Kingdom of Thailand
Area: 513,115 sq. km. (198,114 sq. mi.); equivalent to the size of France, or slightly smaller than Texas.
Cities: Capital--Bangkok (population 9,668,854); Nakhon Ratchasima (pop. 437,386 for Muang district and 2,565,685 for the whole province), Chiang Mai (pop. 247,672 for Muang district and 1,595,855 for the whole province).
Terrain: Densely populated central plain; northeastern plateau; mountain range in the west; southern isthmus joins the land mass with Malaysia.
Climate: Tropical monsoon.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Thai.
Population (2007): 65.74 million. (Data based on Bank of Thailand.)
Labor force (2007): 36.94 million.
Annual population growth rate (2007 est.): 0.7%.
Ethnic groups: Thai 89%, other 11%.
Religions: Buddhist 94-95%, Muslim 4-5%, Christian, Hindu, Brahmin, other.
Languages: Thai (official language); English is the second language of the elite; regional dialects.
Education: Years compulsory--12. Literacy--94.9% male, 90.5% female.
Health (2006 est.): Infant mortality rate--19.5/1,000. Life expectancy--68 years male, 75 years female.
Type: Constitutional monarchy.
Constitution: Thailand adopted its current constitution following an August 19, 2007 referendum.
Independence: Never colonized; traditional founding date 1238.
Branches: Executive--King (chief of state), Prime Minister (head of government). Legislative--bicameral, with a fully-elected House of Representatives and a partially-elected Senate. Judicial--composed of the Constitutional Tribunal, the Courts of Justice, and the Administrative Courts.
Administrative subdivisions: 76 provinces, including Bangkok municipality, subdivided into 877 districts, 7,255 tambon administration, and 74,944 villages.
Political parties: Multi-party system; Communist Party is prohibited.
Suffrage: Universal and compulsory at 18 years of age.
GDP (2007): $246 billion.
Annual GDP growth rate (2007): 4.9%.
Per capita income (2007): $3,738.
Unemployment rate (2007): 1.4% of total labor force.
Natural resources: Tin, rubber, natural gas, tungsten, tantalum, timber, lead, fish, gypsum, lignite, fluorite.
Agriculture (7.9% of GDP): Products--rice, tapioca, rubber, corn, sugarcane, coconuts, soybeans.
Industry: Types--tourism, textiles, garments, agricultural processing, cement, integrated circuits, jewelry, electronics, petrochemical, and auto assembly.
Trade (2007): Merchandise exports--$150.0 billion. Products--automatic data processing machines and parts, automobiles and parts, precious stones and jewelry, refined fuels, rubber, electronic integrated circuits, polymers of ethylene and propylene, rice, iron and steel and their products, rubber products, chemical products. Major markets--ASEAN, EU, U.S., Japan, China, and Singapore. Merchandise imports--$138.5 billion. Products--crude oil, machinery and parts, electrical machinery and parts, chemicals, iron and steel and their products, electrical circuits panels, computers and parts, other metal ores and metal waste scrap, ships and boats and floating structure, jewelry including silver and gold. Major suppliers--Japan, ASEAN, China, EU, U.S. and Malaysia.
Thailand's population is relatively homogeneous. More than 85% speak a dialect of Thai and share a common culture. This core population includes the central Thai (33.7% of the population, including Bangkok), Northeastern Thai (34.2%), northern Thai (18.8%), and southern Thai (13.3%).
The language of the central Thai population is the language taught in schools and used in government. Several other small Thai-speaking groups include the Shan, Lue, and Phutai.
Up to 12% of Thai are of significant Chinese heritage, but the Sino-Thai community is the best integrated in Southeast Asia. Malay-speaking Muslims of the south comprise another significant minority group (2.3%). Other groups include the Khmer; the Mon, who are substantially assimilated with the Thai; and the Vietnamese. Smaller mountain-dwelling tribes, such as the Hmong and Mein, as well as the Karen, number about 788,024.
The population is mostly rural, concentrated in the rice-growing areas of the central, northeastern, and northern regions. However, as Thailand continues to industrialize, its urban population--31.6% of total population, principally in the Bangkok area--is growing.
