from this date, although some would argue that it started in 1350, up until 1767 that Ayutthaya Kingdom brings Thailand under its control. Between the period 1590 and 1605, during the reign of King Naresuan, seen by many as Ayutthaya’s greatest king, he ends Burmese rule. At the height of the dominance, the Kingdom was the major power in Southeast Asia controlling major parts of what would now be modern-day Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
In 1767, invading Burmese forces brought an end to the King of Ayutthaya, taking control of the capital although this was only short lived with Thaksin the Great, an ethnic Thai-Chinese re-establishing control of the country in 1768. His short-lived dynasty was known as the Thonburi Kingdom but was overthrown by the first of the country’s many coups in 1782. The coup was launched by General Chao Phraya Chakri and was the beginning of the current monarchy and the Chakri Dynasty which was centred around the area now referred to internationally as Bangkok.
The period between 1804-1868 saw major changes for Thailand and this was the reign of King Mongkut (Rama IV). In the early part of his reign the country was severely threatened by its neighbours who had succumbed to the colonisation powers of the British and French. King Mongkut recognised the threat and embraced Western innovations and started to initiate Thailand’s modernisation.
In 1855, John Bowring, the then British governor of Hong Kong, came to the mouth of the Chao Phraya River and feeling somewhat threatened by the British achievements in neighbouring Burma, Mongkut signed what was to become known as the “Bowring Treaty”. The treaty granted Siam integration with the world’s major economies of the time but also resulted in the royal house losing some major sources of income and power. Further similar agreements were signed in 1862 with Prussia and in 1869 with Austria-Hungary.
Siam’s global presence, certainly in economic terms was growing as there was a market for Western industrial goods. As a result, there was increased Western investment and the infrastructure of the country started to improve rapidly with transport connections such as canals and roads starting to be developed to assist with the transit of goods and therefore help trade.
1868 saw King Mongkut’s son, Chulalongkorn (Rama V) ascend to the throne. Chulalongkorn had received a full western education from the British governess of the time, Anna Leonowens. The early years of the King’s reign were dominated by Chaophraya Si Suriyawongse, a conservative regent, but by 1873 the king came of age and assumed full control. Thanks largely to his modern upbringing and his father’s efforts, Chulalongkorn introduced a Privy Council, formal court system and the abolition of slavery.
King Chulalongkorn ruled until 1910 and during his rule he employed a series of Western advisors to modernise Siam with a railway network even being introduced towards the end of his reign. In October 1910, King Chulalongkorn was succeeded to the throne by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI). Vajiravudh favoured friends over knowledgeable officials and wished to bring back the spirit of Thai nationalism, translating many foreign texts into Thai. However, during his reign up until his death in 1925, he did introduce the Gregorian Calendar and Family names.
The First World War saw Siam declare war on Germany in 1917, mainly to gain favours from the British and French. The King and his Foreign Minister Devawongse saw this as an opportunity to repeal some of the 19th century treaties and restore full Siamese sovereignty. The US obliged in 1920 as too did the French and British in 1925. This gained the King some popularity amongst his people although generally he was an unpopular monarch and the fact that he had no son to succeed him did little to endear him to the nation.
1925 saw Prajadhipok, Vajiravudh’s younger brother assume the throne. 1932 saw an attempt at a bloodless coup against King Prajadhipok and a Constitutional monarchy was introduced with a parliamentary government. A year later saw Ananda become king and in 1939 Siam changed its name to Thailand (“Land of the Free”).
With the outbreak of the Second World War the Thai government declared neutrality, but within a few hours of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 8 December 1941, Thailand was invaded by Japan. Negotiations between the Japanese and Thai governments lasted until 21 December 1941, when Thailand granted Japan free passage across the country towards the Malay Peninsula, Singapore and Burma. In January 1942, Thailand declared war on Britain and the US, but the Thai ambassador in Washington refused to deliver the declaration whilst King Ananda was forced into exile.
The end of World War II in 1945 saw King Ananda return and Thailand was ordered to give back all land seized from Laos, Cambodia and Malay. The negotiations between Thailand the allies continued for a number of months with previously strong relationships certainly soured. In July 1946, King Ananda was found shot dead in bed in very mysterious circumstances. Although three servants where executed for the murder, there is still great sensitivity regarding the subject to this date.
King Ananda was succeeded to the thrown by his younger brother Bhumibol Adulyadej and a new government is founded. However, in 1947 there was a coup staged by wartime, pro-Japanese leader Phibun Songkhram and the military would remain in power until 1973. In 1965, Thailand agreed to the US using their airbases during the Vietnam War with Thai troops agreeing to fight on the side of the Americans in South Vietnam. There are still military agreements in place with the US to this day with regular visits from US personnel.
The student riots of 1973 saw the military government deposed and free elections were held for the first time in decades. Unfortunately, lack of experience and general lack of stability saw the military take power again in 1976. In 1978, a new constitution is promulgated and in 1980, General Prem Tinsulanonda assumes power giving up his military position in 1983 and heading a civilian government that was re-elected in 1986.
In 1988, General Chatichai Choonhaven replaces Prem at an election but in 1991 he is overthrown by a military coup and a civilian, Anand Panyarachun becomes the new PM. The coup was the 17th in the country’s history since 1932. The country saw a period of relative stability until the 1997 Asian financial crisis which saw the baht fall drastically against the dollar. There was mass unemployment and large-scale bankruptcies and the IMF was forced to step. Chuan Leekpai becomes prime minister.
Chuan seeks the assistance of other parties in 1998 to push through economic reforms and thousands of migrant workers are forced from the country. The Thai economy starts to recover, bolstered by increasing numbers of tourists coming to country thanks in a large part due to the weak currency which also assisted with exports.
In 2001, the New Thai Love Thai party and its leader Thaksin Shinawatra win a tight election and form a coalition government. In 2005, Thaksin wins the election by a landslide and becomes PM for a second term although a snap-election is called the following year with opposition to Thaksin growing. On the 19 September, there is a bloodless coup and retired General Surayud Chulanont is appointed interim PM.
2007, sees Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai party banned from politics and new military-drafted constitution is approved although the party wins the election at the end of the year under the name People Power Party (PPP). In 2008, the country returns to civilian rule and Thaksin flees the country to Britain.
For the next few years there are several elections held along with lots of political turmoil culminating in May 2014 when Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra, the brother of Thaksin, was overthrown in yet another coup. In August 2014, the leader of the coup, General Prayuth Chan-ocha is made PM and later drops his military title. He remains the unelected leader of the country until this date.
Sadly, in October 2016, the country’s popular King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world’s longest reigning monarch dies at the age of 88 after 70 years on the thrown and in December of that year, his son, Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn is proclaimed King. In April 2017, the new King signs a new, military-drafted constitution that will pave the way for the country returning to a democracy.