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Jun 3, 2012 | 14:31 GMT

44 mins read

The Geopolitics of Thailand: A Kingdom in Flux

The Chaophaya river is lit by candles during a ceremony celebrating the Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej.
(ThaiPhotoCenter-Pool/ Getty Images)

The Kingdom of Thailand, formerly Siam, has never been colonized by a foreign power. Throughout its history, Thailand has been preoccupied with two things: overcoming regional divisions to consolidate central Thailand's power and attracting foreign wealth without allowing it to undermine internal stability. On the surface, the country's politics fluctuate continuously as successive governments attempt to balance regional and foreign interests. Yet Thailand's economic and cultural core remains relatively stable.

The Thai Heartland

The Southeast Asian peninsula extends south of the great Eurasian landmass, making it the most prominent formation east of the Indian subcontinent and west of the Chinese mainland, and marking the division between the Andaman Sea to the west and the South China Sea to the east. The northern portion of the peninsula is bounded by low mountains and foothills — the roots of the Himalayas. The rest of the peninsula can be divided into two parts: the Indochina Peninsula, a glob of land that extends southeastward into the South China Sea, and the Malay Peninsula, a long finger that juts southward into the Indonesian archipelago. Several big rivers flow down from the Tibetan Plateau, including the Irrawaddy, the Salween and the Mekong.

Physical Geography of Southeast Asian Peninsula

Thailand sits at the crux of the Indochina and Malay peninsulas, forming the core of the greater Southeast Asian peninsula and overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. The Dawna mountain range bounds the northern and western extent of Thai territory, while the Khorat Plateau, a grassy highland at the base of the Indochina Peninsula, forms the more permeable eastern boundary. North of the Khorat Plateau, the Mekong River marks the boundary line. In the south, Thailand extends down the narrow bottleneck of the Malay Peninsula until the point where it widens.

Directly through the heart of this territory runs the Chao Phraya River and its small tributaries — the Ping, Wang, Yom and Nan — all of which emerge from the northern mountains, where Doi Inthanon is the highest peak at 8,415 feet. These rivers are smaller than the Salween and Mekong rivers that flow from higher altitudes. The Chao Phraya courses through the fertile alluvial plains and lowlands that have become the Thai heartland, and forms a large delta where it enters the gulf.

The Chao Phraya River basin was an ideal place for a civilization to thrive. The numerous rivers provide a consistent source of water and form rich lowlands where fruit and especially rice can grow in abundance. High humidity — Bangkok is one of the most humid cities in the world — is conducive to agriculture as well as a sedentary lifestyle. The tropical climate is characterized by an alternating warm, rainy monsoon from the southwest and a dry, cool monsoon from the northeast. Natural features — mountains, a plateau escarpment and the gulf — hem in the basin on almost every side.

Physical Geography of Thailand

There are several theories about the origins of the Tai people and when they came to inhabit this region, most of which hold that they were latecomers. The original Tai likely emigrated from southwestern China (modern Yunnan and Sichuan provinces) from 1000 to 1400 A.D., traveling in separate waves and breaking into different subgroups, including Thai, Lao and Shan. They established bases in the Himalayas to fend off raids by Mongol armies and soon descended into the lush plains below.

The Kingdom of Siam emerged around 1350 with its capital at Ayutthaya, on the Chao Phraya River not far from the delta. The region's conditions provided for a number of powerful city-states to emerge, and Siam was not the first great Thai power. But Siam's strategic location near the delta and gulf gave it several advantages, such as being a receiving point for rice grown upriver and a point of contact for foreign maritime traders willing to pay for surplus rice production, which made Siam the preeminent Thai power.

Borders and Periphery

Much of Thai history is the story of central Thailand attempting to consolidate power over three outlying provinces in the north, northeast and south. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the young Siamese kingdom expanded into surrounding areas outside the Chao Phraya basin. With considerable difficulty, it subordinated three regions that formed its borders with foreign kingdoms — the northern mountains, the northeast plateau and the southernmost portions of the peninsula. In modern times, central Thailand continues to exercise power over these regions, which provide defensible positions and strategic depth against potential threats from foreign powers but are also where resistance to central rule remains the strongest.

The north is mountainous, affording shelter for those who would elude central power. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Siam's first great rival was Lanna, the chief ethnic Thai kingdom in the north, based in modern Chiang Mai. Lanna was older than the Siamese capital Ayutthaya. Its location in a fertile mountain valley gave it enough protection from outside forces to resist Siam's attempts to render it subservient (it was not until 1874 that Bangkok fully subordinated Chiang Mai). Further differentiated by its proximity to neighboring countries such as Burma, China and Laos, the north saw a communist insurgency from the 1960s to the 1980s, and a lucrative opium trade has long thrived in the region, giving rise to a particular strain of organized crime that now extends throughout the country. Ethnic minorities in the mountains also have resisted Bangkok's rule.

The outlying province in the northeast, or Isan region, comprises the Khorat Plateau, beyond the natural boundary formed by the plateau escarpment. The region is mostly populated by ethnic Lao and Khmer people who have variously been at odds with the Thai. Originally, Khorat was sought after by both the Siamese and Khmer kingdoms for its labor force (even today about a third of Thailand's population lives in the northeast). But Siam seized Khorat after forcing the collapse of the Khmer empire in the 14th century. In the late 19th century, the northeast region was contested by the French in Indochina, leading to border skirmishes as the French tried to encroach into Siamese territory. In the 20th century, Isan continued to differentiate itself from Bangkok as the "Northeastern Party" tried to form an autonomous region in 1959, but was crushed by the Thai military. During the Cold War, the region was especially susceptible to communist influence due to its relatively high population density and poverty as well as its proximity to communist North Vietnam and communist movements in South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In modern times, the region continues to be a source of resistance to political forces based in Bangkok and central Thailand.

