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LOOKING BACK

The history of the Thai nation features some interesting twists and turns!

The history of the Thai nation features some interesting twists and turns!

Did you know that Thailand is one of perhaps four nations across the globe that have never been conquered and colonised? This is a grey area though, as there’s still debate about the implications of ‘occupation’ and ‘colonisation’. But the bottom line is that, throughout its history as an entity (a country in its own right), Thailand has never relinquished control or government to any other nation. (And if you’re wondering about the others, you can add Nepal, Turkey and Bhutan to the list, too.)

          

I do not intend to bore you rigid with a succession of dates and unfamiliar names of ancient Asian nations and monarchs. Suffice it only to say that the genetics of the people, who now call themselves Thai, can be traced back to northern India almost 4,000 years ago. They were known as the Nanchaoans, and migrated towards China and eventually settled in Hunan province. But due to the invading Mongol hordes, they moved out to the south after only 400 years. By then they were known as the Tai people, and they settled among the Khmer, Mon and Burman populations whom they encountered along the way. By the 12th century, they had established several small states in Upper Burma (Shans), the Mekong Valley (Laos) and the Chao Phraya River Valley (Thais).

          

And that’s about it. I could fill another dozen pages with all the subsequent expansions, inter-border scuffles, land grabs, in-fighting and concessions that then went on for several hundred years. The first Thai kingdom, Sukhothai, expanded into the eventual seat of government, Ayudhaya. The Europeans made contact with the Thais in the 16th century, opening doors of trade and commerce to nations including Portugal, the Netherlands, England, France, China and Japan.

          

What’s fascinating to realise is that at this time, in both Ayudhaya and also in what would later become known as Bangkok, there were no roads. All travel and commerce went by way of the extensive canal (‘klong’) network. The Thais had never seen horses (or carriages).It was only when the first foreign embassy (French) was established in the early 1600s, that the Royal Family were treated to this modernistic form of travel,The history of the Thai nation features some interesting twists and turns! as the French ambassador insisted on bringing with him all the trappings of his rank.

          

He was initially frustrated, however, because his walled and selfcontained embassy allowed no access to the outside, as there were no roads for him to travel on. He quickly got around that one by simply presenting the king with two carriages, plus horses and grooms to match. And, as predicted, it didn’t take long before a small network of roads began to appear, linking the courts, palaces and temples. (Although the access road to the French Embassy took several years more – the king didn’t want to be paralleled or even upstaged by a foreigner!)

          

Still with us? Good! Because it’s no mean feat to summarise 98% of Thai history in 300 words! But, having painted the background, my intention here is to outline a few of the more recent, colourful or simply human developments in Thai history – or at least to give you something you can relate to. The country became known to these ‘farang’ (foreign) traders as Siam. Then in 1939, the name was changed to Thailand, or in Thai language ‘Prathet Thai’, which means ‘Land of the Free’. And it wasn’t long after that the classic Hollywood musical, ‘The King and I’ appeared. Yul Brynner played the part of HRH King Rama IV – but the Thai administration of the time (1956) was not pleased. Although the general background was close enough to the truth,The history of the Thai nation features some interesting twists and turns! the way the king was portrayed was simplistic and not particularly respectful – he came across as little better than a slightly more capable Siamese George Bush!

          

It was in fact this monarch’s grandson and successor, HRH King Rama V, who followed in his footsteps to become the Nation’s most loved and respected historical ruler. Even today, in most Thai homes and places of work, you’ll see two revered images. One is of the current and beloved monarch, Rama IX, HRH King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The other is of Rama V, HRH King Chulalongkorn. He spent long periods abroad in Europe and America, studying new methods and technology, and adopting appropriate ways of farming or manufacture on his return. It is also interesting to note that he was the person responsible for putting Koh Samui on the map, back at the end of the 19th century. On his return from trips abroad, The King would often take a break over on Koh Pha-Ngan for several weeks. Prior to this, the Thai nation had never heard of either of these islands.

          

But probably the most curious events in recent Thai history occurred back in 1941, not long after the outbreak of WWII. The Thai Prime Minister of the time, Khun Phibun Songkhram, had already established diplomatic links with the Japanese. They were planning to strike at The Allies on a broad front, spearheaded by an attack on the American Naval Base at Pearl Harbour. They wanted to co-ordinate this with an attack on the strategic island of Singapore, via a march down through Thailand for which they were seeking the cooperation of the Thai government. Khun Phibun realised that he might strike a better bargain with the opposition.The history of the Thai nation features some interesting twists and turns! So he bargained with the Japanese for chunks of land in Burma and Malaysia, and at the same time let it be known to the UK and US governments that he feared invasion by the Japanese and requested an alliance.

          

Unfortunately, he wasn’t the best of diplomats. Or the most secretive, as both the British and the Japanese received intelligence about this at the same time. The result was that the Japanese suddenly invaded Thailand at dawn on the 8th December 1941, attacking five different coastal cities from their fleet in the Gulf of Thailand. There was no one to take command, as nobody was able to contact Khun Phibun, for some reason. No troops were mobilised, the invaders met resistance only from army cadets and local police, and the Thai surrender came at midday. The negotiated agreement was that the Japanese could use Thailand as a temporary base. Thus it came about that Thailand was officially conquered on the 8th December 1941, and signed an armistice on the 21st, agreeing Thailand’s autonomy as a Japanese ally.

          

It seems that there wasn’t much here that the Japanese seemed to want back then! But just imagine if this had happened when the Land of Smiles was big on tourism. You might now be staying at a Japanese hotel – such are the twists and turns of fate!

 

 Rob De Wet


 


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