Thailand’s economy remains export-dependent, with exports accounting for 60% of a GDP that stood at roughly THB 7.7 trillion (approximately USD 270 billion) as of 2008. This positions the economy of Thailand as the 2nd largest in Southeast Asia, after Indonesia, a distinction it has held for many years.
Thailand’s exports, worth approximately USD180 billion per annum, consist primarily of agricultural products, including fish and rice, the latter of which Thailand is the largest exporter of in the world, as well as textiles, rubber, automobiles, jewelry, and computers/electronic appliances. With the seventh lowest unemployment rate in the world, and only 10% of the population living below the poverty line, Thailand is a relatively economically developed nation. However, while one of the premier tourist destinations in the world, the Thai economy only receives around 7% of its GDP from international tourism revenue, a figure which is nonetheless a substantial 550 billion Baht (nearly USD 16 billion).
The Thailand government is based on a constitutional monarchy quite similar to that of the United Kingdom, in which a Prime Minister serves as head of a parliamentary government and a hereditary Thai king functions as head of state.
This form of Thailand government has been in place since 1932 following nearly 700 years of outright rule by various lines of Thai kings; the current Thai King, His Majesty King Bhumibol Aduyadej (Rama IX) is the reigning monarch of the Chakri Dynasty that has ruled Thailand since the fall of Ayutthaya and the founding of the Rattakosin Era. The widely revered Thai King serves as spiritual leader of the country as well as head of state, but wields no outright political authority.
The Thailand Government is formed by a coalition of political parties headed by a Prime Minister. While Thailand has undergone numerous coup d’etats since becoming a constitutional monarchy and Thailand politics is a contentious affair, Thai people are politically active and place high value on their arguably tenuous democracy.
Government of Thailand
Thailand has existed as a modern nation-state since the founding of the Chakri Dynasty and the establishment of Bangkok as its capital in 1782. In 1932, a ‘revolution’ absolved the absolute rule of the monarchy and established a Constitutional Monarchy, removing the political authority of the crown and founding a nascent ‘democracy’.
In 1946, direct elections were finally held in which the people of Thailand voted for members of a bicameral legislature (Senate and House of Representatives) to be presided over by a Prime Minister representing the executive branch. The Judiciary, including a Supreme Court, acts independently of the executive office and the legislature, though it was not until the 1996 constitution that more effective checks and balances were instituted.
From its inception ‘democracy’ in Thailand has been turbulent, with 17 coup d’etats passing power back and forth between leaders of the military and an elite bureaucracy that borders on plutocracy. The country has also been governed under 17 different constitutions; the Kingdom's current constitution the result of the most recent coup d’etat, a bloodless overthrow of then Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawattra in 2006.
Currently, Thailand is embroiled in political wrangling over the implications of that coup and the subsequent legislative shake up caused by mass protests both against and in favor of the former Prime Minister. Nonetheless, the Thai people are very politically active and value their freedom despite their tenuous democracy.
The Monarchy and the King of Thailand
Thailand had been ruled outright by kings of various realms since the thirteenth century; it was not until 1932 that Thailand became a constitutional monarchy, a system not unlike that of the United Kingdom, in which the Thai King serves as Head of State and spiritual leader of the country, but wields no outright political authority.
The current King of Thailand, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) is the ninth Thai king from the House of Chakri, which has ruled Thailand since the founding of Bangkok by King Phutthayotfa Chulalok (Rama I) in 1782. H.M. King Bhumibol was born in Massachusetts, USA while his father, who did not serve as King of Thailand, was attending Harvard University. H.M. Bhumibol ascended the throne as King of Thailand in 1946 following the death of his brother and has since attained the distinction of being the world’s longest reigning monarch and the longest reigning Thai King in Thailand’s history.
While the King of Thailand has little direct power, under the constitution King Bhumibol is a symbol of national identity and unity; indeed, the Thai King commands enormous popular respect and moral authority, both of which he has leveraged on a few rare occasions to resolve political crises that have threatened national stability. In more recent years however, he has maintained a more hands-off approach, urging Thais to learn to resolve their differences in an amicable way for the good of their country.
