Western colonial powers dominated almost all of Southeast Asia at the beginning of the 20th century. Thailand was the only country to remain under local control. How did she accomplish this extraordinary feat? Was it due to her military prowess, her negotiating skills or just good luck? Let’s examine her history to see why.
In the 1st millennium, the Thai people formed the kingdom of Nan Chao in what is now southern China. The estimated time period of this Thai state is 650 CE to 1253 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. This created a virtual exodus of Thai-speaking people from southern China into the Southeast Asian mainland.
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 Khmer civilization based in Angkor.
Recall that in their ascendancy, the Khmer had gradually moved from their home base in Cambodia to extend their empire into what is now Thailand. The local inhabitants, the Mon, had never embraced the hierarchical Khmer rule, but had always considered them invaders. Having honed their military skills fighting the Chinese, the Vietnamese, and the Pyu of Myanmar, the Thai easily displaced the Khmer in the west. As Thai speakers flooded into what we call Thailand, the Khmer returned to Cambodia.
The Thai people established the kingdom of Siam, which was ruled by an unbroken succession of dynasties. Siam’s history can be divided 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.
The Thai began taking over Khmer coastal strongholds in the late 14th century and eventually conquered Angkor in 1431. The Thai people stripped the temples at Angkor of all their gems and gold. They took the Khmer riches to decorate their own temples in Ayutthaya. Ironically, this Theravada Buddhist nation, who supposedly believes in non-violence, pillaged the Khmer culture. The Thai kings of Chiang Mai in the north and Ayutthaya in the south also fought a war over the prosperous trade city of Sukhothai. Two Theravada nations that supposedly reject materialism as a way of life – fight it out over money. What’s the world coming to?
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 the entire mainland except Vietnam. Ayutthaya was one of the most prosperous cities in the world at this time.
As an aggressive culture, the Thai when strong expanded into neighboring territories, and contracted into their traditional borders when weak. Their most recent conflicts had been with Burma to their west in the 1700s. Propped up by European weapons, the Burmese attacked and conquered Thailand twice during the century.
However, the Burmese were considered foreign invaders, as they were of a different ethnicity, speaking a language in an entirely different family – Tibeto-Burman. Because of these ethnic differences, the Burmese rule was always transitory. 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.
The next major turning point in Thai history was when the French and the English signed a treaty in the late 1800s declaring Siam/Thailand to be an autonomous neutral territory between Cambodia, which was ruled by the French, and Burma, which was ruled by the British. This treaty allowed Siam to develop peacefully surrounded by the stronger European military powers.
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 United States was in control of the Philippines; and the Dutch governed Indonesia.
Why did the European powers grant Thailand political autonomy?
By the late 1800s, Siam, present day Thailand, had already 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 military sights were on the Khmer kingdom in Cambodia. Then the French Company seized control of Vietnam effectively neutralizing their desire to expand westward into the Khmer territory.
The countries of the area concentrated 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.
Enter the European powers, France and Britain. During this period Britain was expanding its influence from India eastward into Burma, while France was expanding from Vietnam westward into Cambodia. Thailand was in the middle of these expanding powers. Who gets this prize? To avoid a turf war between themselves over their colonies, they established Thailand as a neutral zone.
Even then, Thailand was not innocent. In fact her militarism catalyzed the conflict. Seeing her traditional rival, the Vietnamese, neutralized by the French, the Thai government decided to take advantage and expand eastward. To this end, they began 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 Southeast Asian mainland. 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 kingdom 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 of these treaties, these countries were off limits to the Thai government. To avoid a turf war, greater military forces restrained the local bully from beating up on her neighbors.
Thailand remained independent due to no efforts of her own, but through sheer luck. Her geography between two expanding colonial powers saved her autonomy. Nothing else.