Background Notes: Thailand

PA/PC Source: Office of Public Communication, Bureau of Public Affairs Date: Nov 28, 199111/28/91 Category: Country Data Region: Southeast Asia Country: Thailand Subject: Military Affairs, Cultural Exchange, Travel, History, International Organizations, Trade/Economics [TEXT] Official Name: Kingdom of Thailand
Area: 513,115 sq. km. (198,114 sq. mi.): about the size of Texas. Cities: Capital--Bangkok (pop. 6 million). Other cities--Chiang Mai (159,279), Hat Yai (142,166), Nakon Ratchasima (193,121). Terrain: Four general regions--a densely populated central plain watered by the Chao Phraya River system; a northeastern plateau bordered on the east by the Mekong River; a mountain range spanning the country in the west and separating the plain and plateau in east-central Thailand; and the southern isthmus joining the land mass with Malaysia. Climate: Tropical monsoon.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Thai(s). Population (1990): 57 million. Annual growth rate (1990): less than 1.6%. Ethnic groups: Thai 84%, Chinese 12%. Religions: Buddhist 95%, Muslim 3%. Languages: Thai, regional dialects. Education: Years compulsory--6. Attendance--96%. Literacy--89%. Health: Infant mortality rate-- 34/1,000. Life expectancy--64 years. Work force: 31 million. Agriculture--59%. Industry, commerce, services--26%. Government--8%.
Type: Constitutional monarchy. Constitution: Interim constitution. Independence: Never colonized. Branches: Executive--king (chief of state), prime minister (head of government). Legislative--interim National Legislative Assembly. Judicial--three levels of courts. Administrative subdivisions: 73 provinces subdivided into 602 districts. Political parties: Multiparty system; Communist Party is prohibited. Suffrage: Universal over 20. Central government budget: About $12 billion. Defense: 3% of GNP. Flag: Two red stripes at top and bottom, two white inner stripes, and wider blue band in middle.
GNP (1990): $79 billion. Annual growth rate: 10%. Per capita income: $1,400. Avg. inflation rate: 6%. Natural resources: Fisheries products, rubber, tin, natural gas, timber, lignite, zinc. Agriculture (12% of GNP): Products--rice, tapioca, corn, sugarcane, pineapple. Industries: Petroleum products, cement, textiles, integrated circuits, processed food, ball bearings, footwear. Trade: Exports--$23 billion: textiles, fisheries products, rubber, rice, jewelry and precious stones, tapioca, integrated circuits, sugar, footwear, canned pineapple. Major markets--US, Japan, EC, Singapore, Hong Kong. Imports--$33 billion: machinery and parts, petroleum, iron and steel, chemicals, vehicles and parts, jewelry, fish preparations, electrical appliances, fertilizers, and pesticides. Major suppliers--Japan, US, EC, Singapore, Taiwan, China, South Korea. Net services and unrequited transfers: Tourism expenditures--$5 billion; remittances from Thai workers abroad--$969 million. Exchange rate (1991): 25.5 baht=US$1.
International Affiliations
UN and some of its specialized agencies, including the World Bank group; General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT); Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN); Asian Development Bank; INTELSAT.


Thailand's population is relatively homogeneous. More than 85% of the people speak a dialect of Thai and share a common culture. This core population includes the Central Thai (36% of the population), Thai-Lao (32%), Northern (8%), and Southern Thai (8%). The language of the Central Thai population is the language taught in schools and used in government. Several other small Thai- speaking groups include the Shan, Lue, and Phutai. The largest minorities are the Chinese (about 12% of the population) and the Malay-speaking Muslims in the south (3%). Other groups include the Khmer, the Mon (who are substantially assimilated with the Thai), and the Vietnamese. Smaller, predominantly mountain-dwelling groups total about 500,000. The population is predominantly rural and heavily concentrated in the rice-growing areas of the central, northeastern, and northern regions. The urban population (13 million) is concentrated in Bangkok and adjacent provinces. While Thailand once had one of the world's fastest-growing populations, a highly successful government-sponsored family planning program resulted in a dramatic decline in the population growth rate from 3.1% in 1960 to less than 1.6% today. Over the same period, life expectancy increased from 51 years to over 64 years. Universal free public education is compulsory for 6 years. Education is the third largest item in the Thai budget, accounting for 16% of the total. In 1985, 96% of primary and 30% of secondary school-age children were enrolled in school, and about 6% were in universities or colleges. The focus on education also has resulted in a substantially higher adult literacy rate. According to World Bank data, the adult literacy rate had risen to 89% by 1980, as compared to 50% only 20 years earlier. Theravada Buddhism is the religion of more than 90% of the Thai. The government permits religious freedom, however, and numerous other religions are represented. Spirit worship and animism are important in Thai religious life.