The Thai King and the members of the Royal Family are deeply revered by the Thai people for the Royal Family’s passionate commitment to the welfare its people. In Thailand, respect for the Royal Family goes beyond mere custom however, it is safeguarded by law: it is not only socially unacceptable to disparage members of the Royal Family or their likenesses; it is punishable under lese majeste law. Furthermore, it is required to stand in respect to the King at the commencement of films and to stop walking and/or stand during the playing of the national anthem at 8 am and 6 pm. On the lighter side, it has become fashionable to pay respect to the king by wearing a yellow shirt on Monday’s since the 60th anniversary of the king’s reign in 2006.
While both the King’s official residence, the Grand Palace, and his traditional residence, Chitralada Palace, are located in Bangkok (where the King has instituted an agricultural research center), the King and Queen are typically found at Klai Kangwon Villa in the seaside town of Hua Hin.
Notable Kings of Thailand:
In Thai history there have been 36 Kings of Lan Na, 9 of Sukhothai, 9 of Chiang Mai, 8 of Nan, 36 of Ayutthaya, 1 of Thonburi, and 9 of Bangkok. While each has certainly made important contributions to Thai history, the following Kings stand out in the annals of Thai history:
Mangrai, Lan Na (R. 1259 – 1317)
The founder of the Lan Na Kingdom, Mangrai had just become ruler of Chiang Saen at age 21 when he set about uniting the disparate realms of northern Thailand. By 24 he had founded the city of Chiang Rai and established his capital there. Mangrai forged an alliance between Ngam Muang of Phayao and Ramkhamhaeng of Sukhothai while using subterfuge to assume control of the ancient Mon city of Haripunjaya. As founder of Chiang Mai in 1296, Mangrai oversaw the construction of many important Buddhist shrines and his great alliance among Tai and Mon tribes allowed him to ward off Mongol invaders.
Ramkhamhaeng, Sukhothai (R. ca. 1279 - 1298)
As a 19 year old prince of a fledgling kingdom, Rama led his father's troops to victory and thus earned the name Ramkhamhaeng (Rama the bold). As king, he was a populist, assuring his subjects of fair treatment and allowing them freedom to worship animist spirits while staunchly supporting the development of Buddhism. The kingdom of Sukhothai flourished during his reign as he generally chose to avoid unnecessary conflict and allied himself with King Mangrai of Lan Na and Ngam Muang of Phayao. Almost exclusively under the reign of King Ramkhamhaeng was Sukhothai an expansive and prosperous kingdom that would develop an artistic style renowned for its great beauty.
Ramathibodi, Ayutthaya (R. 1351 – 1369)
Perhaps born of wealthy immigrant Chinese merchants, U Thong married wisely and applied political skill and familial relations shrewdly to fill the void of power in Central Thailand following the decline of Sukhothai and the waning reach of Angkor. Installing his son on the throne of Lopburi and founding his new kingdom along the Chao Phraya River, Ramathibodi I, first King of Ayutthaya, established a powerful kingdom that may even have sacked Angkor.
Naresuan, Ayutthaya (R. Jun 1590 – Apr. 25, 1605)
In the decades before Naresuan assumed the throne, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya was in shambles. The throne was held by a puppet of neighboring Burma, which had recently conquered the city. While the Burmese razed, looted, and depopulated Ayutthaya for a decade, the Khmers decimated the Thai eastern provinces and there was little glimmer of respite or hope. Enter Naresuan who slew the Burmese crown prince in a duel atop war elephants and then proceeded to change the balance of power in Southeast Asia, ‘liberating’ Lan Na and even offering his navy to China for battle with Japan.
