The earliest people to appear in Thailand were most likely the Mons, who came into Southeast Asia from Central China two millennial ago. The Mons settled along various rivers in Burma and Thailand, building cities and rapidly developing a civilized culture. Within a few centuries they were confronted by other groups coming out of the north. As the region filled with people and villages, local kingdoms emerged and vied for supremacy over each other, giving rise to Thailand’s earliest empires. The first of these were the Davaravati of Central Thailand and the Srivijaya, whose empire extended from Sumatra up the Malay peninsula to southern Thailand. Both kingdoms practiced Buddhism, which had spread from India during the time of the Mons. Eventually, the Davaravati fell to the westward expansion of the Khmers from Cambodia.
The next Thai kingdom to arise was Siam, which had its origins in the military expansion of the Mongols under Kublai Khan. As the Mongols pressed south through China, the peoples of the northwestern mountains and the Shan Plateau fled south and east. In 1220, the Thai lords founded their first capital at Sukhothai, in the Nan River valley. Soon afterward, two other Thai kingdoms were established: Lanna Thai (million Thai rice fields) at Chiang Mai in the north, and Ayuthaya, upriver from present day Bangkok. In the mid-14th century, Ayuthaya had entered its golden age, dominating the other kingdoms and driving the Khmers out of the region entirely.
For the next few centuries the Thai kingdoms faced a stronger threat, not from the east or north, but from their neighbors to the west—the Burmese. In 1556 the Burmese captured Chiang Mai, and then Ayuthaya in 1569. The Thais rallied and recaptured both cities in the following decades, but the antagonism between the two peoples continued. The Burmese attacked Ayuthaya once more in 1767, this time practically erasing the city after a particularly bloody and protracted battle. Although the Thais managed to expel the Burmese shortly after, a new capital had to be constructed around what is now Bangkok. This chapter in Thai history marks the establishment of the Chakri Dynasty under Rama I, whose descendants have reigned in unbroken succession until the present day.
Unlike most of the other countries of Southeast Asia, Thailand (or Siam, as it was known at the time) never felt the yoke of direct European colonialism. As early as the 17th century, the Thai kings were set upon maintaining independence, having executed a French emissary to underscore their determination. As the French, British, and Dutch carved up the entire region over the next hundred years, the Kings of Siam shrewdly played the competing Europeans against each other, ensuring that no one power would gain a dominant presence. The strategy paid off handsomely, as Siam remained autonomous while reaping most of whatever benefits the colonial system had to offer.
After a peaceful coup in 1932, Siam’s powerful monarchy became constitutional, and in 1939 the country officially adopted the name Thailand. Over the next several decades, Thailand was governed primarily by military dictatorships, which drew much of their support from collaboration with more powerful nations. They supported the Japanese occupation army in WW2 and later provided bases and men for the United States’ efforts in Vietnam. Since that time, Thailand has weathered several coups, a number of border clashes with neighbouring communist regimes, and violent student demonstrations, finally emerging in the last decade as a remarkably stable and economically successful nation.
Today Thailand has a population of 54 million people, the vast majority of whom are of Thai ethnicity. Significant minorities of Chinese, Malay, Khmer, Mons, and various hill tribes also reside in Thailand, in addition to tens of thousands of refugees in border camps from the more troubled countries of Southeast Asia.
Buddhism is the dominant religion in Thailand, although a variety of tribal religions continue to be practiced. Thailand’s people regard their royal family with a respect bordering on awe. The main language in Thailand is Thai, although Lao, Chinese, Malay and English are also spoken by significant numbers of people.
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