16th Century Thai Kingdoms

Central Thailand struggles to control the southernmost parts of the Malay Peninsula, where the population is mostly Malay-speaking and Islamic, in contrast to the country's prevailing Thai language and Theravada Buddhism. In the 15th century, Siam's progress to the south was checked when it sought to push all the way to the Straits of Malacca, a crucial choke point for maritime trade that lies at the southwestern tip of the Malay Peninsula, which could have enabled the Thai to develop still more rice paddies, fisheries and trading posts on the expanded coastline. Not only did the Malays resist, but the Chinese, the dominant military and maritime commercial force at the time, supported the Malay sultans so as not to have any competition over the Straits of Malacca, an important part of their trading empire. Siam therefore fell short of gaining control over the straits and was pushed back farther up the peninsula. Nevertheless, the Siamese retained their own narrow part of the peninsula, and from the peninsula's west coast they still retain access to the Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean where they can fish and conduct trade.

In general, the southern region remains politically aligned with central Thailand, but Thai-Malay stresses persist. Islamic opposition groups, motivated by Middle Eastern anti-colonial movements and, more recently, by Islamic fundamentalism, have fought an insurgency there since 1948. This insurgency flared in the 1950s and 1970s and has continued from 2002 to the present, resulting in several thousand deaths since 2004.

In the 21st century the divisions between Thailand's center and the main outlying regions persist, particularly between Bangkok and the north and northeast (the southern troubles are mostly local and self-contained). Controversial former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose term lasted from 2000 to 2006, has served as a lightning rod for regional tensions. Thaksin was born in Chiang Mai into a family with business and political connections. His popularity and power in the north and northeast provinces, his grip on the electoral process, and his close ties with foreign businesses (namely in Singapore), struck a nerve in Bangkok, where the civil bureaucracy, the military and the monarchy gradually came to feel threatened by his rule. This led to a military coup in 2006 (one of many in modern Thai history) that ousted Thaksin.

Since the 2006 coup, Thai politics have been consumed by topsy-turvy squabbles between Thaksin's proxy parties and anti-Thaksin parties. Ultimately, however, the controversy over Thaksin does not result from his personality or his alleged deeds and misdeeds, or even from many other episodes of modern political upheaval. Rather, it reveals the regional tension between centrally located Bangkok and the outlying north and northeast, and their competing networks of money and power. It embodies the ancient rivalry between Siam and the northern kingdom of Lanna as well as between Siam and the defiant northeast. It also taps into Thailand's inherent resistance to foreign influence that is perceived as threatening traditional Thai authority, given Thaksin's affiliations with international big business capable of challenging traditional power centers. Of course, today's political factions do not organize perfectly along regional lines — both urban and rural power brokers have allies and connections at every level throughout the country. Opportunism allows key players to switch sides on a whim. But the basic lines of battle reflect the center's struggle to control the north and northeast, just as in the 14th century.

External Threats

Beyond the outlying regions that Siam has historically sought to control, and feeding into regional uneasiness, lie foreign adversaries, most formidably the Khmer and the Burmese. Throughout history these powers alternately defeated each other in occasional battles, but none of them proved capable of subordinating another for any significant period of time. During the era of European colonization, the Burmese threat was replaced by a British threat, and the Khmer threat became a threat from the French, but the dynamic remained essentially the same for Thailand, stuck in the middle of two hostile forces to its east and west.

Unified Burmese Empire (1817)

Historically, Burma has been Thailand's most feared rival to the north and west. A unified Burma is capable of crossing over the mountains and descending rapidly into the Chao Phraya lowlands, posing an existential threat to the Thai heartland. In the 1500s, a united Burma emerged for the first time, and Burmese armies crushed Lanna in 1558 and Ayutthaya in 1569, causing a nascent Siam to collapse. The pattern repeated itself in 1767, when a reunified Burma sacked Siam once again. This time the Burmese razed Ayutthaya to the ground, attempting to permanently crush their Siamese rivals. As before, the Burmese armies retreated soon after and Siam reassembled. In 1782, order was restored by King Rama I, who established the modern Siamese Chakri dynasty (still on the throne in 2009). Rama I moved the Siamese capital from Ayutthaya to Bangkok, closer to the Chao Phraya Delta on the east riverbank. He consolidated power across the country and put an end to wars with Burma in 1793.

Tensions with the Burmese have persisted in modern times. During World War II, the Siamese invaded Burma's Shan states and held them briefly. In the 21st century, Burma entered one of its periodic incoherent phases — modern Myanmar consists of a military junta ruling over an anarchic state. Militant independence movements, drug cartels and waves of immigrants have the potential to destabilize Thai society, especially in border areas, but until it is able to congeal into a single power, Myanmar does not pose a formidable military threat to Thailand.

