Thailand
Capital: Bangkok
 
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Introduction
Thailand is the only South East Asian country not to have been colonised by a foreign power. After a series of coups in the decades after World War II, the country enjoyed political stability from 1992 until in 2006, when the military staged the country's first coup in 15 years. A constitutional monarchy, Thailand's royal family is held in high esteem and the king is considered to wield considerable influence behind the scenes. Thailand has made a slow but steady recovery from the 1997 financial crisis, and its tourism industry continues to thrive.
 
Full country name: Kingdom of Thailand
Population: 65.1 million
Languages: Thai, Chinese dialects, Malay
Religion: Buddhist majority, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Christian
Ethnic diversity: Thai (75%), Chinese (14%), Khmer, Mon, Kren, Semang, Lana and Chao Nam
Life expectancy: 73 years (women), 65 years (men)
Literacy: 93 per cent
Capital: Bangkok
Total land area: 513,000 square kilometres
Border countries: Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia
Political Status: Constitutional monarchy
Head of State: King Bhumibol Adulyadej
Head of Government: Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej
Currency: baht
Major trading partners: US, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, China

Issues
  • Thailand has a large sex industry which has contributed to the rapid spread of HIV/AIDS.

  • Most of Thailand's media is owned by the government or military. The media is considered free to criticise the government, but any criticism of the royal family is frowned upon.

  • Environmental degradation is becoming an increasingly important issue. The capital, Bangkok, is one of the world's most polluted cities and tree clearing in the country's north-east is of growing concern.

  • Thailand's relations with Burma are difficult, with contentious issues including drug trafficking from Burma into Thailand and the presence of about one million Burmese workers and more than 100,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand.

  • Thailand has been a transit point for illegal drugs from Burma and Laos, with the three countries situated in the so-called Golden Triangle. But according to the United Nations, between 1998 and 2006, opium production in the region fell 85 per cent.

  • A separatist movement has been simmering in Thailand's Muslim-majority south for decades. Violence escalated in 2004, with a series of attacks and murders mainly targeting security forces and Buddhist monks.

  • Thailand's south-western coast was hit by a tsunami on December 26, 2004. Thousands of people, including many foreign tourists, were killed. Recovery from the tsunami is expected to take many years.


History
A unified Thai kingdom was first established in the 14th century, and for hundreds of years the kingdom, known as Siam, survived periodic invasions by the Burmese and the Khmers. The Chakri dynasty was founded under King Rama I in 1782, and still rules to this present day.

Thailand is the only South East Asian country not to have been colonised by a foreign power. The country maintained independence for centuries by playing off European powers against each other to prevent any single country building up too much power. As British and French power grew in the region in the 19th century, Siam ceded large areas of Lao and Cambodian territory to France, and Malay territory to Britain. By doing so, it managed to avoid war.

A bloodless revolution in 1932 led to a constitutional monarchy and the introduction of the National Assembly, consisting of one parliamentary house. The following year the country held its first ever parliamentary elections. In 1939, Siam was officially renamed Thailand, which means 'Land of the Free'.

Thailand aligned itself with Japan during World War II. By 1944 Thailand was led by a civilian government, but in 1947 the army, fearing a communist threat, staged a coup and seized control. The military staged another coup in 1952, declaring a new constitution that ensured 50 per cent of the members of parliament would be appointed. Nearly all of those appointed were army officers.

For decades Thailand's politics was punctuated with several attempts at democratisation, various forms of authoritarian rule, and coups in 1971, 1976 and 1991.

Another coup was staged in 1992, sparking three days of mass protests by students and others calling for an end to the military's dominance of government. Police opened fire, killing more than 100 people and arresting more than 3,000.

The King's intervention ended the conflict between protestors and the military and elections were held in the same year, ushering in a civilian government.