Southeast Asia has been inhabited for more than half a million years. Recent archeological studies suggest that by 4000 BC, communities in what is now Thailand had emerged as centers of early bronze metallurgy. This accomplishment, together with the cultivation of wet rice, provided the impetus for social and political organization. New evidence suggests that these early technological innovations may have originated in Thailand and other places in Southeast Asia and been transmitted to China, not vice versa as long believed. The Thai language links groups in southern China and modern Thailand. Strong evidence exists of migrations from southern China to Southeast Asia in AD 6th and 7th centuries, but earlier migrations, possibly from south to north, are less well understood. Thailand's early history was a complex struggle for territory and power among the Malay, Thai, Mon, and Khmer (Cambodian) peoples. The Thai date the founding of their nation to the 13th century. According to tradition, in 1238, Thai chieftains overthrew the Khmer at Sukhothai, establishing the Thai kingdom. Following the political decline of the Sukhothai kingdom with the death of its energetic King Ramkhamhaeng (Rama the Great), a new, centralized Thai kingdom emerged in 1350 with its center at Ayutthaya on the Chao Phraya River. Rama Thibodi, the first ruler of the Ayutthaya kingdom, made two extremely important contributions to Thai history: the establishment and promotion of Theravada Buddhism as the official religion and the compilation of the Dharmashastra, a legal code based on Hindu sources and on Thai custom. The Dharmashastra remained in effect until the late 19th century. The Ayutthaya kingdom had some contact with the West, beginning with the Portuguese in the 16th century, but relations with other Southeast Asian nations were of primary importance until the 19th century. In the late 18th century, Burmese armies overwhelmed the kingdom. Rama I, founder of the present ruling dynasty and one of the leaders who eventually drove out the Burmese, established the capitol, Bangkok, at its present location in 1782. His successors, especially after the British victory in Burma in 1826, became increasingly preoccupied with the threat of European colonialism. It is a source of great pride to the Thai that theirs is the only country in South and Southeast Asia never colonized by a Western power. The Thai understood the necessity of flexibility and adaptability. Believing that "the strength of bamboo was its ability to bend with the wind," they adapted themselves to the pressures of foreign powers to preserve the nation's independence. Rama III recognized Western power with negotiation of the Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the British in 1826. The United States began diplomatic exchanges with Siam--as Thailand was called until 1938--in 1833. More important steps in this direction were made by Rama IV, known in the West as King Mongkut, and by Rama V (King Chulalongkorn), who carried out a virtual revolution of modernization in the government during the last quarter of the 19th century. These monarchs combined diplomatic skill with recognition of the need to modernize the state structure, making it possible for Siam to survive as an independent state. The 1932 revolution transformed the government from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. The transition was smooth and nonviolent primarily because the ruling monarch, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII), advocated the transfer of power in response to changing political conditions. European predominance in Southeast Asia was challenged in the 20th century by the Japanese. When Japan struck at the Philippines and Malaya in December 1941, it also invaded Thailand. Faced with overwhelming Japanese power, which quickly caused the collapse of Western forces in the area, Thailand acceded to Japanese demands. Although nominally allied with Japan during World War II, Thailand was effectively an occupied country. Japan's defeat in 1945 was followed by an era of increasingly close relations with the United States, which had extended assistance to Thailand in the immediate post-war period. Thailand saw the victory of communist forces on mainland China in 1949 as a potential threat to its independence, and it became an active participant, along with the United States, in efforts to check communist expansion in Southeast Asia. Since 1975, Thailand has served as a country of first asylum for hundreds of thousands of refugees from communist Indochina. For these humanitarian practices, Thailand has received acclaim from international organizations supporting refugee relief. The present monarch, His Majesty King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX), and Queen Sirikit have four children, including one son, Prince Vajiralong-korn, who was invested as crown prince in December 1972.


