Archaeological excavations in the 1970s in Ban Chiang, northeastern Thailand, yielded traces of a Bronze Age people, dating as far back as 3600 BC predating Bronze cultures in China and the Middle East. The technical achievements of the Ban Chiang society, as surmised from archaeological evidence, indicate the existence of a settled agrarian people with advanced knowledge of bronze and iron metallurgy. Moreover, the skills demonstrating in their pottery, housing, and printing of silk textiles reflect at least 2,000 years of prior development, a finding that challenges previous concepts of incipient civilization and technology, and Southeast Asia's role in it.
The Thai descended from the ancient Pamir plateau peoples, who are racially related to the Chinese, that migrated from southern China to mainland Southeast Asia. While in southern China, the Thai created the powerful Nan-Chao kingdom, but continued pressure from Chinese and Tibetans and the final destruction by Kublai Khan in 1253 forced the Thai southward across the mountain passes into Southeast Asia. After entering the valley of the Chao Phraya River, they defeated and dispersed the Khmer settlers, ancestors of the Cambodians, and established the Kingdom of Thailand.
By the mid-14th century, the Thai expanded and centralized their kingdom at the expense of the Lao, Burmese, and Cambodians. Although Thailand developed trading contacts with the Dutch and Portuguese and with the French and British in the 16th and 17th centuries respectively, it remained a feudal state with a powerful court of nobles. During the reigns of Mongkut (1851–68) and his son Chulalongkorn (1868–1910), however,
Thailand emerged from feudalism and entered the modern world. A cabinet of foreign advisers was formed; commercial treaties of friendship were signed with the British (1855) and with the United States and France (1856); the power of nobles was curtailed, slavery abolished, and many court practices, such as prostration in the royal presence, were ended.
The Thai government continued as an absolute monarchy despite the progressive policies of Mongkut and Chulalongkorn. In 1932, however, a bloodless revolution of Westernized intellectuals led to a constitutional monarchy. Since then, Thailand experienced multiple constitutions, changes of government, and military coups. With the government in a state of flux, political parties tended to cluster around strong personalities rather than political ideologies. At the start of World War II, Thailand, after annexing Burmese and Malayan territories, signed an alliance with Japan and declared war on the United States and the United Kingdom. From 1932 through the 1940s, political life in Thailand centered around Pridi Banomyong and Marshal Phibul Songgram and thereafter around Marshal Sarit Thanarat, until his death in 1963. Sarit's handpicked heir, Marshal Thanom Kittikachorn, subsequently emerged as the country's political leader.
After the war, however, Thailand became an ally of the United States through their common membership in the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO), and various other bilateral treaties and agreements. In January 1965, China announced the formation of the Thailand Patriotic Front, whose purpose was "to strive for the national independence" of Thailand. A limited insurgency subsequently developed in the North and Northeast, growing in intensity in the late 1960s and early 1970s as the Southeast Asian conflict raged on Thailand's northern and northeastern borders. As a SEATO member, Thailand took a direct role in the Vietnam war and supplied a small number of troops in support of the Republic of Vietnam (RVN). Furthermore, it granted US forces the use of air bases in Thailand for massive bombing sorties against the Democratic Republic of Vietnam and the Vietcong. US forces stationed in Thailand increased to as many as 25,000 by the end of 1972. With the termination of the direct US combat role in Vietnam in early 1973, the United States began a gradual withdrawal of military personnel from Thailand. In March 1976, the Thai government ordered the United States to close its remaining military installations in the country and to remove all but a few military aid personnel by July. The communist insurgency continued, with sporadic armed attacks on the government in remote northeastern border provinces.
Internally, Thailand weathered a series of political upheavals in the 1970s. In November 1971, Marshal Thanom, who had been reconfirmed as prime minister in the 1969 general elections, led a bloodless military coup that abrogated the constitution and imposed a state of martial law. In December 1972, an interim constitution that preserved military rule caused student and labor groups to agitate for greater representation in Thai politics. By early October 1973, demonstrations erupted into riots, and on 14 October, Marshal Thanom resigned and quit the country. King Bhumibol Adulyadej stepped into the vacuum and named a national legislative assembly to draft a new constitution. On 7 October 1974, the new constitution—the tenth such document to be promulgated in Thailand since 1932—went into effect. On 26 January 1975, Thailand held its first truly open parliamentary elections since 1957. Some 42 parties competed in the balloting, which produced a coalition government under Seni Pramoj. In March 1975, Seni's government resigned following a noconfidence vote and a right-wing coalition government led by Kukrit Pramoj (Seni's brother) subsequently assumed control, but it too resigned in January 1976. Elections held in April restored Seni Pramoj to power as head of a four-party coalition, but when civil disorder again erupted among students in Bangkok, he was overthrown by the military. The military-led government declared martial law, banned strikes and political parties, and enacted yet another constitution. Promulgation of a subsequent constitution in December 1978 paved the way for elections in 1979, 1983, and 1986. On 9 September 1985, the military swiftly diffused an abortive military coup within several hours. It was the 16th coup or attempt at a coup since 1932. General Prem Tinsulanonda was appointed for a third term as prime minister following the 1986 elections.