Thailand's highly successful government-sponsored family planning program has resulted in a dramatic decline in population growth from 3.1% in 1960 to less than 1% today. Life expectancy also has risen, a positive reflection of Thailand's efforts at public health education. However, the AIDS epidemic has had a major impact on the Thai population. Today, over 500,000 Thais live with HIV or AIDS--approximately 1.4% of the adult population. Each year, 25-30,000 Thais die from AIDS-related causes. Ninety percent of them are aged 20-49, the most productive sector of the workforce. The situation could have been worse; an aggressive public education campaign in the early 1990s reduced the number of new HIV infections from over 100,000 annually to around 15,000 annually now.
The constitution mandates 12 years of free education, however, this is not provided universally. Education accounts for 18.0% of total government expenditures.
Theravada Buddhism is the major religion of Thailand and is the religion of about 95% of its people. The government permits religious diversity, and other major religions are represented. Spirit worship and animism are widely practiced.
Southeast Asia has been inhabited for more than half a million years. Archaeological studies suggest that by 4000 BC, communities in what is now Thailand had emerged as centers of early bronze metallurgy. This development, along with the cultivation of wet rice, provided the impetus for social and political organization. Research suggests that these innovations may actually have been transmitted from there to the rest of Asia, including to China.
The Thai are related linguistically to Tai groups originating in southern China. Migrations from southern China to Southeast Asia may have occurred in the 6th and 7th centuries. Malay, Mon, and Khmer civilizations flourished in the region prior to the arrival of the ethnic Tai.
Thais date the founding of their nation to the 13th century. According to tradition, in 1238, Thai chieftains overthrew their Khmer overlords at Sukhothai and established a Thai kingdom. After its decline, a new Thai kingdom emerged in 1350 on the Chao Praya River. At the same time, there was an equally important Tai kingdom of Lanna, centered in Chiang Mai, which rivaled Sukhothai and Ayutthaya for centuries, and which defines northern Thai identity to this day.
The first ruler of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, King Rama Thibodi, made two important contributions to Thai history: the establishment and promotion of Theravada Buddhism as the official religion--to differentiate his kingdom from the neighboring Hindu kingdom of Angkor--and the compilation of the Dharmashastra, a legal code based on Hindu sources and traditional Thai custom. The Dharmashastra remained a tool of Thai law until late in the 19th century. Beginning with the Portuguese in the 16th century, Ayutthaya had some contact with the West, but until the 1800s, its relations with neighboring kingdoms and principalities, as well as with China, were of primary importance.
After more than 400 years of power, in 1767, the Kingdom of Ayutthaya was brought down by invading Burmese armies and its capital burned. After a single-reign capital established at Thonburi by Taksin, a new capital city was founded in 1782, across the Chao Phraya at the site of present-day Bangkok, by the founder of the Chakri dynasty. The first Chakri king was crowned Rama I. Rama I's heirs became increasingly concerned with the threat of European colonialism after British victories in neighboring Burma in 1826.
The first Thai recognition of Western power in the region was the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United Kingdom in 1826. In 1833, the United States began diplomatic exchanges with Siam, as Thailand was called until 1938. However, it was during the later reigns of Rama IV (or King Mongkut, 1851-68), and his son Rama V (King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910), that Thailand established firm rapprochement with Western powers. The Thais believe that the diplomatic skills of these monarchs, combined with the modernizing reforms of the Thai Government, made Siam the only country in South and Southeast Asia to avoid European colonization.
In 1932, a bloodless coup transformed the Government of Thailand from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. King Prajadhipok (Rama VII) initially accepted this change but later surrendered the kingship to his 10-year-old nephew. Upon his abdication, King Prajadhipok said that the obligation of a ruler was to reign for the good of the whole people, not for a select few.
Although nominally a constitutional monarchy after 1932, Thailand was ruled by a series of military governments interspersed with brief periods of democracy. Following the 1932 revolution that imposed constitutional limits on the monarchy, Thai politics was dominated for a half-century by a military and bureaucratic elite. Changes of government were effected primarily by means of a long series of mostly bloodless coups. Thailand was occupied by the Japanese during the Second World War until Japan's defeat in 1945.
