The ancient kingdom known to foreigners as Siam remains virtually the only uncolonized land in the region due to skillful diplomacy, modernization, and Britain and France's need for a buffer. Territory and some sovereignty is lost, although King Rama VI as absolute monarch (1910-1925) negotiates greater trading and political freedom from the Western powers competing over the kingdom.
King Rama VII (1925-1935) succeeds his older brother. His reign is beset by financial problems, and he is more easily influenced by competing interests of the princes and the increasingly powerful military. The king explores the idea of a constitution, but no action is taken. Dramatic expansion of the education system continues.
Young army officers and civilians replace the absolute monarchy with a constitutional one. Power shifts to bureaucratic and military elites, beginning seven decades of mostly military rule and frequent coups. Recognizing Japan's military power and seeing a chance to regain lost territory, the country, now called Thailand, joins with Japan in 1942 despite long ties to the U.S. and Britain.
The current king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, takes the throne after the mysterious and violent death of King Rama VIII. Power remains chiefly in the hands of competing military strongmen. The king sometimes backs authoritarian leaders and other times democratization, generally stepping in as a stabilizing force in times of coup or insurgency. Thailand joins the UN in 1946 and the World Bank in 1949.
Army chief Sarit Thanarat takes power in a coup. He suppresses opposition but implements sound economic policies. Thailand tries to industrialize its agrarian economy through import-substitution policies after 1960. Foreign aid and investment is welcomed. After Sarit's death his deputy Thanom Kittikachorn maintains goals of stability, development, and anticommunism while allowing some democratization.
Thanom wins elections under a long-promised new constitution and then carries out a "self-coup" to replace parliamentary democracy with authoritarian rule. After unprecedented demonstrations leave 75 students dead at the hands of the army, the leaders are forced into an exile negotiated by the king.
Pressure for change sparks a period of alternating democratization and authoritarianism. After a 1976 coup returns the army to power, some opposition figures join Communist insurgents in the forests. Import substitution is replaced with policies to boost exports, setting the stage for long-term growth. But exports are slow to take off, and the U.S. army phase-out and the oil shocks end a boom period.
Elections are held in 1979, but after an economic downturn, the prime minister resigns. The National Assembly elects an economically savvy army chief, who encourages democratization and survives two coups. This continuity in policies and stability allows the return to faster growth, and Thailand emerges as a modern diversified economy.
Generals overthrow the elected government, ending a dozen years of relative democracy. But after another round of mass protests ousts the military government, there is some democratic progress under civilian governments. In these boom years, however, economic reform other than limited privatization is slow. The stage is set for the impending crisis.
Years of soaring debt and trade deficits, exacerbated by a massive outflow of funds by speculators and investors, prompts a crash in the baht. Economic crisis ensues. A new prime minister implements reforms, a democratic constitution is drafted, and new agencies begin to monitor corruption and election fraud. After a 10 percent contraction in 1998, growth slowly returns despite lingering problems.
Tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra rides to power in elections marked by better oversight but unprecedented vote-buying. The global slowdown threatens to return Thailand to recession; the government responds by boosting spending and lending. The recipe works: Growth exceeds expectations in 2002. But some impacts of the crisis, such as increased poverty and shuttered plants, will take longer to reverse.
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