Insurgents based in Laos and Cambodia contributed to the nation's political instability by launching guerrilla attacks on the country. Furthermore, an upsurge in the number of refugees from Laos and Cambodia contributed to a humanitarian crisis. In 1979, the government estimated the number of insurgents at 10,000. Following the Vietnamese victory in Cambodia in January 1979, thousands of insurgents took advantage of a government offer of amnesty and surrendered to Thai security forces while others were apprehended subsequently. By the beginning of 1986, fewer than 1,000 Communist insurgents remained active, according to government estimates.
During 1985 and 1986, the Progress Party gained power when cabinet ministers were replaced. A parliamentary defeat over proposed vehicle tax legislation resulted in the dissolution of the House of Representatives. In July 1986 a general election for an enlarged house took place. General Prem formed a coalition government and served as prime minister but opposition parties accused his government of corruption and mismanagement. Additional dissent arose over proposed copyright legislation aimed at controlling counterfeiting of Western products and intellectual property. In 1988 General Prem dissolved summarily the House of Representatives and announced a general election. In the July 1988 election, the Chart Thai gained the largest number of seats. Although its leader, General Chatichai Choonhavan, declared his unsuitability for prime minister, he was appointed nonetheless. General Chatichai took an active role in foreign affairs and made bold initiatives to improve relations with Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia. His support declined as his preoccupation with foreign affairs was considered a detriment to his handling of domestic issues, especially regarding government response in the aftermath of a devastating typhoon in November 1989. In July 1990, accusations of corruption led to a motion of "no confidence" that failed to muster a majority in the House of Representatives. In December of that year, General Chatichai resigned as prime minister, only to be reappointed the next day, enabling him to form a new coalition government.
On 23 February 1991, a bloodless military coup led by the National Peace Keeping Council (NPKC) ousted Chatichai's government alleging massive and systemic corruption. The NPKC declared martial law, abrogated the constitution, and dissolved the cabinet. An interim constitution approved by the king was published in March 1991. A former diplomat and business executive, Anand Panyarachun, was appointed prime minister. Despite public protest, a draft constitution presented in November was approved on 7 December 1991.
In March 1992, General Suchinda became prime minister amid continued unrest. Two months later, Major General Chamlong called for the resignation of Suchinda and an amendment to the constitution at a rally attended by 100,000 demonstrators. Chamlong pledged that he would fast to death, but gave the government a one-week grace period to amend the constitution to prohibit the appointment of an unelected prime minister. When it appeared that the government might renege on this agreement, the peaceful demonstrations resumed. On 17 May 1992, about 150,000 demonstrators met at Sanam Luang parade grounds in central Bangkok. Leaders called for the demonstrators to walk toward Government House down Ratchadamnoen Avenue. With police considering the demonstrators' plan threatening and demonstrators looking for a confrontation, the venue for a violent clash existed. Demonstrators broke through roadblocks established by the police and set fire to vehicles and a nearby police station. At 4 AM on 18 May the demonstrators were counterattacked with armored vehicles and machine-guns. Government forces arrested Chamlong and killed over 100 demonstrators and detained several thousands. Four days of violence ended with intervention by the king. On 24 May, Suchinda resigned after political leaders guaranteed amnesty to military officers that participated in quelling the demonstrations. On 10 June, the national assembly approved the constitutional amendments, including the prohibition of unelected politicians from forming a cabinet. A general election followed on 13 September 1992, and Chuan Leekpai, leader of the winning Democratic Party, became prime minister.
Chuan's policies emphasized four goals: to eradicate corrupt practices, to reduce the powers of the appointed Senate, to decentralize government from Bangkok to the provinces, and to enhance rural development. Beginning in 1993 and into 1994, Chuan's government faced two "no confidence" motions in parliament, but the government emerged stronger after they failed. In 1994, Chamlong and Palang Dharma became more assertive in demands for constitutional reform, decentralization of state power, and progress in solving Bangkok's traffic problems, which are some of the worst in the world—some commutes reportedly taking up to six hours.
Ultimately corruption charges brought Chuan's governing coalition down. In late 1994, the New Aspirations Party (NAP), led by Chavalit Yongchaiyadh, left the ruling coalition over a planned electoral reform. In May 1995, prior to a vote of no confidence, Chuan dissolved parliament and called for new elections. Having served two years of a four-year term as prime minister, Chuan became Thailand's longest serving civilian leader in the modern era.