Beginning with a brief experiment in democracy during the mid-1970s, civilian democratic political institutions slowly gained greater authority, culminating in 1988 when Chatichai Choonavan--leader of the Thai Nation Party--assumed office as the country's first democratically elected Prime Minister in more than a decade. Three years later, yet another bloodless coup ended his term.
Shortly afterward, the military appointed Anand Panyarachun, a businessman and former diplomat, to head a largely civilian interim government and promised to hold elections in the near future. However, following inconclusive elections, former army commander Suchinda Kraprayoon was appointed Prime Minister. Thais reacted to the appointment by demanding an end to military influence in government. Demonstrations were violently suppressed by the military; in May 1992, soldiers killed at least 50 protesters.
Domestic and international reaction to the violence forced Suchinda to resign, and the nation once again turned to Anand Panyarachun, who was named interim Prime Minister until new elections in September 1992. In those elections, the political parties that had opposed the military in May 1992 won by a narrow majority, and Chuan Leekpai, a leader of the Democratic Party, became Prime Minister. Chuan dissolved Parliament in May 1995, and the Thai Nation Party won the largest number of parliamentary seats in subsequent elections. Party leader Banharn Silpa-Archa became Prime Minister but held the office only little more than a year. Following elections held in November 1996, Chavalit Youngchaiyudh formed a coalition government and became Prime Minister. The onset of the Asian financial crisis caused a loss of confidence in the Chavalit government and forced him to hand over power to Chuan Leekpai in November 1997. Chuan formed a coalition government based on the themes of prudent economic management and institution of political reforms mandated by Thailand's 1997 constitution.
In January 2001, telecommunications multimillionaire Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai (TRT) party won a decisive victory on a populist platform of economic growth and development. In the February 2005 elections, Thaksin was re-elected by an even greater majority, sweeping 377 out of 500 parliamentary seats. Soon after Prime Minister Thaksin's second term began, allegations of corruption emerged against his government. Peaceful anti-government mass demonstrations grew, and thousands marched in the streets to demand Thaksin's resignation. Prime Minister Thaksin dissolved the Parliament in February 2006 and declared snap elections in April. The main opposition parties boycotted the polls, and the judiciary subsequently annulled the elections.
Before new elections could be held, on September 19, 2006 in a non-violent coup d'etat, a group of top military officers overthrew the caretaker administration of Thaksin Shinawatra, repealed the constitution, and abolished both houses of Parliament. Soon thereafter, the coup leaders promulgated an interim constitution and appointed Surayud Chulanont as interim Prime Minister. In a national referendum on August 19, 2007, a majority of Thai voters approved a new constitution drafted by an assembly appointed by the coup leaders. The interim government held multi-party elections under provisions of the new constitution on December 23, 2007, which resulted in the People's Power Party (PPP) winning a plurality of 233 of the 480 seats in the lower house of Parliament. PPP leader Samak Sundaravej formed a coalition government and formally took office as Prime Minister on February 6, 2008.
Samak was forced from office in September by a Constitutional Court ruling that he had violated the constitution’s conflict of interest provisions by hosting a televised cooking show. His successor, Somchai Wongsawat, PPP leader and brother-in-law of former Prime Minister Thaksin, also was forced from office by the Constitutional Court when it dissolved the PPP and two other coalition parties on December 2 for election law violations. A split in the PPP paved the way for parliament’s election of Democrat Party leader Abhisit Vejjajiva on December 15, 2008.
Despite the PPP’s electoral mandate, its governments were dogged by protests throughout 2008, some of which resulted in violence between security forces and protesters and between pro- and anti-government demonstrators. Anti-government protesters occupied Government House from late August until December; briefly seized a television station in August; blockaded parliament in October; and occupied and forced the closure of Bangkok’s airports for several days in late November through early December.
Thailand's southern border provinces have long been host to a secessionist movement. Since 2004, violent ethnic Malay separatists have conducted an insurgency in the provinces of Narathiwat, Yala, Pattani, and Songkhla against symbols and representatives of government authority, as well as against civilians, which has resulted in hundreds of deaths.
