The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and issues in the Indo-Pacific.
THAILAND – DIPLOMACY
On this page:
- Monarchy, Government, and Politics
- Foreign Policy
- International Forums
Tai peoples migrated from southwestern China to mainland Southeast Asia from the 11th century and settled within and around the region now known as Thailand. Various kingdoms in Greater India ruled the region and competed with Thai states such as the Ngoenyang, Sukhothai, Lan Na, and Ayutthaya for territory and power over each other. These rivalries would continue past contact and trade with European travellers, which began in the early 1500s. The Ayutthaya Kingdom reached its peak during cosmopolitan Narai's reign but was destroyed in the Burmese-Siamese War, which ended with the destruction of Ayutthaya's capital city in April 1767.
Taksin quickly reunified the fragmented territory and established the short-lived Thonburi Kingdom. He was succeeded in 1782 by Buddha Yodfa Chulaloke, the first monarch of the current Chakri dynasty which continues today. Throughout the era of Western imperialism in Asia, Siam as it was known then, remained the only nation in the region to avoid being colonised by foreign powers. In part because Britain and France agreed in 1896 to make the Chao Phraya valley a buffer state between their empires. Although Siam was often forced to cede both territory and trade concessions in unequal treaties, such as the Burney Treaty of 1826 with the United Kingdom. For a broad overview of Thailand’s history watch the following video.
The Siamese system of government was centralised and transformed into a modern unitary absolute monarchy in the reign of Chulalongkorn. King Vajiravudh continued with nation-building reforms and promoted Siamese nationalism, also known as Thaification, in place of historical multi-culturalism. Towards the end of World War 1, Siam sided with the Allies and gained international status. Following a bloodless revolution in 1932, Siam became a constitutional monarchy and seven years later changed its name to Thailand.
On 08 December 1941, the Empire of Japan launched an invasion of Thailand and fighting broke out before the Thai rulers ordered an armistice, sided with Tokyo, and declared war on the United States and the United Kingdom. Although a satellite of Japan, the Free Thai Movement launched in opposition to Japanese occupation and was backed by the reigning monarch. The Thai Government rotated back to the West after the conflict and nullified the declaration of war on the Allies. In fact, during the Cold War, Thailand served as a geopolitical counterweight to the spread of communism elsewhere in the region. Bangkok became an active ally of Washington and fought alongside US troops in the Koreas and Vietnam. To learn more about why the Kingdom of Siam was never colonised, see below.
After a brief period of parliamentary democracy in the mid-1970s, Thailand has periodically alternated between democracy and military rule. Since the 2000s, the country has been caught in a series of bitter political conflicts. A military coup in 2006 ousted then Prime Minister Thaksin Chinnawat, followed by large-scale street protests by competing political factions in 2008, 2009 and 2010. In 2011, Thaksin's youngest sister, Yinglak Chinnawat, led the Puea Thai Party to an electoral win and assumed control of the government.
In early May 2014, after months of large-scale anti-government protests in Bangkok beginning in November 2013, Yinglak was removed from office by the Constitutional Court. In late May 2014 the Royal Thai Army, led by General Prayut Chan-o-cha, staged a coup against the caretaker government. Prayut was appointed Prime Minister in August 2014. Prayut also serves as the head of the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), a military-affiliated body that oversees the interim government. This body created several interim institutions to promote reform and draft a new constitution, which was passed in a national referendum in August 2016. Effectively, the military junta bound future governments to a 20-year national strategy 'road map' and so, locked the country into a military-guided democracy. King Bhumibol Adulyadej passed away in October 2016 after 70 years on the throne. The general election also took place in 2019. Amid allegations of election fraud, Prayut continued his premiership with the support of the Palang Pracharath Party-coalition in the House and junta-appointed Senate. The next in line to the Chakri dynasty is Vajiralongkorn, who ascended to Rama X and took over royal duties in May 2019.
