The Sukhothai Age
The origins of the Thai people can be traced back to the 6th century AD when the first Thai residents settled in the southern Yunan and Kwangste provinces of China. Migrations southward resulted in huge settlements in the Chao Phraya River basin, and these settlers soon came under the influence of the Khmer regime. In 1238, the Thais established the Buddhist kingdom of Sukhothai. By the 13th century however, the dominance of the Khmer and Mon rulers ended, and thereafter began a golden age for the Thai people marked by peace, prosperity, and the benevolence of the ruling kings, prominent among whom was Ramkamhaeng the Great.
The Ayutthaya Period
In 1350, the powerful Ayutthaya rulers conquered the Sukhothai kingdom and began to exert Khmer influences on the people. Monarchs assumed the title of “devaraja” (god kings) and began the process of extending their rule to include neighboring principalities. In 1767, the Burmese captured Ayutthaya but could not manage to retain control for long. A young general named Phya Taksin managed to escape to Chantaburi from where, seven months after the fall of Ayutthaya, he marched to the capital with his followers and overran the Burmese. In order to prevent further Burmese attacks and also to develop sea trade, General Taksin established a new capital city on the west bank of the Chao Phraya River at Thonburi. Taksin, however, did not have the most spectacular of reigns. The lack of a strong central authority after the Burmese invasion had resulted in the disintegration of the provinces, and as a result, most of his rule was spent salvaging and reuniting the scattered regions.
The Rattanakosin Period
After the death of General Taksin, General Chakri was crowned the first King of the Chakri dynasty in 1782, choosing for himself the name Rama I. Some of his many accomplishments as king were the shifting of the capital from Thonburi to Bangkok and the construction of the Grand Palace. His successors Rama II, King Nang Klao, and Rama III made great contributions to Thai society including fostering of trade with China and developingof relations with Western countries. It was Rama IV, immortalized in “The King and I” who cemented treaties with European powers, thereby avoiding the specter of colonization. In fact, Thailand has the proud distinction of being the only country in South East Asia never to have been colonized. Many social and economic reforms were initiated during the reign of Rama IV. It was during the reign of King Prajadhipok that a bloodless coup abolished absolute monarchy and established a constitutional system of monarchy. The country’s first democratic government was inaugurated in 1939, and its name was officially changed from Siam to Thailand meaning the “land of the free.”
Modern HistorySince then the country has seen a range of governing styles, from military dictatorships to elected governments and has had a total of seventeen constitutions. However, all governments including the current military junta who took power in the fall of 2006, acknowledge the King as the head of the state.