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The Thai people originated in what is now Yunan, China. After Mongols invaded the state of Nanchao, the Thai migrated down the Mekong River into what is now known as Thailand. They separated into several distinct groups, including the Siamese, the Lao, and the Shan, but remained in close contact. Through wars and diplomacy, the Thai quickly flooded across the great plain of the Chao Phraya River; the first unified Thai kingdom, called Sukhotai, was formed in the 13th century.
A distinct Thai culture developed as the kingdom expanded. A dominant aspect of this culture was the importance of Buddhism in daily life. Every village had a Buddhist wat (temple), where festivals and social events took place. These temples also served as schools, orphanages, and hospitals—the monks who lived there were often skilled at local medicine.
The Burmese invaded in 1767, driving the Thai into the center of the country. A large portion
of the population settled in the fertile valley of the central plain, giving rise to a new capital in Bangkok. The new Thai kingdom that grew up around Bangkok became known as Siam, a reference to the Siamese people of the central plains, where Bangkok is located.
Around 1800, Siam’s great Chakri Dynasty rose to power and created the groundwork for the modern nation-state of Thailand. The Chakri instituted a central bureaucracy, asserted authority over numerous tribes that had previously been ruled by local chieftains, and initiated a program of military conquest throughout the region. Over the next century, the Siamese Empire grew to include parts of modern-day Burma, Cambodia, and Malaysia. Perhaps even more importantly, the Chakri kings managed to keep Siam free from western colonial domination.
By the turn of the century, modernization had increased the number and types of jobs available,
especially in government and the military. Many Thai began sending their children overseas to be educated. When the children returned home, they brought with them western views on government. They saw the Siamese political system as antiquated and demanded a larger share of power. In 1932, the situation came to a head. The monarchy was overthrown in a bloodless revolution and the country’s name was changed to Muang Thai (Land of the Free). The king was eventually invited to return as a constitutional monarch. He lacks political power, but serves as the head of state—a unifying symbol of Thai culture.
In the decades following the end of World War II, Thailand saw a number of different political regimes, mostly military dictatorships. Change began with the student-led October 14 uprising in 1973. For the next few decades, the government vacillated between civilian democracies and military regimes. The most recent political reversals include the 2006 dissolution of parliament and a bloodless coup, which was resolved by a 2007 national referendum approving a new constitution. The subsequent general election in 2007 gave a majority to the People’s Power Party, but in 2008, the party was forced to disband amidst controversy over charges of election fraud. Although controversy continues to mark Thai politics, the resulting demonstrations from both sides have been largely peaceful and are often mediated by the royal family.