The country continues to face pro-democracy protests who oppose the military junta's influence and advocate for reform of the monarchy. For more resources on Thailand’s unique history, access the resources below.
Monarchy, Government, and Politics
Prior to 1932, the Siamese Kings were feudal or absolute monarchs. Modern absolute monarchy and statehood was established by Chulalongkorn when he transformed the decentralised protectorate system into a unitary state. On 24 June 1932, Khana Ratsadon (People's Party) carried out a bloodless revolution which marked the beginning of constitutional monarchy.
The politics of Thailand is conducted within the framework of a constitutional monarchy, whereby a hereditary monarch serves as head of state, head of the armed forces, and a defender of the Theravada Buddhist faith. He has the power to appoint heirs, grant pardons, and royal assent. The King is aided in his duties by the Privy Council of Thailand. However, the monarch still occasionally intervenes in Thai politics, as all its constitutions have paved the way for customary royal rulings. To learn more about the Kingdom’s tumultuous recent history, watch TLDR News breakdown all the key players and events in the video below.
Thailand has had over 20 constitutions and charters since 1934, including the latest in 2017. Throughout this time, the form of government has ranged from military dictatorship to electoral democracy and everything in between. Thailand has had the fourth-most coups in the world and a history of uniformed or former-military leadership. Nominally, Thailand is a constitutional monarchy and parliamentary democracy.
The Government is separated into three branches. The first is the legislative branch: the bicameral National Assembly (Rathhasapha) consists of the Senate (Wuthissapha) with 250-seats and whose members are appointed by the Royal Thai Army to serve five-year terms. Alongside them are the lower House of Representatives (Saphaphuthan Ratsadon) composed of 500 seats lasting four-year terms. The seats are split between 375 members directly elected in single-seat constituencies by simple majority vote, and 125 members elected in a single nationwide constituency by party-list proportional representation vote. Next is the executive branch: the Prime Minister of Thailand and their cabinet. Lastly, there are three levels of judicial courts starting with the Supreme Court of Justice, Constitutional Court, and down to the Supreme Administrative Court. The judiciary is supposed to be independent of the executive and the legislative branches, yet rulings are often suspected of being based on political considerations rather than on existing law.
Military and bureaucratic aristocrats fully controlled political parties between 1946 and the 1980s. Most parties in Thailand are short-lived. Between 1992 and 2006, Thailand had a two-party system. One was the Pheu Thai Party (successor of People's Power Party and the Thai Ra Thai Party) and the other was the Democrat Party. The political parties which support Thaksin Shinawatra have won the most representatives every general election since 2001. Later constitutions created a multi-party system where a single party cannot gain a majority in the house and so must form a coalition to hold political power.
The most recent general election in 2019 saw a coalition led by the Palang Pracharath Party gain the majority. The right to vote in elections is universal and compulsory for anyone over the age of 18. The next video by journalist Tom Chitty answers the question: why does Thailand have so many coups?
Access the resources below to learn more about the power dynamics between the monarchy, government, military and public.
- CFR Asia Unbound | Thailand’s Dangerous Political Interregnum
- Lowy Institute - Interpreter | Thailand: Military, monarchy and the masses
- DW | Thailand: Is royal reform a far-fetched dream?
- The Diplomat | With Eye to Next Election, Thai Government Tweaks Voting Rules
- Geopolitical Monitor | The Rise, Dominance, and Decline of Thailand's Monarchy
Thai people take pride in their record of independence. They attribute this self-determination to the Thai tradition of expediency. In their view, such wisdom enables the Kingdom to ally with the winning side in international affairs. By bending like bamboo in the wind they can preserve their country's autonomy and maintain centuries old culture and political traditions. The hallmarks of Thai external relations – flexibility, pragmatism, and opportunism – are being tested by the complexities of the contemporary international order, including: future relationships with the major powers, regional organisations, and an array of traditional and non-traditional security issues.