Since the end of the Second World War in 1945, Thailand has had very close relations with the United States. Threatened by communist revolutions in neighboring countries such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, Thailand actively sought U.S. assistance to contain communist expansion in the region. Thailand also has been an active member in multilateral organizations like the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum.
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. From 1992 and until the 2006 coup, the country was considered a functioning democracy with constitutional changes of government. Generally free and fair multi-party elections held in December 2007 subsequently restored democratic governance. The King has been given little direct power under Thailand's constitutions but is a symbol of national identity and unity. King Bhumibol (Rama IX)--who has been on the throne since 1946--commands enormous popular respect and moral authority, which he has used on occasion to resolve political crises that have threatened national stability.
Under the 2007 constitution, the National Assembly consists of two chambers--the Senate and the House of Representatives. The Senate is a non-partisan body with 150 members, 76 of whom are directly elected (one per province). The remaining 74 are appointed by a panel comprised of judges and senior independent officials from a list of candidates compiled by the Election Commission. The House has 480 members, 400 of whom are directly elected from constituent districts and the remainder drawn proportionally from party lists.
Thailand's legal system blends principles of traditional Thai and Western laws. Under the constitution, the Constitutional Court is the highest court of appeals, though its jurisdiction is limited to clearly defined constitutional issues. Its members are nominated by a committee of judges, leaders in Parliament, and senior independent officials, whose nominees are confirmed by the Senate and appointed by the King. The Courts of Justice have jurisdiction over criminal and civil cases and are organized in three tiers: Courts of First Instance, the Court of Appeals, and the Supreme Court of Justice. Administrative courts have jurisdiction over suits between private parties and the government, and cases in which one government entity is suing another. In Thailand's southern border provinces, where Muslims constitute the majority of the population, Provincial Islamic Committees have limited jurisdiction over probate, family, marriage, and divorce cases.
Thailand's 76 provinces include the metropolis of greater Bangkok. Bangkok's governor is popularly elected, but those of the remaining provinces are career civil servants appointed by the Ministry of Interior.
Principal Government Officials
Chief of State--King Bhumibol Adulyadej
Prime Minister--Abhisit Vejjajiva
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Kasit Piromya
Ambassador to the U.S.--vacant
Ambassador to the UN--Don Pramudwinai
Thailand maintains an embassy in the United States at 1024 Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington DC 20007 (tel. 202-944-3600). Consulates are located in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.
The Thai economy is export-dependent, with exports of goods and services accounting for over 70% of GDP in 2007. Thailand's recovery from the 1997-98 Asian financial crisis relied largely on external demand from the United States and other foreign markets. From 2001-2006, the administration of former Prime Minister Thaksin embraced a "dual track" economic policy that combined domestic stimulus programs with Thailand's traditional promotion of open markets and foreign investment. Real GDP growth strengthened sharply from 2.2% in 2001 to 7.1% in 2003 and 6.3% in 2004. In 2005-2007, economic expansion moderated, averaging 4.5% to 5.0% real GDP growth, due to domestic political uncertainty, rising violence in Thailand's four southernmost provinces, and repercussions from the devastating Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004. Thailand's economy in 2007 relied heavily on resilient export growth (at a 17.3% annual rate), particularly in the automobile, petrochemicals, and electronics sectors. Persistent political uncertainty and the global financial crisis in 2008 weakened Thailand’s economic growth by reducing domestic and international demand for both its goods and services (including tourism). Thailand is expected to continue to experience weak economic growth in 2009 due to decreased revenue from exports and tourism.
The Royal Thai Government welcomes foreign investment, and investors who are willing to meet certain requirements can apply for special investment privileges through the Board of Investment. To attract additional foreign investment, the government of Prime Minister Abhisit has promised to look for ways to expand investment opportunities.
The organized labor movement remains weak and divided in Thailand; less than 2% of the work force is unionized. In 2000, an amended State Enterprise Labor Relations Act (SELRA) was passed, giving public sector employees similar rights to those of private sector workers, including the right to unionize.
