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 – INFORMATION
On this page:
- People and Society
- National Identity
The Kingdom of Thailand or Ratcha Anachak Thai sits at the nexus of mainland Southeast Asia and has the potential to emerge as a regional power. Its heartland is located around the rich lowlands in the Chao Phraya River Basin and enables the Thai rulers to form a strong unified ethnic and economic base. The largest city, Bangkok, is one of the most centralised capitals in the region and the Kingdom’s seat of power. Located at the centre of the Indochinese Peninsula, spanning 513,120sq km with a population of almost 70 million people. Thailand's primary geographic vulnerability comes from Cambodia and Laos to the East, while the southern border stretches into the Malay Peninsula. It also shares maritime borders with Vietnam in the Gulf of Thailand to the southeast, and Indonesia and India on the Andaman Sea to the southwest. For more information on Thailand’s geographic challenges, watch the video below.
There is great diversity in the geographic regions. The Chao Phraya and the Mekong River are indispensable water courses of rural Thailand. Industrial scale crop production makes use of both rivers and their tributaries. Natural resources range from tin to rubber and rare metals such as tungstun and tantalum. The Gulf of Thailand is fed by several rivers and forms the majority of the Kingdom's coastline. It contributes to the tourism sector owing to its clear shallow waters and expansive coral reefs in the southern region and Kra Isthmus. The eastern shore is an industrial centre with the Kingdom's premier deep-water port in Sattahip and its busiest commercial port in Laem Chabang.
Thailand's wildlife is threatened by poaching, habitat loss and an industry that sells wild animals as pets. The Asian elephant is the country's national symbol. Considered endangered by the World Wildlife Fund, the population has fallen from 100,000 in 1850 to around 3,500 to 4,000 in Thailand. Poachers have long hunted elephants for ivory, hides, and meat. Young elephants are often captured for use in tourist attractions or as work animals, and environmental activists claim that elephants in captivity are often mistreated. However, the use of elephants for labour has declined since the Government imposed a logging ban in January 1989 to end rampant deforestation. According to the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), there was a 7% increase in the number of elephants from 2002 to 2017. Poaching of other protected species remains a major problem. Tigers, leopards, and other large cats are hunted for their pelts. Although such trade is illegal, the world’s largest market, Chatuchak, still sells endangered species. For a look at the range of animals being sold in Bangkok and the broader problems behind the continued trade see the following report by Channel 4 News.
[Warning: graphic content]
Thailand's climate is influenced by monsoon winds. Divided into three seasons: tropical, dry, and the southern isthmus which is hot and humid all year round. Most of the country is classified under Köppen's tropical savanna climate while parts of the south have a tropical rainforest climate. Current issues impacting the environment are air and water pollution, soil erosion, and hazardous waste disposal.
The Kingdom is acutely vulnerable to rising sea levels and extreme weather events, especially perpetual flooding, seen in the 2011 Thai floods where floodwater did not subside for 175 days and killed 815 people. The World Bank estimates the total economic damages and losses as US$45.7 billion. The Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DCMR) has calculated that erosion causes the country to lose 30sq km of coastal land every year. To see the extent of the damage caused in the 2011 floods watch the following ABC News report and see the resources below for footage of more recent floods.
- Al Jazeera | Bangkok on alert as deadly floods hit a third of Thailand
- Sustainability Times | Thailand’s wild elephants are on the rebound. Not everyone is happy
- Eureka Alert! | Major study could benefit 11 million Thai people living in vulnerable coastal zones
- Asia & the Pacific Policy Society - Policy Forum | The challenge of water management in Thailand
- Chiang Rai Times | Thailand Launches Wildlife Campaign Against Ivory and Tiger Products
People and Society
Thailand's population of 69,500,000 is split between rural and urban areas, with a concentration of 10 million in the Bangkok Metropolitan Area. Thailand is a country of some 70 ethnic groups, including at least 24 groups of ethno-linguistically Tai peoples, mainly the Siamese, Lao, and Yuan. Next are 22 groups of Austro-asiatic peoples, with substantial populations of Northern Khmer and Kuy, and 11 groups speaking Sino-Tibetan languages often referred to as 'hill tribes' such as the Karen. There are three groups of Austro-nesian peoples, such as the Malay and Moken, found in the southernmost three provinces and both groups of Hmong-Mien. Other ethnic groups include longstanding immigrant communities such as the Chinese and Indians.