Often dubbed the United States' oldest ally in Asia, Bangkok maintains an alliance with Washington and has been designated a Major Non-NATO Ally since December 2003. Its economy – which is mostly dominated by the industrial and manufacturing sectors – maintains deep ties to Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Since Thailand shares no borders with China and is not involved in its water disputes, the Government in Bangkok has no immediate fear of Beijing and embraces Chinese investments. This complex web of security and financial partners illustrates how current Thai policymakers seek to reduce their dependency on a single ally and prefer to keep their options open.
Prayut Chan-o-cha, Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Thailand, is an advocate of ‘complex engagement’ to maintain balanced and good relationships with all major powers for the benefit of Bangkok. He virtually addressed the general debate of the 76th Session of the General Assembly of the United Nations in September 2021.
The foreign relations of Thailand are handled by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. It aims to advance national interests through external relations and the promotion of Thailand's role on the global stage. The new 20-Year Foreign Affairs Masterplan sets out the '5S Strategy' for the five key strategic priorities: security, sustainability, standard, status, and synergy.
The Kingdom has a long diplomatic history but its current positioning is at risk. Thailand's foreign policy took a turn under Thaksin's administration in the 2000s. As domestic political turmoil spilled over into foreign policy and used it as a political tool in the National Assembly. Bangkok was much more unilateralist and often prone to implementing megaphone diplomacy in place of traditional subtle persuasion.
After the military coup of May 2014, Thailand's global reputation plunged again. Adopting the approach of 'complex engagement' to foreign policy which is characterised as: non-coercive, open exchanges at multiple levels and over multiple issue areas. It is the strategic pursuit of cooperative relations based on common understanding, as much as interdependence. The 2019 election improved Thailand's classification from hybrid regime to flawed democracy. Tightening security relations with the US and expanding economic links with the European Union despite limited political contact. Watch the following report on global condemnation in the wake of the coup in 2014.
Transnational disputes between Thailand and neighbouring countries Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar over undefined and disputed boundaries continue to linger. In the past, Bangkok has struggled to play a leading role in mainland Southeast Asia. The implementation of a 'CLMVT' strategy for engagement with neighbouring countries in the Mekong Basin – Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam – is re-connecting the sub-region through development projects. Thailand has thus repositioned itself as an actor that can bridge all these undertakings, with Bangkok serving as a coordinating hub to connect outsiders (for example Japan and Korea) to the sub-region. To learn more about the ‘CLMVT Regional Value Chain’, watch the headline report by NBT World.
- Royal Thai Embassy Washington D.C. | The King of Thailand and Thai-U.S. Relations
- Thai PBS World | Thai-US relations in the Indo-Pacific era
- Thai PBS World | Thai-China relations and geopolitics in the region
- NBT World | ASEAN Connect EP 38 Thai Vietnamese Relations new
- Al Jazeera English | How life has changed in Thailand since 2014 military coup
As a founding member of the League of Nations after World War 1, Thailand has a long history of involvement in international and regional organisations. The Kingdom is a middle power in global affairs, and a founding member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Bangkok helped define the economic community and 'ASEAN way'. Eschewing conflict, always seeking that elusive consensus, and keeping problems behind closed doors has been ASEAN's diplomatic formula for decades. Through this platform, Thailand has developed increasingly close ties with other members which boosts regional cooperation.
Bangkok is looking to promote and enhance ASEAN centrality in the regional security architecture. As the country seeks cooperation on non-traditional security threats in areas such as cyber security, human trafficking, and transnational crimes. However, significant political setbacks have hampered Thailand in its effort to play a leading role in the international community. A decade of domestic political conflict has stopped Bangkok from pursuing any strategy continuously and undermined its projection of stability on the home front with continued unrest. To learn more about Thailand’s role as a leader of ASEAN, in particular its recent Chairmanship in 2019, see the following video and resources.
- Knowing the history of diplomacy in Thailand, how can the ADF support DFAT with diplomacy efforts with our relationship with Thailand and regional security?
- How can the ADF work through our partnerships with individual countries to assist ASEAN on regional issues?