Narai, Ayutthaya (R. Oct. 26, 1656 – Jul. 11, 1688)
Narai assumed the throne during a period of domestic and international uncertainty. Establishing a royal monopoly on nearly all goods produced in the kingdom, Narai fostered economic growth of the kingdom often at the expense of European trading companies and long-established communities of diverse foreign nationals. While wooed by Christian and Islamic proselytizers, Narai and his worldly Greek aide de camp established Siam as an influential player in international relations and Asian trade, balancing complex political and commercial interests.
Taksin, Thonburi (R. 1767 – 1782)
Burmese armies had decimated Ayutthaya in 1767, leaving but a small garrison behind in the ravaged capital. The Siamese, with no capital, no king, and no government were in despair. The Governor of Tak, a half Chinese-half Thai man of considerable charisma and military cunning established his base at Thonburi and defeated the remaining Burmese troops. His ability to raise capital and re-conquer all the Siamese territory once held by Ayutthaya –in addition to annexing Siem Reap and Battambang and later subjugating Vientiane, Luang Prabang, and Chiang Mai- allowed him to justify his ascension to the throne he had usurped.
Phra Phutthayotfa Chulalok (Rama I), Bangkok (R. Apr. 6, 1782 – Sep. 7, 1809)
Tong Duang, the Chaophraya Chakri, was a military commander who was responsible for many of the successful campaigns that reestablished Siam under the rule of King Taksin. Both he and his wife were of noble families of Ayutthaya and after an uprising deposed (and executed) Taksin, the Chakri was popularly nominated and crowned King Ramathibodi. He established his capital at Bangkok and the city quickly flourished thanks in great part to his insightful religious, bureaucratic, and legislative reforms and a reinstitution of royal and public ceremonies. Through subsequent battles against Burma, Siam was able to reassert itself as the dominant player in the heartland of Southeast Asia.
Mongkut (Rama IV), Bangkok (R. Apr. 3, 1851 – Oct. 1, 1868)
Just prior to his father’s death Mongkut was ordained at an unusually young age and he studiously absorbed the knowledge of Buddhist texts and the mental discipline of meditation. His brother, King Rama III, appointed Mongkut abbot of a new Buddhist order, which also served as a center for western scientific and mathematic studies. As King, Mongkut made economic concessions to foreign powers and established personal diplomatic relations with various world powers in order to insulate Siam against British and French colonialism. He also set a slow course for domestic changes that he knew would take time to implement.
Chulalongkorn (Rama V), Bangkok (R. Oct. 1, 1868 – Oct. 23, 1910)
Appointed King at the age of 15 upon his father’s death, King Chulalongkorn had been groomed by his father to lead Thailand into the 20th century. Benefiting from a classical Thai education, a western tutor (Anna Leonowens), and several years of hands-on apprenticeship with his father, Chulalongkorn began enacting reforms immediately upon being crowned after coming of age. Among the accomplishment during his storied 42 year reign were the abolition of slavery, restructuring the form of government to a more modern and effective bureaucracy, and consequently making concessions to foreign powers in order to maintain Siam’s sovereignty.
Prajadhipok (Rama VII), Bangkok (R. Nov. 26, 1925 – Mar. 2, 1935 – abdicated)
The youngest son of King Chulalongkorn and 76th of 77 children, Prajadhipok was an unlikely selection to succeed his much better prepared elder brother (Rama VI). After coming to power amidst the economic turmoil that soon spiraled into the Great Depression, Prajadhipok reigned for just 10 years and is best known today for serving as the last absolute monarch of the Kingdom of Siam, abdicating his throne after a Constitutional Monarchy was established in 1932.
Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), Bangkok (R. Jun. 9, 1946 – present)
The current reigning King of Thailand, the longest reigning King in Thai history, and the longest reigning current head of state in the world, H.M. King Buhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) is also one of the most revered monarchs in Thai history and one of the most respected leaders in the world. Musician, photographer, scientist, and man of the people, King Bhumibol has served as spiritual leader of his people for over six decades, acting as a symbol of stability and hope for a country often shaken by political upheaval and fostering numerous programs along with members of his royal family to bring economic prosperity to his people.
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