Why Thailand?

Dr. Allen H. Merriam
Professor of Communication (Ret.)
Missouri Southern State University

Map of Thailand

2012 marks Missouri Southern State University's 16th annual themed semester, but its first to focus on Southeast Asia − a vibrant region of over 600 million people. Thailand, meaning "land of the free," is the only Southeast Asian nation to have escaped European colonization. Previously it was known as Siam.

Perhaps Thailand can be understood best when viewed within a regional context, since so much of her history has involved neighbors. The area's growth resulted from Mon, Khmer, and Pyu migrations, including infiltrations from southern China. Ethnic Chinese still make up about 14% of the country's population of 67 million. Malays constitute a Muslim minority in the south while various tribes inhabit the northern hill country.

The Sukhothai Empire emerged in the 13th century in what is now central Thailand. The ruler Rama Khamheng gave Siam a written language, encouraged the arts, and adopted Theravada (Hinayana) Buddhism brought in from India and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) as the official religion. Today, 95 percent of Thais are Buddhists.

Around 1350 Ayudhya (Ayutthaya) became the capital of Ramadhipati's kingdom, eventually encompassing much of present-day Myanmar (Burma), Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia, and Thailand. It was destroyed by the Burmese in 1767.

The Chakri Dynasty was founded April 6, 1782 by a military leader who assumed the title Rama I. He established a new capital on the Chao Phraya River and named it Bangkok (in Thai, Krung Thep) meaning "city of angels." It is now a bustling metropolis of seven million inhabitants.

Since World War II, when it endured occupation by Japanese troops, Thailand's regional identity continued. SEATO (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) was formed in 1954 by Western powers motivated by anti-Communism. Headquartered in Bangkok, it dissolved in 1977 after proving ineffective, most notably in Vietnam.

In 1967 Thailand helped create the more successful Association of Southeast Asian Nations. ASEAN now has 10 members (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam), and promotes economic development, social progress, peace, and cooperation in the region.

In 1989 Thailand and the United States became charter members of APEC (Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation), partners in what President Obama calls "the fastest growing region in the world." Both countries seek to expand bilateral trade which by 2011 reached $35.7 billion. Spurring this growth is an educated workforce reflected in a 93 percent literacy rate.

Even Thailand's natural disasters tend to be international in scope. The horrific tsunami of Dec. 26, 2004, which killed over 5,400 people in Thailand alone, claimed an estimated quarter million lives in 14 countries around the Indian Ocean rim. Last year's monsoon floods left more than 700 dead and caused extensive damage. Vividly illustrating how Southeast Asia's weather can affect the global economy, the flooding disrupted Thailand's export of auto parts such as microprocessors, causing a production slowdown of Japanese-owned Honda and Toyota vehicles assembled and sold in the United States!

Buddhist monuments abound throughout Southeast Asia, and include the huge complex at Borobudur, Indonesia, historic Angkor Wat in Cambodia, and the magnificent gold-covered, 326-foot-tall Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Yangon (Rangoon), Myanmar.

Among Bangkok's architectural treasures are the ornate Wat Phra Keo housing a 31-inch Emerald Buddha carved from translucent jasper, Wat Po featuring a 160-foot-long Reclining Buddha, and Wat Trimitr with its five-and-a-half ton Buddha made of solid gold.

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. The current king, 84-year-old Bhumibol Adulyadej, has reigned as Rama IX since 1946, making him the longest-serving head of state in the world! His birthday, Dec. 5, is a major national holiday.

On Aug. 8, 2011, Yinglak Shinawatra became prime minister, the country's first female head of government. A native of the northern city of Chiang Mai, she holds a master's degree in management information systems from Kentucky State University. Her older brother, the wealthy telecommunications entrepreneur Thaksin Shinawatra, was prime minister prior to being ousted in a military coup in 2006.

Over 5,000 U.S. Peace Corps Volunteers have served in Thailand since 1962. Among them is Dr. Brady Deaton, chancellor of the University of Missouri-Columbia.

Given its tropical climate, colorful lifestyle, and friendly, tolerant people, Thailand is a popular tourist destination. Attractions include the Royal Palace and Barges, floating markets on canals (klongs), demonstrations of Thai boxing and bamboo dancing, a nearly 400-foot-tall chedi (Buddhist stupa) at Nakhom Pathom, varied cuisine, nightclubs, and spectacular beaches along the Andaman Sea.

Two classic Hollywood films dealt with Thailand. The King and I (1956) won five Academy Awards in recounting the story of British governess Anna Leonowens who taught the children of King Mogkut (Rama IV) in the 1860s. The Bridge Over the River Kwai (1957) won seven Oscars including Best Picture in depicting construction of the "Death Railway" to Burma by prisoners of war during World War II. Present-day tourists still travel to see the bridge near Kanchanaburi, 70 miles northwest of Bangkok, but it is not the one in the movie since filming actually took place in Ceylon.

Other well-known titles, shot at least partly in Thailand, include The Deer Hunter (1978), The Killing Fields (1984), Alexander (2004), and Rambo (2008). A burgeoning domestic movie industry complements foreign-made films.

While advertising campaigns portray Thailand as "the land of smiles," the country faces many challenges. Hundreds of thousands of refugees, primarily from Myanmar and Laos, require humanitarian services. In the last decade violent political protests produced thousands of casualties and periodic declarations of emergency rule while the suppression of a Muslim insurgency in the south cost 3,500 lives. HIV/AIDS, drug abuse, pollution, commercial sex trafficking, and the exploitation of children remain serious concerns. Unhappily, similar problems exist in many countries, including our own.