Roughly 40% of Thailand's labor force is employed in agriculture (data based on Bank of Thailand.) Rice is the country's most important crop; Thailand is the largest exporter in the world rice market. Other agricultural commodities produced in significant amounts include fish and fishery products, tapioca, rubber, corn, and sugar. Exports of processed foods such as canned tuna, canned pineapples, and frozen shrimp are also significant.
Thailand's increasingly diversified manufacturing sector is the largest contributor to growth. Industries registering rapid increases in production included computers and electronics, furniture, wood products, canned food, toys, plastic products, gems, and jewelry. High-technology products such as integrated circuits and parts, hard disc drives, electrical appliances, vehicles, and vehicle parts are now leading Thailand's growth in exports. Nonetheless, with export growth weakened in 2008 and inflationary pressure becoming less of a concern, the Bank of Thailand loosened monetary policy, allowing the baht to depreciate relative to the dollar to stimulate exports. Machinery and parts, vehicles, electronic integrated circuits, chemicals, crude oil and fuels, and iron and steel are among Thailand's principal imports.
The United States is Thailand's largest export market and third-largest supplier after Japan and China. While Thailand's traditional major markets have been North America, Japan, and Europe, economic recovery among Thailand's regional trading partners has further boosted Thai export growth (21.6% in 2004, 15.0% in 2005, 17.2% in 2006, and 17.3% in 2007). Export growth has also been high in some of Thailand's non-traditional export markets including India, China, and the Middle East.
Thailand is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the Cairns Group of agricultural exporters. Tourism contributes significantly to the Thai economy (about 6%). As a result of political protests that closed Bangkok’s airports from late November to early December 2008, tourism figures declined significantly at the end of December, a time when tourism is normally at its peak in Thailand.
Bangkok and its environs are the most prosperous part of Thailand, and the seasonally barren northeast is the poorest. An overriding concern of successive Thai Governments has been to reduce these regional income differentials, which have been exacerbated by rapid economic growth in and around Bangkok. The government has tried to stimulate provincial economic growth with programs such as the Eastern Seaboard project and the development of an alternate deep-sea port on Thailand's southern peninsula. It also is conducting discussions with Malaysia to focus on economic development along the Thai-Malaysian border.
Although the economy has demonstrated moderate positive growth in recent years, future performance depends on continued reform of the financial sector, attracting foreign investment, and improving domestic investment and consumption to balance past reliance on exports. Telecommunications, transportation networks, and electricity generation showed increasing strain during the period of sustained economic growth (the projected energy needs of the country exceed current capacity) and may pose a future challenge. Thailand's growing shortage of engineers and skilled technical personnel may limit its future technological creativity and productivity.
Thailand's foreign policy emphasizes a close and longstanding security relationship with the United States. It also strongly supports ASEAN's efforts to promote economic development, social integration, and stability throughout the region. Thailand assumed the chairmanship of ASEAN in July 2008 and will host the ASEAN Summit (heads of government meeting) in February 2009.
Thailand participates fully in international and regional organizations. It has developed increasingly close ties with other ASEAN members--Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, Brunei, Laos, Cambodia, Burma, and Vietnam--whose foreign and economic ministers hold annual meetings. Regional cooperation is progressing in economic, trade, banking, political, and cultural matters.
Thailand continues to take an active role on the international stage. When East Timor gained independence from Indonesia, Thailand, for the first time in its history, contributed troops to the international peacekeeping effort. As part of its effort to increase international ties, Thailand has reached out to such regional organizations as the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). Thailand has contributed troops to reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Since World War II, the United States and Thailand have developed close relations, as reflected in several bilateral treaties and by both countries' participation in UN multilateral activities and agreements. The principal bilateral arrangement is the 1966 Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations, which facilitates U.S. and Thai companies' economic access to one another's markets. Other important agreements address civil uses of atomic energy, sales of agricultural commodities, investment guarantees, and military and economic assistance. In June 2004 the United States and Thailand initiated negotiations on a free trade agreement which, when concluded, would reduce and eliminate barriers to trade and investment between the two countries. These negotiations were placed on hold following the dissolution of the Thai Parliament in February 2006 and the subsequent coup in September.