Meanwhile, to the east, the Siamese sought to subordinate their Khmer rivals in Cambodia. Siam had crushed the Khmer empire's capital Angkor by the 1430s, forcing the Khmer to relocate to Phnom Penh. Nevertheless, Phnom Penh remained a thorn in Siam's side, whether by blocking Thai advances eastward, raiding inside Siamese territory during times of internal weakness, extending its influence into the Khorat Plateau, or attempting to take up coastline and gulf waters for its own fisheries and trade. Siam occasionally attempted to push its eastward border to the Mekong River, and could do so in relation to Laos, but it could never maintain such a deep incursion into the Cambodian heartland for long. As a result, the boundary between the Thai and Khmer was ill-defined; both struggled for hegemony over the Khorat Plateau because it offered an advantageous strategic highland as well as a much-needed labor force. Siam also fought with the Khmer kings to extend its southeastern shoreline along the gulf to maximize arable land and access to fishing waters and foreign trade. Siam's interest in Cambodia was not limited to Cambodia itself — it also wanted to preempt any potential threat from powers further east, such as Vietnam. The occasionally violent outbursts over the ancient Preah Vihear Temple, which both Thailand and Cambodia claim as their own, is a modern manifestation of inherent Thai-Khmer tensions, as are disputes over boundaries in the gulf.

Thai Expansion into Cambodia

In modern times, the threats from the east and west were replaced by European colonizers Britain and France. In the 19th century, the British established themselves in Burma and Malaysia, while the French colonized Vietnam. Fears ran wild in Bangkok that Siam was next to be colonized. A crisis erupted in the 1890s when the French pushed west of the Mekong River, triggering border clashes with the Siamese. In the so-called Paknam Incident, France blockaded Bangkok and sailed two gunboats up the Chao Phraya, forcing Siam to capitulate. The British prevented France from taking over Siam, but the two powers agreed to divide it between themselves at an opportune time.

This was, and still is, Thailand's nightmare scenario: to fall under foreign dominion (regardless of who the foreigner is) without control of the provinces and surrounded by powers on each side capable of constricting or controlling trade out of the central basin and Bangkok. Without a grip on its outlying regions, Thailand had no way to fend off foreign rivals and guard against colonization.

Fortunately for Bangkok, London and Paris became distracted with the rise of Germany in Europe in the late 19th century and abandoned their plan to partition Siam. They were not to return, as World War I would put an end to the days of aggressive European penetration in this part of the world. Siam escaped colonization both because of distractions that called off the European powers and because of its more defensible geographical position in the interior of the Southeast Asian peninsula.

Foreign Influence

Siam's power was supported by its agricultural production, particularly wet rice. The country is known as the "rice bowl of Asia," and in the 21st century it is the world's largest rice supplier, with over a third of global exports. Throughout its history, Thailand's rice production has played a role in feeding regional population booms, especially in China. This surplus agricultural product brought great wealth to the kingdom through connections with the international mercantile culture. While the Thai themselves were not great maritime traders, the country's natural ports were easily accessible through the gulf, making it easy to sell commodities to merchants (mostly Chinese) who then exported them further afield.

Thailand's Core Between British and French Influence

Because Siam did not have much of a merchant fleet or a navy to protect it and remained a sedentary society relying on foreign merchants to export its goods, it sought to attract foreigners in order to benefit economically and acquire advanced technology. Siam had been linked to Chinese merchants since the 14th century and to the Portuguese, who brought cannon and musketry, since the mid-1500s. Later Japanese, Persian, Dutch, English and French merchants joined the flurry of ships going in and out of the Gulf of Siam. The Siamese royal court was famous for its luxuries from around the world and its cosmopolitan guests. It is a nation that has always been, and remains, comfortable interacting with foreign cultures.

But there are limits to Thailand's openness to the outside world. When its openness empowers foreigners or non-Thai ethno-linguistic groups to generate social and political unrest among the native population, the Thai tend to resist.

For example, the Chinese have long permeated Thai society and, as with much of Southeast Asia, ethnic tension with the Chinese has been a recurrent theme in Thai history. Still, the Chinese and the Thai generally have worked in tandem because the Chinese were motivated mostly by economic interests and generally did not seek political power for its own sake. Thailand's geographic isolation, combined with the on-again, off-again Chinese flirtation with sea power, ensured that Thailand was either unattractive as a target for China's expansionary ambitions or that Chinese attention was too short to pursue Thailand seriously. Only when the Chinese in Thailand became affiliated with republican and later communist political activity, as they did in the 19th and 20th centuries, did nationwide outbursts of anti-Chinese sentiment become more frequent. Nowadays leading Thai politicians and businessmen often have partial Chinese heritage.

The Western world has provoked Thailand's most intense reactions against foreign influence. In the 17th century, when the French reached beyond business and started trying to convert the Siamese to Christianity, a full-fledged revolt broke out against foreign presence (and against the royalty of the day that was seen as pandering to that presence). In 1688, Siam banished all foreign merchants (except the fully embedded Chinese) and turned inward for a long period. This isolation would remain in place until Siam signed a trade treaty with the British in 1826, inaugurating the modern Thai period of economic openness.

In the late 1800s and for most of the 20th century, Thailand maintained this openness. Under King Chulalongkorn in the late 19th century, Siam sought to modernize fully by studying and imitating European forms of public administration, business, science and technology. In the 20th century, successive military governments sought financial and technical assistance from the United States in order to expedite the country's modernization. In the 21st century, Thailand's economy remains dependent on attracting foreign investment, exporting commodities and manufactured goods to external markets, and attracting foreign tourists.

Geopolitical Imperatives

Thailand's geopolitical imperatives have remained constant since the Siamese kingdom's earliest expansionary phase in the 14th and 15th centuries. They continue to drive both its internally focused and externally focused behavior.

  • Maintain stability in Bangkok — the home of 10 percent of the population — and preserve central Thailand's political dominance.
  • Rein in and consolidate power over three outlying regions to gain strategic depth: the northern mountains, the northeastern Khorat Plateau and the southern Malay Peninsula.
  • Prevent incursions from Myanmar to the west and Laos and Cambodia to the east by helping to keep them destabilized, fragmented and incapable of posing a threat.
  • Reach out to foreign powers to benefit from them economically and technologically while not allowing them to undermine central Thai political power or social stability.