Although the Royal Thai Government recognises 62 languages, the official language of the Kingdom is Thai. Though the standard is based on a dialect of the central Thai people, there are four main dialects which coincide with regional designations such as Southern Thai and Northern Thai. Spoken by more than 90% of the population, it is the principal language of education and government. To learn more about how groups are working to keep these many cultures and languages alive, watch the next video.
The country's most prevalent religion is Theravada Buddhism, which is an integral part of Thai identity and culture. Thai law officially recognises five religious groups; Buddhists, Muslims, Brahmin-Hindus, Sikhs, and Christians. Still the Constitution does not name an official state religion and provides for freedom of religion. Although around 95% of the population follows Buddhism, the religious life of the country is more complex than how it is portrayed in such statistics. There are many Chinese, Peranakan, and Thai folk religions practised around the Kingdom that worship local gods and ancestors.
Active participation in Buddhism is among the highest in the world in the Kingdom. It is central to modern Thai identity. Followers of Theravada Buddhism take refuge in the ‘Triple Gem’: the teacher (Buddha), the teaching (dhamma) and the monastic community (the Sangha). For an explanation on how Theravada Buddhism influences contemporary Thai society, watch the following video.
Thailand has experienced a substantial fertility decline since the 1960s largely due to the nationwide success of its voluntary family planning program. In just one generation, the total fertility rate shrank from 6.5 children per woman in the 1960s to below the replacement level of 2.1 in the late 1980s. Reduced fertility occurred among all segments of the Thai population, despite disparities between urban and rural areas in terms of income, education and access to public services. In response, the Kingdom underwent a 'reproductive revolution' in the 1970s with the government's launch of an official population policy to reduce population growth, the introduction of new forms of birth control, and the assistance of foreign non-government organisations. The contraceptive prevalence rate increased from just 14% in 1970 to 58% in 1981 and has remained about 80% since 2000.
Thailand’s receptiveness to family planning reflects the predominant faith, Theravada Buddhism, which emphasises individualism, personal responsibility, and independent decision-making. Thai women have more independence and a higher status than women in many other developing countries and are not usually pressured by their husbands about family planning decisions. Thailand’s relatively egalitarian society also does not have the son preference found in several other Asian countries, instead most Thai ideally want one child of each gender. To learn more about Thailand’s family planning approach from the pioneer of the health strategy, Mechai Viravaidya, see the video below.
- Stats visual archives | Thailand - Changing of Population Pyramid & Demographics (1950-2100)
- Co van Kessel Bangkok - Bike and Boat tours | Real Monk Answers Questions From Tourists
- Wall Street Journal | Thailand's Dhammakaya Temple Under Scrutiny
- CNA Insider | Multiculturalism In The Heart Of Bangkok - Ramadan In Asia
- traveldotearth | Thailand - Heritage Sites of Thailand - World Of Heritage
- All About Thailand | Let's talk about Thai families
- All About Thailand | Let's talk about learning to speak Thai
- Salacious History | Ep19 – The HIV Epidemic in Thailand
- New Books in History | Angela S. Chiu, "The Buddha in Lanna: Art, Lineage, Power, and Place in Northern Thailand" (U Hawaii Press, 2017)
- Mongabay | Thailand's Indigenous Peoples fight for 'land of our heart' (commentary)
- Bangkok Post | World Contraception Day 2021
- Thaiger | What is the difference between Northern and Southern Thailand?
- World Atlas | What Languages Are Spoken In Thailand?
- DW | Thailand's 'spirit houses' believed to bring fortune and protection
In the past, Thailand's vast agricultural output and its position between the Andaman Sea and the South China Sea was a focus of contention between European powers. Regardless, the country was never fully colonised: neither by the Europeans or by the regional kingdoms on its flanks. The Kingdom’s ability to deflect international and regional powers is a point of national pride to this day. Arguably, their national identity and unity is founded on two fundamental characteristics: its monarchy and its dominant religion, Buddhism.
