A Brief History of Thailand

Dvaravati 6th to 12th CE = Mon culture - Pre-Khmer

Chapters
Previous
Next
Buy Book

The history of Thailand can be broken into three very general periods - pre-Khmer, Khmer, and post-Khmer. The period called Pre-Khmer, is also called the Dvaravati period. It lasted from about the 6th century until about the 11th or 12th century, when it was overwhelmed by the Khmer civilization of Angkor. It consisted of many small city-states of uncertain ethnicity. Rather than being Thai speakers, it is thought, however, that these people spoke a language in the Mon-Khmer family. They probably belonged to the Mon culture.

They left behind many examples of magnificent art - including temples, Buddha images, giant terra-cotta heads, sculptures, and terra cotta relief on walls and caves. It appeared to be a thriving culture as the Indian merchants referred it to as the Land of Gold. Dvaravati itself is a Sanskrit word used to refer to the city of Shiva from the Indian epic poem Mahabharata. It literally means 'place having gates'.

Scholars aren’t sure if the inhabitants worshipped Buddha or Shiva, but it seems that Indian culture was much more influential in the area than was Chinese culture. It is even thought that the Mon, the probable residents, are of Indian descent. It makes sense as Indian culture is overlaid upon the indigenous cultures all over Southeast Asia.

Although there are no written records, it is clear that the inhabitants of the area were not of Thai descent. India’s Brahmanism had already exerted a strong influence on the local culture. They were already producing the high quality art, which was to be characteristic of the area up until the present day. Their artists were using gold extensively, making temples and sculpting larger than life size figures.

The Dvaravati period ended in the 12th and 13th centuries CE with the expansion of the Khmer of Angkor into Thailand. The Khmer culture gradually moved into Thailand over a few hundred years, but then faded quickly. While influential, they were always considered invaders. We will explore this culture in more depth in subsequent chapters.

Thai speakers from the country of Nan Chao (650 to 1253 CE) move south

In the meantime, a Thai speaking culture had formed a distinct state in the south of China in the present day province of Yünnan. They congregated along the big rivers. This country was called Nan Chao or Nam Chao, perhaps a Chinese corruption of 'Lord(s) of the River(s)'. The modern Thai and Lao people still consider Yünnan to be their ancestral homeland. (Lonely Planet, 1999, p483)

The estimated time period of this Thai state is 650 CE to 1250 CE. They had diplomatic relations with China but were never conquered by them. This all ended in 1253 when the Mongols under Kublai Khan conquered Nan Chao, just as they had previously conquered China. (Lonely Planet, 1999, p16) This created a virtual exodus of the Thai-speaking people from southern China.

While this event certainly accelerated the migration, the Thais had already been moving into northern Thailand for centuries. Indeed, the Thais formed their first real kingdom in 1238 CE, when existing Thai communities in the northern Mekong river valleys proclaimed their independence from the Angkor civilization. This begins the Post-Angkor period. From this point the Khmer-Mon speakers, gravitated to Cambodia while the Thai speakers flooded into the area of modern day Thailand.

To summarize: in the pre-Khmer era of Thailand, the speakers probably belonged to the Mon-Khmer language family and ethnicity. While similar to the Khmer culture they were different, like Spanish and Italian. In the Khmer times the Khmer culture was dominant. In post-Khmer times, the Thai ethnic group became more and more dominant with each successive generation.

Thai culture and state (13th CE to present) - Post-Khmer

Thailand’s post-Khmer era can be broken into three parts: the Sukhothai and Lan Na Period (1238 - early 1400s), the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767), and the Chakri dynasty (1782 to present).

The Thais consider the Sukhothai Period to be the golden age of Thailand. It was a more egalitarian time when everyone was taken care of, at least that is what they believe. The Sukhothai capital city in north central Thailand is built in Khmer style. At the height of their influence they also assimilated the northern Thai kingdom of Lanna, which included parts of Burma, and northwest Thailand, including the city state of Chiang Mai.

The next age is called the Ayutthaya Period (1350-1767). Ayutthaya was a prosperous trading coastal city, close to the Gulf of Thailand on the Chao Phraya River, the main river of Thailand. Its kings became incredibly prosperous trading with Europeans and Asians alike. As a comparison, this port city made London of the time look like a small village. They began taking over Khmer coastal strongholds in the late 14th century and eventually conquered Angkor in 1431. As they were conquering the Khmer, the Thai adopted their hierarchical style of government and actually considered themselves the inheritors of the Khmer Empire. They expanded all over Southeast Asia, establishing control over all of the land territory except Vietnam. Ayutthaya was one of the most prosperous cities in the world at this time.

In their decline they were attacked and conquered by the Burmese twice during the 1700s. However, the Burmese were always considered to be foreign invaders, as they spoke an entirely different language group – Tibeto-Burman. Because of these language/cultural differences, the Burmese were never able to maintain control for very long. They conquered Thailand in 1765, destroying everything that was precious. They were overthrown only four years later in 1769 by Phraya Taksin. This leader also re-conquered the north from Burma and united it with central Thailand. After his death in 1782 a new dynasty was formed, the Chakri, which has lasted to the present day.

Author: “Hmmm. It seems that the Thai speakers did not have the peaceful culture that my Person had imagined. The Thai speakers supplanted the Khmers as the dominant culture of Southeast Asia, not gently, but militarily. Indeed it seems that for the last thousand years Southeast Asia’s history was of relatively constant warfare between the Thai people, the Burmese, and the Khmers of Cambodia, not to mention the Chams of South Vietnam and the Annanese of North Vietnam.”

