The population of Thailand is 54.6 million, the growth rate 1.4%, infant mortality 24 in 1,000 life births, and literacy 88.8%. With 54.6 million citizens, Thailand is less populous than Vietnam (68 million) and the Philippines (62.8 million) and much less populous than Indonesia (182.5 million) but larger than any of its immediate neighbors, Burma (42.5 million), Malaysia (18.3 million), Cambodia (8.2 million) and Laos (4.2 million) [Source: Asiaweek, edition of August 16, 1991].
The population growth rate is among the lowest in the region. Thailand’s 1.4% is the same as in China and lower than in Laos (2.9%), the Philippines (2.3%), Malaysia (2.3%), Vietnam (2.2%), Cambodia (2.2%), Burma (2.1%) and Indonesia (1.8%). The infant mortality rate is lower than in all the above cited countries. Of those countries, only Vietnam has a higher literacy rate (94%).
There are no ethnical conflicts worth mentioning in Thailand. The only low-key internal conflict, in the southernmost provinces of the kingdom, is based on a different religion and not ethnically caused. The southernmost provinces are predominantly Muslim, and the population there has Malay traits and many speak a Malayan dialect aside from Thai. Although the relationship between these southernmost provinces and Bangkok is sometimes not exactly harmonious, there are no serious secessionist or separatist tendencies.
The absence of ethnically based conflicts leads observers to assume that the Thailand is ethnically more coherent than is actually the case. While there is indeed no single large ethnical minority (as for example the Kurds in Iraq, Iran and Turkey), there is a very large number of small ethnic groups with societies less civilized than the mainstream Thai society. Most of these tribal societies are found in the northern part of the country.
But even the mainstream Thai society is far less coherent than, for example, the Japanese society. Originally, the Thais lived in what is today Yunnan Province in southern China, and indeed, the Thai language is similar to and tonal like the Chinese (see chapter Language for details). Only in the first centuries of the second millennium A.D. did Thais in substantial numbers migrate to what is today Thai territory. Thais mixed with a number of peoples already inhabiting the region. Furthermore, substantial relocations of large numbers of people occurred whenever a regional power gained political and military predominance.
Thailand, or rather Siam, also has a long tradition of granting political asylum to groups from neighboring countries who fled their homes because of religious or ethnically motivated persecution. Vietnamese Christians, Mon people from Burma and political dissidents from Cambodia have sought and received shelter in Thailand not just after the Vietnam War but already hundreds of years ago. And last not least, a large number of Chinese has migrated to Thailand from times when the Thais themselves only gained the territory of what today by and large is Thailand. The Chinese, though, rather came for commercial than religious or political reasons. The son of a Chinese father and a Thai mother, Taksin, even was king of Thailand from 1767 to 1782.
Large sections of northern Thailand have been under Burmese rule for many centuries, and this not only resulted in a Burmese-influenced architecture but also in an ethnical mix.
Therefore, what gives the Thai citizenry its strong sense of identity is rather of cultural, linguistic, religious and political than ethnical nature. Though the Thai language is spoken quite differently in the South, the North or the Northeast, the written language is the same. A politically unifying influence of a scale hard to underestimate is exerted by the monarchy, for decades personalized by the extremely popular King Bhumiphol Adulyadej.
Since June 24, 1932, when a group of Western-educated military officers and government officials staged a coup against the absolute monarchy (for details, please see the chapter Chronicle), Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with King Bhumiphol Adulyadej the head of state.
The change from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy was probably the most far-reaching transition in the Thai monarchy, but it wasn’t the first change in the structure of the monarchy, and it certainly wasn’t the most violent transition.
The Thai monarchy, like any monarchy, developed from tribal leadership. As the powers of tribal leaders have usually not been as unlimited as those of kings in more developed societies, the Thai monarchy started in Sukhothai with a number of kings reported to have been very close to the people. The concept of an absolute monarchy was adopted from the declining Khmer empire at the beginning of the Ayutthaya era.
From the Sukhothai era until now, eight dynasties reigned the country. The transitions were usually bloody, with a high palace official establishing himself as king in place of the legal inheritors to the throne (for details, see the chapter Chronicle).
The current Chakri dynasty. established 1782 after a palace revolt, has been the most durable. King Bhumiphol Adulyadej who ascended the throne in 1946 though only crowned in 1950, is the longest reigning king in Thai history (and in 1992 the longest presently reigning monarch of the world). He succeeded his older brother, King Ananda Mahidol, who was found shot dead in the Royal Palace of Bangkok on June 9, 1946. The circumstances of King Ananda Mahidol’s death remain a mystery until today.
King Bhumiphol Adulyadejwas born December 5, 1927, married on April 28, 1950 Princess Sirikit, and was crowned May 5, 1950. Their children are Princess Ubol Ratana (born 5 April 1951, married in August 1972 Peter Ladd Jensen and now lives in the US), Crown Prince Vajiralongkorn (born July 28, 1952 and married January 3, 1977 Soamsawali Kitiyakra), Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn (born April 2, 1955, unmarried), Princess Chulabhorn (born July 4, 1957 married January 7, 1982 Virayudth Didyasarin).