Grand Strategy

The economic and political center of power of Thailand will always lie near the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, with Bangkok supplanting ancient Ayutthaya. The capital has always had trouble maintaining control over the northern hills, the northeastern Khorat Plateau area and the southern peninsular provinces. Threats from neighbors occasionally arise, with Burma as Thailand's chief enemy and Cambodia as a minor enemy. Agricultural abundance and international trade remain the source of Thailand's wealth, though too much foreign influence can create political imbalances at home.

Through most of the 20th century, Thailand, whether consciously or not, has pursued its geopolitical imperatives through a grand strategy of intervening militarily in internal affairs and of seeking foreign alliances that bring security and economic prosperity.

Frequent political change is a fact of Thailand's modern life. Siam officially became Thailand in 1939 after a 1932 coup that imposed a constitution on the monarchy (although amid changes in government Thailand was known as Siam again until 1949). Since the 1932 coup broke the monarchy's absolute authority, the country has cycled through a ceaseless repetition of government successions, with 19 military coups since 1932 (not to mention attempted coups). Not only have the army's top brass vied with each other, but popular demands for democratically elected government have given rise to successive civilian regimes. Each civilian government is eventually — sometimes very quickly — overthrown by the military or by popular protest, resulting in vacillation between military and civilian rule. The ultimate effect of military intervention has been to re-concentrate power in the army's hands, thus preserving Bangkok's dominance and preventing the provinces from gaining too much power.

Thailand's Major Regions

One aspect of this strategy has been the military's deliberate resurrection of the Thai monarchy, which serves as a means of creating social coherence among regions with divergent interests. King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) acceded to the throne in 1946 and the military leadership in the following decade helped elevate him to pre-revolution royal grandeur, which he continues to perpetuate from the throne to this day. These are the roots of the Thai military-monarchy power nexus in the 21st century.

The second prong of Thailand's grand strategy consists of forming military alliances and economic partnerships with foreign powers.

Bangkok allied with the Japanese against the British and the Americans in 1941, leading the Thai army to invade the Shan states in Burma and parts of French Cambodia in 1942. The Japanese used Thailand as a base of operations to combat the British in Burma and Malaysia, but Bangkok quickly turned against the Japanese and by 1943 appealed to the United States for support. At war's end, the United States refused to support Britain's demands for Thailand to pay reparations, bringing Bangkok into Washington's orbit.

Thailand became a full member of the American alliance structure during the Cold War. Communism posed a fundamental geopolitical threat to Thailand by increasing the power of eastern neighbors Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, all of which received Chinese or Soviet support. Moreover, the communists' modus operandi was not in keeping with Bangkok's strategy of limiting foreign influence to economics. Communist ideology sought total transformation of traditional Thai institutions like Buddhism and the monarchy, whereas American influence supported the king and did not threaten Thai Buddhism, while it brought many an economic boon. Aid and advice from the United States afforded Thailand access to Western credit and consumer markets and enabled it to develop its infrastructure and industries and become a booming capitalist economy.

The United States also strengthened the Thai military government, which contributed to the American side in the Korean War and sent 10,000 troops to fight alongside the United States in Vietnam while using U.S. intelligence and funds to fight a communist insurgency inside Thailand from the 1960s to the 1980s. Thailand provided military bases and rest and relaxation for the Americans during the Vietnam War, boosting the country's industrial base and tourism (and giving rise to the sex industry for which Thailand is notorious).

But American influence waned after the U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War, and with the withdrawal the communists appeared poised to seize the advantage. South Vietnam fell to the communists, the monarchy in Laos was overthrown and the Khmer Rouge emerged in Cambodia. Yet Thailand managed to defeat the communist insurgency that had been raging in the north and northeast by cutting a political deal with China, which had decided to open up its economy in 1978. The Sino-Vietnamese war cut off the Thai communists' supply lines, and a new strategy on the part of the Thai military used political negotiations to discourage the communist insurgency, which finally wound down in the mid-1980s.

Thailand has also courted regional and international economic relationships to bring in foreign capital and boost its economic development. In the 1980s a surfeit of Japanese investment flooded into Thailand, pushing Bangkok to adopt the Japanese model of weak currency and export-based growth. Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong all began outsourcing the manufacturing of consumer-good components to Thailand, which liberalized capital controls to enable freer flows through its financial system. From 1985 to 1995, Thailand enjoyed an unprecedented period of prosperity, growing at double-digit rates and becoming the fifth of the so-called "Asian tiger" economies.

Since Thailand remains open to the outside world on an economic basis, it has been able to weather successive economic downturns without closing its doors. Thailand's frenzied growth came to a grinding halt during the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, which originated in Bangkok because of the wild investment of the preceding decade. Thailand's external debt had become difficult to manage, export growth began to slow, a domestic real estate bubble burst, and the decision to take the Thai baht off its peg to the U.S. dollar led to a currency collapse. The Thai crash cascaded, triggering the collapse of other Asian economies and leading to a region-wide recession.

Thailand recovered relatively quickly from the crisis, no longer an economic miracle but still with a strong economy based on agricultural and manufacturing exports and tourism. Of course, the Asian financial crisis, along with the current global crisis, has exacerbated the ever-present divisions between power circles in favor of foreign influence and those that are against it. On the whole, however, the balance continues to be in favor of promoting free trade and regional and international economic links, and this balance will remain so long as foreign influences are not perceived as creating unbearable social divisions and do not undermine Bangkok's traditional power.