Subsequent governments collapsed in 1995 and resigned over allegations of corruption in 1996. Thailand's political climate has since stabilised, and in 2001 a new party, Thai Rak Thai (Thais Love Thai), led by Dr Thaksin Shinawatra, won the most seats in the election, merging with two other parties to give it an absiolute parliamentary majority for the first time in Thailand's history. Allegations of vote-buying forced a partial re-run of the poll.

Thailand has experienced a slow but steady recovery from the 1997 Asian financial crisis. In recent years the government has tried to address the growing HIV/AIDS problem by lobbying for the right to produce cheaper generic medication for AIDS sufferers. Drugs have also been in the spotlight, with the government launching an all-out campaign against illicit drugs in 2003, and increasing efforts to stem the traffic of drugs from neighbouring Burma and Laos.

In 2004 violence escalated in the Muslim-majority south, where a separatist movement had been simmering for decades. Hundreds of people were killed in gun attacks which mainly targeted security forces, government-appointed officials and Buddhist monks. The army has been accused by human rights groups of using excessive force in the south.

Areas along Thailand's south-western coast were devastated on December 26, 2004 when an underwater earthquake off the coast of Indonesia sparked tsunamis across the Indian Ocean. Thousands of people were killed in Thailand, including hundreds of foreign tourists holidaying at the popular resort region.

On September 19, 2006, Thai armed forces staged a coup - the first for the country in 15 years - while the then prime minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, was in New York at the UN Assembly.

Military leaders claimed the takeover was necessary to restore order after months of political turmoil, sparked by the tax-free $US1.9 billion sale of Shin Corp, the telecoms empire Mr Thaksin founded.

In the months following the sale, people took to the streets in their thousands, accusing Mr Thaksin of corruption and calling on him to step down.

In a bid to stop the protests, Mr Thaksin called a snap election, which was later ruled invalid by the constitutional court.

At a China-ASEAN summit in October, 2006, Thailand's military-installed prime minister, Surayud Chulanont, said the country would return to democracy within a year.

Government
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy with two houses of parliament - a House of Representatives and a Senate. Voting in Thailand is compulsory.

Since the early 1980s there has been considerable reform of Thailand's system of government. The constitution was amended in 1997 to reduce corruption and encourage a higher calibre of politicians. It also introduced the system of electing members of parliament into the House of Representatives and the Senate. Previously, the members were appointed.

A number of regulatory agencies have been established in recent years to improve accountability in Thailand's political system. These include the National Counter Corruption Commission (NCCC), the Election Commission of Thailand (ECT) and a Constitutional Court.

The Thai military played a strong role in the country's politics up until 1992, when a civil protest calling for an end to military involvement in politics was violently put down by the army. Constitutional changes have since reduced the political influence of the armed forces, including rescinding the army's formal powers to act against civil unrest.

On September 19, 2006, acting on claims the government of prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was corrupt, the military led a bloodless, late-night coup - the first for the country in 15 years. A little over a week later, a former army chief was installed as prime minister.

The military set up a new anti-graft commission, expanded the powers of the auditor general's office and revived a nine-member National Counter-Corruption Commission.

Thailand's King Bhumibol Adulyadej is deeply respected and has played a stabilising, mainly behind-the-scenes, role in Thai political crises.
Economy
Thailand has one of the fastest growing economies in South East Asia. It experienced a boom in the mid 1980s, which continued up until the 1997 Asian financial crisis, in which Thailand's currency, the baht, virtually collapsed.

Thailand has recently experienced steady, reasonably balanced growth, with healthy contributions for private consumption, investment and exports.

Agriculture plays a very important role in Thailand's economy, employing about 50 per cent of the workforce. Thailand is one of the world's largest producers of rice. However, the significance of agriculture is declining.

The manufacturing industry employs about 20 per cent of the workforce and continues to grow. The clothing, footwear, electronics and consumer appliances industries are particularly strong.

Growth in manufacturing has led to an expansion of the services industry, which now employs about 30 per cent of the workforce. A large number of these workers are employed in Thailand's large tourism industry, which provides the country's main source of foreign currency.

Bangkok also plays an important role as an international air and sea port for trade.
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