The king’s power is regulated by the constitution and subject to its limitation. The king opens the parliament and appoints the prime minister (though the selection is done by political parties or the military) as well as the members of the privy council. All governmental powers are exercised in his name. However, the king has little influence on the affairs of the state as he only serves as the state’s symbolic representative.
Palace matters are regulated by the palace law known as Gotmontienboan. It dates back to King Rama Tibodi I, the founder of the Ayutthaya kingdom in 1358. The palace law which was modified as required by the course of history until today defines Thai nobility, especially the ranks and titles of the king’s children and relatives, and it does so according to the status of their mothers. While many kings, especially in the 19th century had several wives, only one was elevated to the rank of queen, and only the king’s children with her were in line to ascend the throne.
Thai ranks of nobility are hereditary only to a certain extent. Typically, each following generation descends by one rank. However, the king traditionally had a free rank to bestow ranks of nobility on those who served him well. (For traditional Thai ranks of nobility, see the entry under the year 1448 in the chapter Chronicle.)
In the 17th century, a Greek immigrant to Siam, Constantine Phaulkon became the counsel of King Narai and rose through all ranks of Thai nobility, starting as Luang Wijayen and becoming Phra Wijayen, Phaya Wijayen and finally Chao Phaya Wijayen. Under King Narai’s successor, he was executed.
King’s children are called Chao Fah or Chao. If male, he is called Chao Fah Chai, if female, Chao Fah Ying. Chao’s children have the lower rank of Phra Ong Chao or Phra, while the Phra’s child has the rank of Mom Chao. They are all addressed in Rachasap, the royal language, which was borrowed from the Khmer in the early Ayutthaya period and is still in use today. For example, "I" when used by a commoner in talking about himself in Rachasap to members of the royal family is Tai Far La Ong Tuli Prabat, which literally translates into "I who am but dust under your feet".
From the Mom Chao rank, all that follow are no longer addressed in royal language. The child of a Mom Chao is a Mom Rachawangse. A Mom Luang is the child of a Mom Rachawangse.
The monarchy has three administrative divisions, namely:
Privy Council- It stands as the advisor of the monarch and sometimes appoints regents to exercise royal powers (as was the case for most of the reign of King Ananda Mahidol).
Office of the Royal Household- This agency organizes the ceremonial functions of the monarch and administrates the finances and housekeeping of the royal court.
His Majesty’s Royal Secretariat- It does the clerical and secretarial jobs for the king.
The executive power of the government is in the hands of the prime minister. All 14 constitutions the country had since 1932 provided that the prime minister be elected by the parliament, either a unicameral or bicameral body of legislators (see below). Direct elections of the prime minister have never been considered, as in practically all countries with a constitutional monarchy. A prime minister or president elected directly by the people would certainly erode the position of the nominal head of state, in Thailand the king.
In practice many of the country’s 18 prime ministers until December 1991 were not elected by the parliament but rather appointed by the military. In several cases a coup leader appointed himself prime minister (for details see the chapter Chronicle).
Thailand is divided into 73 provinces (Changwats), each under the administration of a Changwat governor. The Changwats are subdivided into 655 districts (Amphoes) and 88 sub-districts (King Amphoes), 6,633 communes (Tambons) and 59,458 villages (Moobans). The capital of each province has the same name as the province, or rather: each province is named after its capital.
In alphabetical order, the 73 provinces are (region in parentheses):
Ang Thong (Central), Ayutthaya (Central), Buriram (Northeast), Chachoengsao (Central), Chai Nat (Central), Chaiyaphum (Northeast), Chanthaburi (East Coast), Chiang Mai (North), Chiang Rai (North), Chonburi (East Coast), Chumphon (South), Kalasin (Northeast), Kamphaeng Phet (North), Kanchanaburi (Central), Khon Kaen (Northeast), Krabi (South), Krung Thep or Bangkok, Lampang (North), Lamphun (North), Loei (Northeast), Lopburi (Central), Mae Hong Son (North), Maha Sarakham (Northeast), Mukdahan (Northeast), Nakhon Nayok (Central), Nakhon Pathom (Central), Nakhon Phanom (Northeast), Nakhon Ratchasima (Northeast), Nakhon Sawan (North), Nakhon Si Thammarat (South), Nan (North), Narathiwat (South), Nong Khai (Northeast), Nonthaburi (Central), Pathum Thani (Central), Pattani (South), Phang Nga (South), Phattalung (South), Phayao (North), Phetchabun (North), Petchburi (Central), Phichit (North), Phitsanulok (North), Phrae (North), Phuket (South), Prachinburi (Central), Prachuap Khiri Khan (Central), Ranong (South), Ratchaburi (Central), Rayong (East Coast), Roi Et (Northeast), Sakhon Nakhon (Northeast), Samut Prakan (Central), Samut Sakhon (Central), Samut Songkhram (Central), Saraburi (Central), Satun (South), Singburi (Central), Si Saket (Northeast), Songkhla (South), Sukhothai (North), Suphanburi (Central), Surat Thani (South), Surin (Northeast), Tak (North), Trang (South), Trat (East Coast), Ubon Ratchathani (Northeast), Udon Thani (Northeast), Uthai Thani (North), Uttaradit (North), Yala (South), Yasothon (Northeast)
The country’s 14th constitution, passed December 7, 1991, provides for a bicameral National Assembly with an elected House of Representatives and an appointed Senate. For an appointed body, the Senate is considered overly powerful by many critics in Thailand and abroad. It can play a substantial part in bringing down a government. The mechanism by which the Senate is appointed guarantees the country’s military to be well heard in government affairs.