The eventual death of King Bhumibol presents the greatest immediate challenge to Thailand's internal political stability. Bhumibol is the longest-reigning king on earth and his sway over public opinion has increased throughout his rule. But succession will create controversy. When Bhumibol dies, new uncertainty about the power structure in Thailand — the relative roles of the monarchy, the military, the civilian bureaucracy and the provinces — will emerge for the first time since the 1940s. Yet the king's passing will not change the country's fundamental geopolitics. Whatever balance of power emerges in post-Bhumibol Thailand, the country will not stop trying to meet the imperatives that have determined its behavior since the early days of Siam.

Thailand sits at the crux of the Indochina and Malay peninsulas, forming the core of the greater Southeast Asian peninsula and overlooking the Gulf of Thailand. The Dawna mountain range bounds the northern and western extent of Thai territory, while the Khorat Plateau, a grassy highland at the base of the Indochina Peninsula, forms the more permeable eastern boundary. North of the Khorat Plateau, the Mekong River marks the boundary line. In the south, Thailand extends down the narrow bottleneck of the Malay Peninsula until the point where it widens.

Directly through the heart of this territory runs the Chao Phraya River and its small tributaries — the Ping, Wang, Yom and Nan — all of which emerge from the northern mountains, where Doi Inthanon is the highest peak at 8,415 feet. These rivers are smaller than the Salween and Mekong rivers that flow from higher altitudes. The Chao Phraya courses through the fertile alluvial plains and lowlands that have become the Thai heartland, and forms a large delta where it enters the gulf.

The Chao Phraya River basin was an ideal place for a civilization to thrive. The numerous rivers provide a consistent source of water and form rich lowlands where fruit and especially rice can grow in abundance. High humidity — Bangkok is one of the most humid cities in the world — is conducive to agriculture as well as a sedentary lifestyle. The tropical climate is characterized by an alternating warm, rainy monsoon from the southwest and a dry, cool monsoon from the northeast. Natural features — mountains, a plateau escarpment and the gulf — hem in the basin on almost every side.

There are several theories about the origins of the Tai people and when they came to inhabit this region, most of which hold that they were latecomers. The original Tai likely emigrated from southwestern China (modern Yunnan and Sichuan provinces) from 1000 to 1400 A.D., traveling in separate waves and breaking into different subgroups, including Thai, Lao and Shan. They established bases in the Himalayas to fend off raids by Mongol armies and soon descended into the lush plains below.

The Kingdom of Siam emerged around 1350 with its capital at Ayutthaya, on the Chao Phraya River not far from the delta. The region's conditions provided for a number of powerful city-states to emerge, and Siam was not the first great Thai power. But Siam's strategic location near the delta and gulf gave it several advantages, such as being a receiving point for rice grown upriver and a point of contact for foreign maritime traders willing to pay for surplus rice production, which made Siam the preeminent Thai power.

Borders and Periphery

Much of Thai history is the story of central Thailand attempting to consolidate power over three outlying provinces in the north, northeast and south. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the young Siamese kingdom expanded into surrounding areas outside the Chao Phraya basin. With considerable difficulty, it subordinated three regions that formed its borders with foreign kingdoms — the northern mountains, the northeast plateau and the southernmost portions of the peninsula. In modern times, central Thailand continues to exercise power over these regions, which provide defensible positions and strategic depth against potential threats from foreign powers but are also where resistance to central rule remains the strongest.

The north is mountainous, affording shelter for those who would elude central power. In the 14th and 15th centuries, Siam's first great rival was Lanna, the chief ethnic Thai kingdom in the north, based in modern Chiang Mai. Lanna was older than the Siamese capital Ayutthaya. Its location in a fertile mountain valley gave it enough protection from outside forces to resist Siam's attempts to render it subservient (it was not until 1874 that Bangkok fully subordinated Chiang Mai). Further differentiated by its proximity to neighboring countries such as Burma, China and Laos, the north saw a communist insurgency from the 1960s to the 1980s, and a lucrative opium trade has long thrived in the region, giving rise to a particular strain of organized crime that now extends throughout the country. Ethnic minorities in the mountains also have resisted Bangkok's rule.

The outlying province in the northeast, or Isan region, comprises the Khorat Plateau, beyond the natural boundary formed by the plateau escarpment. The region is mostly populated by ethnic Lao and Khmer people who have variously been at odds with the Thai. Originally, Khorat was sought after by both the Siamese and Khmer kingdoms for its labor force (even today about a third of Thailand's population lives in the northeast). But Siam seized Khorat after forcing the collapse of the Khmer empire in the 14th century. In the late 19th century, the northeast region was contested by the French in Indochina, leading to border skirmishes as the French tried to encroach into Siamese territory. In the 20th century, Isan continued to differentiate itself from Bangkok as the "Northeastern Party" tried to form an autonomous region in 1959, but was crushed by the Thai military. During the Cold War, the region was especially susceptible to communist influence due to its relatively high population density and poverty as well as its proximity to communist North Vietnam and communist movements in South Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. In modern times, the region continues to be a source of resistance to political forces based in Bangkok and central Thailand.