Thai people have a strong sense of social hierarchy, reflected in many classes of language honorifics. Core cultural concepts in the Kingdom are respect, freedom, loyalty, merit, pride, compassion, harmony, and Sanuk. The latter refers to the Thai expression, 'mai pen ra' (nevermind), that reflects the overarching approach to life that 'it is to be enjoyed'. This refers to the balance between a strong work ethic and a desire to be content with what you already have. This attitude is reflected in ‘sanuk’, the effort to achieve satisfaction in whatever one does and make the most of any situation. This can be seen in the way some Thai people inject playfulness and fun into mundane activities. Indeed, it is common to see Thai people smiling and laughing when interacting with others. Taboos in Thai culture include touching someone's head or pointing with the feet, as the head is considered the most sacred and the foot is regarded the lowest part of the body. More information on each of these elements of Thai society can be found on the SBS Cultural Atlas and some helpful do’s and don’ts in the video below.
Thai identity today is a result of nation-building efforts of the Phibun region in the 1930s and 1940s. This is when the National Anthem of Thailand (Phleng Chat Thai) spread throughout the country. The Government's establishment of a 'Thai identity' continued into the late 1950s with national rhetoric designed to affirm a unified 'Thai culture' associated with the 'Central Tai' (the dominant ethnic group in Thailand).
The national symbols of the Kingdom include: the Garuda emblem, national flag and anthem, the golden shower flower, Sala Thai architecture, Siamese fighting fish and Siamese fireback bird, and the national Hindu epic Ramakien. Although the rhetoric of a unified national identity persists there is recognition of the diversity between people of different regional backgrounds.
With the country’s long history of monarchical rule, the King plays a central role in Thai culture. Officially, the King is the head of state, and he occasionally intervenes in political affairs. The recently deceased King, Bhumibol Adulyadej, ruled from 1946 to 2016, making him one of the world’s longest-reigning monarchs. Sometimes known as the ‘heart of the Thai people’, Abulyadej is still given the utmost respect as many saw him as a national symbol of Thai identity and unity. Images of the recent monarch pervade the daily life of Thai people, frequently appearing in public as well as in people’s homes as a constant reminder of a unified ‘Thai identity’. This is also evident in Australia, with many Thai restaurants showcasing a portrait of the recent king.
Many Thai people continue to mourn the recent loss of their beloved king and view his passing as a turning point, holding particular concerns and fears on the future of the country given the departure of Thailand's symbol of unity, which has not been fulfilled by the current reigning monarch King Vajiralongkorn. Consequently, the monarchy's role is being publicly questioned more than ever. Opinions about the current and future political state of the country are quite contentious among Thai people. Common feelings regarding the current unstable political situation include uncertainty, lack of trust and fears about the status of democracy in the country.
To learn more about Thailand’s unique national identity, access the resources below.
- Thisrupt | How Durian, the world’s smelliest fruit, became the “King of Fruit”
- Thisrupt | History: Tuk Tuks
- Fight Vision - Muay Thai - Thai Boxing | Real History of Muay Thai Fight Vision - Ancient Thai Boxing - Martial Arts Thailand
- Martial Arts Journey | 8 Amazing Muay Thai Facts! - Brief Martial Arts
- The Nation | The Unraveling of Thailand's National Myth
- VICE World News | Meet the Women Fighters Making History in Male-Dominated Muay Thai
- The Diplomat | Selling Thailand: Gender, Tourism, and Female Objectification
- Thai Examiner | King tells people to rely on their own culture to bring about strength and security for the New Year in Thailand
- The elephant is considered Thailand’s national emblem, yet its population numbers have decreased dramatically due to human interference. Could Australia provide assistance to help improve relationships, or do we have no role to play in this from a diplomatic effort perspective?
- Thailand is one of the few nations in the region that was never colonised by a European power. How has this influenced Thailand’s current national identity and what does that mean for how the ADF should approach security cooperation activities with the Royal Thai Armed Forces (RTARF)?
- Thailand is a popular tourist destination for Australians, particularly the south of the country which has some magnificent beaches and countryside. Should Australia do more to help Thailand maintain its natural beauty, especially in the face of climate change? What might this mean for the diplomatic and economic efforts of DIME to enhance our relationship?