During the campaigning leading to the July 1995 elections, politicians spent 17 billion baht buying votes, a seemingly intractable problem. However, the otherwise fair balloting was won by the Chart Thai party, which took 92 (of 391) seats. The former PM, Chuan's Democrats secured 86; the NAP took 57; and Palang Dharma lost heavily, going from 47 to 23 seats. Chart Thai selected as its PM Banharn Silpa-archa. In appointing his cabinet, however, Banharn was immediately perceived as favoring the old corrupted elite, especially when he gave important ministerial posts to Montri Pongpanich and Chalerm Yubamroong, both of whom were well known for their ill-gotten wealth. Even the king, who is revered by Thai society, expressed dissatisfied with the caliber of the new ministers.
Not surprisingly, Banharn's government collapsed before the end of 1996 and elections took place on 17 November 1996. Chart Thai went from 96 seats to 39 as the NAP, led by coalition parties, and Minister of Defense Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, emerged victorious. They swept into power going from 57 seats to 125. Placing second in the balloting was the Democratic Party. Chavalit, one of Thailand's more respected politicians, vowed to appoint a cabinet of technocrats (he called them the "dream team") rather than cronies, and to rescue the Thai economy which had been faltering. Despite his pledge, however, 1997 was a disastrous year for the Thai economy. In mid-May, the stock market collapsed and speculative currency trading hammered the baht. The government intervened, but conditions deteriorated so badly that by July the government decided to float the baht, which had been pegged to the US dollar, causing a precipitous drop. In one day, the currency fell more than 17% against the dollar. The floating of the baht caused international headlines as neighboring Asian countries frantically scrambled to protect their own currencies. By September 1997, the crisis had spread to Singapore, the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
Failing to adjust to the crisis, the Minister of Finance Thanong resigned in October 1997 while students demanded the resignation of Chavalit. Despite a reshuffling of the cabinet in an attempt to placate Chart Pattana, Prime Minister Chavalit resigned on November 6. In November, Chuan Leepkai formed a coalition government that included his Democratic Party, Chart Thai, the SAP, Ekkaparb, the Seirtham Party, Palang Dharma, the Thai Party, and a majority of the Prachakorn Thai Party. Despite the perceived integrity of Chuan, the Thai baht continued to experience devaluation. The fragile government survived a no confidence vote in March 1998.
By May 1998, the Thai economy stabilized and began to recover slowly despite the swirling of allegations of corruption that led to the resignation of two ministers. The government accepted a significant International Monetary Fund bailout package and promised to deregulate the economy and adopt transparency. In March 1999, a major privatization bill passed the National Assembly, which allowed government enterprises to become corporate entities without legislative action. On 5 October 1998, Chuan reorganized the government and invited Chart Pattana into the government, extending the coalition's majority in the House of Representatives to 257. In April 1999, the leader of the NAP, Chavalit temporarily resigned as leader of the party in order to prepare for upcoming general elections.
In March 2000, the first ever Senate elections took place in accord with the 1997 constitution. The nonpartisan elections fielded 1,521 candidates who, by law, refrained from campaigning.
In general elections held in January 2001, media tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra's Thais Love Thais Party won a major victory, making him prime minister. The new party took 248 of 500 seats in the House of Representatives, and Thaksin formed a coalition government with the Chart Thai (Thai Nation) Party and New Aspiration Party. The elections were marked by voting irregularities. Thaksin promised to help small businessmen and farmers in Thailand, pledging to postpone farmers' debts for three years and allocate credit of approximately US $23,000 each to more than 70,000 villages.
In March, a plane Thaksin was due to board in Bangkok expoded, in what was regarded as an attempted assassination plot. There were speculations that the bombing had to do with Thaksin's campaign promise to crack down on drug traffickers, particularly drug lords in Myanmar moving their product through Thailand. There were 149 passengers booked to be on the plane. One person was killed and seven were injured.
Thailand officials reported that 2001 was the worst year on record for the use of methamphetamine, called ya ba ("crazy medicine") in Thailand. The rise in users was deemed by the military to be a threat to national security. More inexpensive to produce, smuggle, and market than heroin, methamphetamine is produced largely in Myanmar.
During 2001 and 2002, relations between Myanmar and Thailand improved. The two countries held talks in June 2001, attempting to ameliorate disagreements over the drug trade and border tensions. By September, Myanmar pledged to eliminate drug trade in the Golden Triangle by 2005. Thailand committed funds to finance a crop substitution program, and the two countries regarded themselves as good neighbors. However, in May 2002, Myanmar closed its border with Thailand after the Thai army fired shells into Myanmar's territory during a battle between Myanmar's army and ethnic Shan rebels. The border was reopened in October.
On 29 January 2003 riots broke out in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh over comments attributed to a Thai actress that Cambodia's Angkor Wat temple complex was stolen from Thailand. Thailand initially suspended all economic cooperation and business dealings with Cambodia, and closed the border. Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen promised to pay US $46.7 million in compensation for the damage done to Thai businesses. Thailand was due to partially reopen its border with Cambodia on 8 February.