Central Thailand struggles to control the southernmost parts of the Malay Peninsula, where the population is mostly Malay-speaking and Islamic, in contrast to the country's prevailing Thai language and Theravada Buddhism. In the 15th century, Siam's progress to the south was checked when it sought to push all the way to the Straits of Malacca, a crucial choke point for maritime trade that lies at the southwestern tip of the Malay Peninsula, which could have enabled the Thai to develop still more rice paddies, fisheries and trading posts on the expanded coastline. Not only did the Malays resist, but the Chinese, the dominant military and maritime commercial force at the time, supported the Malay sultans so as not to have any competition over the Straits of Malacca, an important part of their trading empire. Siam therefore fell short of gaining control over the straits and was pushed back farther up the peninsula. Nevertheless, the Siamese retained their own narrow part of the peninsula, and from the peninsula's west coast they still retain access to the Andaman Sea and Indian Ocean where they can fish and conduct trade.

In general, the southern region remains politically aligned with central Thailand, but Thai-Malay stresses persist. Islamic opposition groups, motivated by Middle Eastern anti-colonial movements and, more recently, by Islamic fundamentalism, have fought an insurgency there since 1948. This insurgency flared in the 1950s and 1970s and has continued from 2002 to the present, resulting in several thousand deaths since 2004.

In the 21st century the divisions between Thailand's center and the main outlying regions persist, particularly between Bangkok and the north and northeast (the southern troubles are mostly local and self-contained). Controversial former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, whose term lasted from 2000 to 2006, has served as a lightning rod for regional tensions. Thaksin was born in Chiang Mai into a family with business and political connections. His popularity and power in the north and northeast provinces, his grip on the electoral process, and his close ties with foreign businesses (namely in Singapore), struck a nerve in Bangkok, where the civil bureaucracy, the military and the monarchy gradually came to feel threatened by his rule. This led to a military coup in 2006 (one of many in modern Thai history) that ousted Thaksin.

Since the 2006 coup, Thai politics have been consumed by topsy-turvy squabbles between Thaksin's proxy parties and anti-Thaksin parties. Ultimately, however, the controversy over Thaksin does not result from his personality or his alleged deeds and misdeeds, or even from many other episodes of modern political upheaval. Rather, it reveals the regional tension between centrally located Bangkok and the outlying north and northeast, and their competing networks of money and power. It embodies the ancient rivalry between Siam and the northern kingdom of Lanna as well as between Siam and the defiant northeast. It also taps into Thailand's inherent resistance to foreign influence that is perceived as threatening traditional Thai authority, given Thaksin's affiliations with international big business capable of challenging traditional power centers. Of course, today's political factions do not organize perfectly along regional lines — both urban and rural power brokers have allies and connections at every level throughout the country. Opportunism allows key players to switch sides on a whim. But the basic lines of battle reflect the center's struggle to control the north and northeast, just as in the 14th century.

External Threats

Beyond the outlying regions that Siam has historically sought to control, and feeding into regional uneasiness, lie foreign adversaries, most formidably the Khmer and the Burmese. Throughout history these powers alternately defeated each other in occasional battles, but none of them proved capable of subordinating another for any significant period of time. During the era of European colonization, the Burmese threat was replaced by a British threat, and the Khmer threat became a threat from the French, but the dynamic remained essentially the same for Thailand, stuck in the middle of two hostile forces to its east and west.

Historically, Burma has been Thailand's most feared rival to the north and west. A unified Burma is capable of crossing over the mountains and descending rapidly into the Chao Phraya lowlands, posing an existential threat to the Thai heartland. In the 1500s, a united Burma emerged for the first time, and Burmese armies crushed Lanna in 1558 and Ayutthaya in 1569, causing a nascent Siam to collapse. The pattern repeated itself in 1767, when a reunified Burma sacked Siam once again. This time the Burmese razed Ayutthaya to the ground, attempting to permanently crush their Siamese rivals. As before, the Burmese armies retreated soon after and Siam reassembled. In 1782, order was restored by King Rama I, who established the modern Siamese Chakri dynasty (still on the throne in 2009). Rama I moved the Siamese capital from Ayutthaya to Bangkok, closer to the Chao Phraya Delta on the east riverbank. He consolidated power across the country and put an end to wars with Burma in 1793.

Tensions with the Burmese have persisted in modern times. During World War II, the Siamese invaded Burma's Shan states and held them briefly. In the 21st century, Burma entered one of its periodic incoherent phases — modern Myanmar consists of a military junta ruling over an anarchic state. Militant independence movements, drug cartels and waves of immigrants have the potential to destabilize Thai society, especially in border areas, but until it is able to congeal into a single power, Myanmar does not pose a formidable military threat to Thailand.

Meanwhile, to the east, the Siamese sought to subordinate their Khmer rivals in Cambodia. Siam had crushed the Khmer empire's capital Angkor by the 1430s, forcing the Khmer to relocate to Phnom Penh. Nevertheless, Phnom Penh remained a thorn in Siam's side, whether by blocking Thai advances eastward, raiding inside Siamese territory during times of internal weakness, extending its influence into the Khorat Plateau, or attempting to take up coastline and gulf waters for its own fisheries and trade. Siam occasionally attempted to push its eastward border to the Mekong River, and could do so in relation to Laos, but it could never maintain such a deep incursion into the Cambodian heartland for long. As a result, the boundary between the Thai and Khmer was ill-defined; both struggled for hegemony over the Khorat Plateau because it offered an advantageous strategic highland as well as a much-needed labor force. Siam also fought with the Khmer kings to extend its southeastern shoreline along the gulf to maximize arable land and access to fishing waters and foreign trade. Siam's interest in Cambodia was not limited to Cambodia itself — it also wanted to preempt any potential threat from powers further east, such as Vietnam. The occasionally violent outbursts over the ancient Preah Vihear Temple, which both Thailand and Cambodia claim as their own, is a modern manifestation of inherent Thai-Khmer tensions, as are disputes over boundaries in the gulf.