The Peaceful Thai people?

The next major turning point in Thai history was when the French and the English signed a treaty in the late 1800s declaring Thailand to be an autonomous neutral territory between Cambodia, which was ruled by the French, and Burma, which was ruled by the British. This allowed Thailand to develop peacefully surrounded by the stronger European military powers.

Author “I see. This is why Thailand prides itself on being the only country in Southeast Asia that was not colonized by European powers. Although the Thai government maintained its autonomy, the French governed Cambodia, Laos, and Vietnam; the British ruled Burma, Malaysia, India, and Ceylon; the Spanish were in control of the Philippines; the Dutch governed Indonesia.

I wonder why the European powers granted Thailand political autonomy? Perhaps the peaceful enlightened Thai people stood up to the bullying Western powers to maintain their independence - not selling out. Or maybe it had less to do with an innate peaceful nature of the Thai people and more to do with political necessity.

What’s the truth? Let me look a little deeper into Thailand's colonial period."

Colonial history: late 1800s

It seems that the real story is a little different. In the late 1800s, Siam, present day Thailand, had been warring with its neighbors for centuries. Indeed, the whole peninsula had been constantly at war, just like the rest of the world. For instance, the Vietnamese had been slowly spreading south, conquering as they came - first to go were the Cham, who inhabited present day South Vietnam. Who's next? Their sights were on Cambodia. The countries of the area had to concentrate much of their resources on maintaining an army to defend or attack one another. No one was innocent; everyone was involved – attacking, defending, re-attacking, defending again. Like everywhere else, each country attempted to get the upper hand on their neighbors.

Of course Thailand was a major player in these power struggles – a military power just like the rest. At the height of her power, Thailand expanded in all directions: conquering Laos in the north, Malaysia in the south, Burma in the west and Cambodia in the east. Then the ascendant Burmese, whom the Thais had previously dominated, seized Chiang Mai, her northern capital, for a few hundred years. In come the European powers, France and Britain - Britain expanding its influence from India eastward - France expanding from Vietnam westward. They collide at Thailand. Who gets this prize? To avoid war between themselves over their colonies, they establish Thailand as a neutral zone.

Even here Thailand was not innocent. In fact her militarism catalyzed the conflict. Seeing her traditional enemy, the Khmer of Cambodia, neutralized by the French, Siam had begun establishing military forts in Cambodia and Laos on the eastern side of the Mekong River - beyond her traditional boundaries. In 1892, the French, who had established these countries as protectorates, objected and demanded their removal. Thailand refused - won an early battle and then lost the war. French gunboats defeated the Thai and blockaded Bangkok. Consequently, the Thai government was forced to submit to the original French demands, which were, of course, extended. These conditions were formalized by a treaty signed in 1893.

The British became worried that the French were moving into their territory. After a series of negotiations, a treaty was signed between England and France at the Anglo-French Convention of 1896 guaranteeing Siam's independence. Simultaneously, this treaty began setting boundaries for the Indo-China peninsula. Over the next 20 years, treaties were signed between all the concerned parties. These negotiations established Siam's borders with her periodic enemies and neighbors in the west, east and south. While granting the Thai country more autonomy, these treaties also contracted her boundaries. Of course, many of the contracted boundaries were a return to what they had been before militarism expanded Thai borders.

In addition to granting Thai autonomy and preventing war between France and England over their colonies, these treaties also established Laos and Cambodia as independent political entities with France as the overseer. In other words, Laos and Cambodia became French Protectorates. As a result, these countries were off limits to the Thai and Vietnamese governments.

Innocent, valiant Thailand has another face when viewed from this perspective. To avoid a turf war, greater military forces restrain the local bully from beating up on her neighbors.

Thailand and their military in World War II

Unfortunately this was not the last time Thailand attempted to encroach upon her neighbor’s territory. Again in World War II, Thailand attempted to absorb parts of Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia.

Early in World War II, the Thai military was in ascendancy due to Japanese assistance and seized control of their own government. The military leaders, under Japanese influence, began clamoring for a return of all the land lost to the French in the treaties signed at the turn of the century. The military Thai government wanted parts of Laos and Cambodia all the way to Siem Riep, where Angkor Wat resides. The Japanese pressured the French to give this land to the militaristic Thai government. The wolf was in the chicken coop.

Then in 1942, after a five hour battle, Japan was given control over the Thai government and thereby all of Southeast Asia. During the war, the Japanese-controlled military government also claimed parts of British-controlled Burma and Malaysia for Thailand. With the defeat of the Japanese and the ascendancy of the West, all of the land was restored to the appropriate parties. (Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 20, 1961, SIAM; History: pp. 590-592)

While it would be easy to say that the evil Japanese were responsible for this aberration, it would be ignoring the military as a force in Thai affairs. The Thai military, the royal government, the democratic party, and the Buddhists have been four different forces that have worked together and against each other to create modern Thailand.

Southeast Asia: "My Author’s illusion that military aggression is foreign to the peaceful Thai personality was incredibly naïve. His experience with muy thai, Thai boxing, when he was in Chiang Mai, should have informed him of that. However, his exploration into the history of Thailand raised questions concerning the Khmer civilization, which led him to further research my part of the planet. Read the next chapter to find out what he uncovered."

 

Home    Southeast Asia Home    Chapters    Prior    Next    Comments