The United States and Thailand are among the signatories of the 1954 Manila pact of the former Southeast Asia Treaty Organization (SEATO). Article IV(1) of this treaty provides that, in the event of armed attack in the treaty area (which includes Thailand), each member would "act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes." Despite the dissolution of the SEATO in 1977, the Manila pact remains in force and, together with the Thanat-Rusk communique of 1962, constitutes the basis of U.S. security commitments to Thailand. Thailand continues to be a key security ally in Asia, along with Australia, Japan, the Philippines, and South Korea. In December 2003, Thailand was designated a Major Non-NATO Ally.
Thailand's stability and independence are important to the maintenance of peace in the region. Economic assistance has been extended in various fields, including rural development, health, family planning, education, and science and technology. The formal U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) program ended in 1995. However, there are a number of targeted assistance programs which continue in areas of mutually defined importance, including: health and HIV/AIDS programming; refugee assistance; and trafficking in persons. The U.S. Peace Corps in Thailand has approximately 100 volunteers, focused on primary education, with an integrated program involving teacher training, health education, and environmental education.
Thailand has received U.S. military equipment, essential supplies, training, and assistance in the construction and improvement of facilities and installations for much of the period since 1950. Over recent decades, U.S. security assistance included military training programs carried out in the United States and elsewhere. A small U.S. military advisory group in Thailand oversaw the delivery of equipment to the Thai Armed Forces and the training of Thai military personnel in its use and maintenance. Funding for the International Military Education and Training and the Foreign Military Financing programs, along with selected other programs totaling $29 million, was suspended following the September 19, 2006 coup d'etat in Thailand. Funding for these programs resumed after a democratically elected government took office in February 2008. As part of their mutual defense cooperation over the last decade, Thailand and the United States have developed a vigorous joint military exercise program, which engages all the services of each nation and averages 40 joint exercises per year.
Thailand remains a trafficking route for narcotics from the Golden Triangle--the intersection of Burma, Laos, and Thailand--to both the domestic Thai and international markets. The large-scale production and shipment of opium and heroin shipments from Burma of previous years have largely been replaced by widespread smuggling of methamphetamine tablets, although heroin seizures along the border continue to take place with some frequency. The United States and Thailand work closely together and with the United Nations on a broad range of programs to halt illicit drug trafficking and other criminal activity, such as trafficking in persons. The U.S. supports the International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) in Bangkok, which provides counter-narcotics and anti-crime capacity-building programs to law enforcement and judicial officials from a number of regional countries.
Trade and Investment
The United States is Thailand's third-largest trading partner after Japan and China; in 2007 merchandise imports from Thailand totaled $22.7 billion, and merchandise exports totaled $8.4 billion. The U.S., Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the European Union are among Thailand's largest foreign investors. U.S. investment, concentrated in the petroleum and chemicals, finance, consumer products, and automobile production sectors, is estimated at $23 billion.
Many U.S. businesses enjoy investment benefits through the U.S.-Thailand Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations (AER), originally signed in 1833. The 1966 iteration of the treaty allows U.S. citizens and businesses incorporated in the U.S., or in Thailand that are majority-owned by U.S. citizens, to engage in business on the same basis as Thai companies, exempting them from most of the restrictions on foreign investment imposed by the Foreign Business Act. Under the treaty, Thailand restricts American investment only in the fields of communications, transport, fiduciary functions, banking involving depository functions, the exploitation of land or other natural resources, and domestic trade in agricultural products. Notwithstanding their treaty rights, many Americans choose to form joint ventures with Thai partners, allowing the Thai side to hold the majority stake because of the advantages that come from familiarity with the Thai economy and local regulations. In recent decades, Thailand has been a major destination for foreign direct investment, and hundreds of U.S. companies have operated here successfully.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Ambassador--Eric G. John
Deputy Chief of Mission--James F. Entwistle
Management Counselor--Rosemary Hansen
Political Affairs Counselor--George Kent
Economic Affairs Counselor--Robert Griffiths
Public Affairs Counselor--Anne Casper
Consul General--Ronald Robinson