In modern times, the threats from the east and west were replaced by European colonizers Britain and France. In the 19th century, the British established themselves in Burma and Malaysia, while the French colonized Vietnam. Fears ran wild in Bangkok that Siam was next to be colonized. A crisis erupted in the 1890s when the French pushed west of the Mekong River, triggering border clashes with the Siamese. In the so-called Paknam Incident, France blockaded Bangkok and sailed two gunboats up the Chao Phraya, forcing Siam to capitulate. The British prevented France from taking over Siam, but the two powers agreed to divide it between themselves at an opportune time.

This was, and still is, Thailand's nightmare scenario: to fall under foreign dominion (regardless of who the foreigner is) without control of the provinces and surrounded by powers on each side capable of constricting or controlling trade out of the central basin and Bangkok. Without a grip on its outlying regions, Thailand had no way to fend off foreign rivals and guard against colonization.

Fortunately for Bangkok, London and Paris became distracted with the rise of Germany in Europe in the late 19th century and abandoned their plan to partition Siam. They were not to return, as World War I would put an end to the days of aggressive European penetration in this part of the world. Siam escaped colonization both because of distractions that called off the European powers and because of its more defensible geographical position in the interior of the Southeast Asian peninsula.

Foreign Influence

Siam's power was supported by its agricultural production, particularly wet rice. The country is known as the "rice bowl of Asia," and in the 21st century it is the world's largest rice supplier, with over a third of global exports. Throughout its history, Thailand's rice production has played a role in feeding regional population booms, especially in China. This surplus agricultural product brought great wealth to the kingdom through connections with the international mercantile culture. While the Thai themselves were not great maritime traders, the country's natural ports were easily accessible through the gulf, making it easy to sell commodities to merchants (mostly Chinese) who then exported them further afield.

Because Siam did not have much of a merchant fleet or a navy to protect it and remained a sedentary society relying on foreign merchants to export its goods, it sought to attract foreigners in order to benefit economically and acquire advanced technology. Siam had been linked to Chinese merchants since the 14th century and to the Portuguese, who brought cannon and musketry, since the mid-1500s. Later Japanese, Persian, Dutch, English and French merchants joined the flurry of ships going in and out of the Gulf of Siam. The Siamese royal court was famous for its luxuries from around the world and its cosmopolitan guests. It is a nation that has always been, and remains, comfortable interacting with foreign cultures.

But there are limits to Thailand's openness to the outside world. When its openness empowers foreigners or non-Thai ethno-linguistic groups to generate social and political unrest among the native population, the Thai tend to resist.

For example, the Chinese have long permeated Thai society and, as with much of Southeast Asia, ethnic tension with the Chinese has been a recurrent theme in Thai history. Still, the Chinese and the Thai generally have worked in tandem because the Chinese were motivated mostly by economic interests and generally did not seek political power for its own sake. Thailand's geographic isolation, combined with the on-again, off-again Chinese flirtation with sea power, ensured that Thailand was either unattractive as a target for China's expansionary ambitions or that Chinese attention was too short to pursue Thailand seriously. Only when the Chinese in Thailand became affiliated with republican and later communist political activity, as they did in the 19th and 20th centuries, did nationwide outbursts of anti-Chinese sentiment become more frequent. Nowadays leading Thai politicians and businessmen often have partial Chinese heritage.

The Western world has provoked Thailand's most intense reactions against foreign influence. In the 17th century, when the French reached beyond business and started trying to convert the Siamese to Christianity, a full-fledged revolt broke out against foreign presence (and against the royalty of the day that was seen as pandering to that presence). In 1688, Siam banished all foreign merchants (except the fully embedded Chinese) and turned inward for a long period. This isolation would remain in place until Siam signed a trade treaty with the British in 1826, inaugurating the modern Thai period of economic openness.

In the late 1800s and for most of the 20th century, Thailand maintained this openness. Under King Chulalongkorn in the late 19th century, Siam sought to modernize fully by studying and imitating European forms of public administration, business, science and technology. In the 20th century, successive military governments sought financial and technical assistance from the United States in order to expedite the country's modernization. In the 21st century, Thailand's economy remains dependent on attracting foreign investment, exporting commodities and manufactured goods to external markets, and attracting foreign tourists.

Geopolitical Imperatives

Thailand's geopolitical imperatives have remained constant since the Siamese kingdom's earliest expansionary phase in the 14th and 15th centuries. They continue to drive both its internally focused and externally focused behavior.

Geopolitical Imperatives

  • Maintain stability in Bangkok — the home of 10 percent of the population — and preserve central Thailand's political dominance.
  • Rein in and consolidate power over three outlying regions to gain strategic depth: the northern mountains, the northeastern Khorat Plateau and the southern Malay Peninsula.
  • Prevent incursions from Myanmar to the west and Laos and Cambodia to the east by helping to keep them destabilized, fragmented and incapable of posing a threat.
  • Reach out to foreign powers to benefit from them economically and technologically while not allowing them to undermine central Thai political power or social stability.

Grand Strategy

The economic and political center of power of Thailand will always lie near the mouth of the Chao Phraya River, with Bangkok supplanting ancient Ayutthaya. The capital has always had trouble maintaining control over the northern hills, the northeastern Khorat Plateau area and the southern peninsular provinces. Threats from neighbors occasionally arise, with Burma as Thailand's chief enemy and Cambodia as a minor enemy. Agricultural abundance and international trade remain the source of Thailand's wealth, though too much foreign influence can create political imbalances at home.