The 14th constitution also provides for fairly large electoral constituencies, with several representatives elected in each. Elected are individuals, not parties. Party affiliations of candidates are important, as candidates can gain from the popularity of their party leaders. However, in many cases, political parties contest to bring local political kingpins into their ranks. It has not been uncommon that popular or powerful local politicians switch parties if they are promised a better deal (e.g. a nomination as minister) by their new political hosts.
In the last elections in July 1988 the following political parties contested for seats: Democrat Party, Social Action Party, Thai Nation Party (Chart Thai), People’s Party (Ratsadon), Thai Citizens Party, United Democracy Party, People Party (Prachadon), Community Action Party, United Thai Party, Mass Party, Force of Truth Party (Phalang Dharma).
Of the total number of 357 seats in the lower house, the Thai Nation Party (Chart Thai) won 87 seats, the Social Action Party 54 seats, the Democrat Party 48 seats, the United Thai Party 35 seats, the Thai Citizens Party 31 seats, the People’s Party (Ratsadon) 21 seats, the People Party (Prachadon) 19 seats, the Force of Truth Party 14 seats, the Community Action Party 9 seats, the United Democracy Party 5 seats, the Mass Party 5 seats and others 29 seats.
A shake-up of the country’s political parties followed the military coup of February 23, 1991. Before the elections scheduled for March, 1992, the Samakkhi Tham Party, founded after the coup, the New Aspiration Party of former army chief Chavalit Yongchaiyuth (opposed to the military circles that staged the coup) and the Chart Thai Party were considered the strongest forces. Many members of previous political parties joined the Samakkhi Tham Party, backed by the military.
The judicial power is exercised in the name of the king. The system is organized in three levels. The lowest level are courts of first instance, the middle level are the courts of appeals (Uthorn) and the highest level is the Supreme Court (Dika). Judges are appointed, transferred and dismissed by the king on recommendation of the Ministry of Justice. Judges are independent in conducting trials and giving judgement in accordance with the law.
Courts of first instance are subdivided into 20 magistrate courts (Kwaeng) with limited civil and minor criminal jurisdiction and 85 provincial courts (Changwat courts) with unlimited civil and criminal jurisdiction and the criminal and civil courts with exclusive jurisdiction in the capital. There is a central juvenile court in Bangkok for defendants under 18 years of age.
The courts of appeals review decisions in civil and criminal cases from all courts of first instance. It has 17 divisions and requires 2 judges to sit at each hearings. Judgements from the courts of appeals can be brought for review to the Supreme Court on any point of law and, in certain cases, on questions of fact.
The Dika (Supreme) Court is the supreme tribunal of the land. It is composed of its president and 21 judges. Appealed cases are heard by 3 judges. Besides its normal appellate jurisdiction in civil and criminal matters, it has semi-original jurisdiction over general election petitions. Supreme Court decisions are final.
Before 1917 the Thai flag was red with a white elephant, an emblem of the absolute monarchy. It was changed by King Vajiravudh (Rama VI) in 1917 when Siam entered World War I on the side of the Allies. Today’s flag consists of five horizontal bands of red, white and blue. The three colors represent the three pillars of the Thai nation. The outer red bands stand for the country, white for Buddhism and blue for the monarchy.
The National Anthem (English version)
Thailand embraces in its bosom
All people of Thai blood.
Every inch of Thailand
belongs to the Thais.
It has long maintained its sovereignty
because the Thais have always been united.
The Thai people are peace-loving
But the are no cowards at war.
They shall allow no-one
To rob them of their independence.
Nor shall they suffer tyranny.
All Thais are ready to give up
Every drop of blood for the nation’s
Safety, freedom and progress.
The King’s Anthem (Thai Version)
Kha mora Phutta Chao
Ao mano lae sira kran
Nab Phra-pumi ban boonya direk
Ek barroma Chakarin
Phra Yodsa ying yong
Yen sera pro Phra bariban
Pon Phra kunta raksa
Preang pracha pen sooksarn
To proub dy
Dang, wang, luora harentai
Diya towai chai chaiyo.
The King’s Anthem (English version)
I, slave of the Lord Buddha
Prostrate my heart and head
To pay homage and give great blessings
To the protector of the land,
One of the Great Chakri Dynasty
Head of the Thai people
Supreme in rank
I know comfort from your protection.
Because of your gracious care
All the people are happy and peaceful.
We pray that whatever you wish for
Fate will grant you
According to your heart’s desire
To bring you prosperity.
We salute you.
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