Through most of the 20th century, Thailand, whether consciously or not, has pursued its geopolitical imperatives through a grand strategy of intervening militarily in internal affairs and of seeking foreign alliances that bring security and economic prosperity.

Frequent political change is a fact of Thailand's modern life. Siam officially became Thailand in 1939 after a 1932 coup that imposed a constitution on the monarchy (although amid changes in government Thailand was known as Siam again until 1949). Since the 1932 coup broke the monarchy's absolute authority, the country has cycled through a ceaseless repetition of government successions, with 19 military coups since 1932 (not to mention attempted coups). Not only have the army's top brass vied with each other, but popular demands for democratically elected government have given rise to successive civilian regimes. Each civilian government is eventually — sometimes very quickly — overthrown by the military or by popular protest, resulting in vacillation between military and civilian rule. The ultimate effect of military intervention has been to re-concentrate power in the army's hands, thus preserving Bangkok's dominance and preventing the provinces from gaining too much power.

One aspect of this strategy has been the military's deliberate resurrection of the Thai monarchy, which serves as a means of creating social coherence among regions with divergent interests. King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) acceded to the throne in 1946 and the military leadership in the following decade helped elevate him to pre-revolution royal grandeur, which he continues to perpetuate from the throne to this day. These are the roots of the Thai military-monarchy power nexus in the 21st century.

The second prong of Thailand's grand strategy consists of forming military alliances and economic partnerships with foreign powers.

Bangkok allied with the Japanese against the British and the Americans in 1941, leading the Thai army to invade the Shan states in Burma and parts of French Cambodia in 1942. The Japanese used Thailand as a base of operations to combat the British in Burma and Malaysia, but Bangkok quickly turned against the Japanese and by 1943 appealed to the United States for support. At war's end, the United States refused to support Britain's demands for Thailand to pay reparations, bringing Bangkok into Washington's orbit.

Thailand became a full member of the American alliance structure during the Cold War. Communism posed a fundamental geopolitical threat to Thailand by increasing the power of eastern neighbors Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, all of which received Chinese or Soviet support. Moreover, the communists' modus operandi was not in keeping with Bangkok's strategy of limiting foreign influence to economics. Communist ideology sought total transformation of traditional Thai institutions like Buddhism and the monarchy, whereas American influence supported the king and did not threaten Thai Buddhism, while it brought many an economic boon. Aid and advice from the United States afforded Thailand access to Western credit and consumer markets and enabled it to develop its infrastructure and industries and become a booming capitalist economy.

The United States also strengthened the Thai military government, which contributed to the American side in the Korean War and sent 10,000 troops to fight alongside the United States in Vietnam while using U.S. intelligence and funds to fight a communist insurgency inside Thailand from the 1960s to the 1980s. Thailand provided military bases and rest and relaxation for the Americans during the Vietnam War, boosting the country's industrial base and tourism (and giving rise to the sex industry for which Thailand is notorious).

But American influence waned after the U.S. withdrawal from Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War, and with the withdrawal the communists appeared poised to seize the advantage. South Vietnam fell to the communists, the monarchy in Laos was overthrown and the Khmer Rouge emerged in Cambodia. Yet Thailand managed to defeat the communist insurgency that had been raging in the north and northeast by cutting a political deal with China, which had decided to open up its economy in 1978. The Sino-Vietnamese war cut off the Thai communists' supply lines, and a new strategy on the part of the Thai military used political negotiations to discourage the communist insurgency, which finally wound down in the mid-1980s.

Thailand has also courted regional and international economic relationships to bring in foreign capital and boost its economic development. In the 1980s a surfeit of Japanese investment flooded into Thailand, pushing Bangkok to adopt the Japanese model of weak currency and export-based growth. Japan, Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong all began outsourcing the manufacturing of consumer-good components to Thailand, which liberalized capital controls to enable freer flows through its financial system. From 1985 to 1995, Thailand enjoyed an unprecedented period of prosperity, growing at double-digit rates and becoming the fifth of the so-called "Asian tiger" economies.

Since Thailand remains open to the outside world on an economic basis, it has been able to weather successive economic downturns without closing its doors. Thailand's frenzied growth came to a grinding halt during the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, which originated in Bangkok because of the wild investment of the preceding decade. Thailand's external debt had become difficult to manage, export growth began to slow, a domestic real estate bubble burst, and the decision to take the Thai baht off its peg to the U.S. dollar led to a currency collapse. The Thai crash cascaded, triggering the collapse of other Asian economies and leading to a region-wide recession.

Thailand recovered relatively quickly from the crisis, no longer an economic miracle but still with a strong economy based on agricultural and manufacturing exports and tourism. Of course, the Asian financial crisis, along with the current global crisis, has exacerbated the ever-present divisions between power circles in favor of foreign influence and those that are against it. On the whole, however, the balance continues to be in favor of promoting free trade and regional and international economic links, and this balance will remain so long as foreign influences are not perceived as creating unbearable social divisions and do not undermine Bangkok's traditional power.

The eventual death of King Bhumibol presents the greatest immediate challenge to Thailand's internal political stability. Bhumibol is the longest-reigning king on earth and his sway over public opinion has increased throughout his rule. But succession will create controversy. When Bhumibol dies, new uncertainty about the power structure in Thailand — the relative roles of the monarchy, the military, the civilian bureaucracy and the provinces — will emerge for the first time since the 1940s. Yet the king's passing will not change the country's fundamental geopolitics. Whatever balance of power emerges in post-Bhumibol Thailand, the country will not stop trying to meet the imperatives that have determined its behavior since the early days of Siam.

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