In February 1991, a bloodless military coup toppled the elected civilian government, abolishing the constitution and national assembly. The military leaders established a National Peacekeeping Council, which in turn appointed a largely civilian transitional cabinet and an interim National Legislative Assembly. The assembly is reviewing a draft permanent constitution, which may be promulgated by the end of 1991. The interim constitution now in effect calls for elections for a civilian government by April 1992, including a permanent legislative assembly, which will select a new cabinet. The king has little direct power, but he is an important popular symbol of national identity and unity. He appoints a privy council to advise him and, under certain conditions, to appoint a regent for the exercise of royal powers. The legal system, which has not been affected by the coup, blends principles of traditional Thai and Western laws; Koranic law is applied in the far south, where Muslims constitute the majority of the population. The Supreme Court is the highest court of appeals, and its judges are appointed by the king. Thailand's 73 provinces include the metropolis of greater Bangkok. While Bangkok's governor is popularly elected, those of the remaining provinces are career civil servants appointed by the Ministry of Interior.
Principal Government Officials
Chief of State--King Bhumibol Adulyadej (Rama IX) Prime Minister--Anand Panyarachun Minister of Foreign Affairs--Asa Sarasin Ambassador to the US--Birabhongse Kasemsri Ambassador to the UN--Nitya Pibulsonggram Thailand maintains an embassy in the United States at 2300 Kalorama Rd. NW, Washington, DC, 20008 (tel: 202-483-7200). Consulates are located in New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles.


Thailand has one of the developing world's strongest economies. Since the 1960s, the annual economic growth rate has averaged over 7% in real terms. In the late 1980s, annual growth accelerated to 9-10% as exports and investments in Thailand benefited from the realignment of East Asian currency values. Although Thailand has traditionally had an agrarian-based economy, its manufacturing and service sectors have grown tremendously in size and significance. The economy is basically a free-enterprise system. Certain services are state-owned enterprises (e.g., electricity, telecommunications, railways, port authority, and the national air carrier). The Royal Thai Government welcomes foreign investment, and investors who are willing to meet certain requirements regarding local content or ownership can apply for special investment privileges through the Board of Investment. The labor movement is fairly weak in Thailand; only 3% of the work force is unionized. Agriculture and fishery production continue to play a significant role in the Thai economy. Rice remains the country's most important crop. More than half of the population depends on the cultivation of rice for their livelihood, although the percentage is decreasing. Other agricultural commodities produced in significant amounts are fish and fishery products, cassava (tapioca), rubber, maize (corn), and sugar. Exports of processed foods (such as canned tuna, frozen shrimp, and canned pineapples) have increased dramatically. Thailand's manufacturing sector has grown tremendously in recent years. The recent realignment of currency values in East Asia has made Thailand an attractive site for investment, especially by Japanese and Taiwanese manufacturers. Textiles are the country's largest export item. Integrated circuits, footwear, jewelry, and ball bearings also are important manufactured exports. A wide range of factories and assembly plants produce such goods as electric and electronic appliances, building supplies, and automobiles for the Thai domestic market. Rapid economic growth in recent years has led to a much higher level of trade with other countries. Between 1987 and 1991, exports more than doubled as imports increased almost 200%. Thailand's largest export market is the United States, with which it has a trade surplus; the value of that surplus has grown significantly in recent years. Japan is the second largest export market and largest import supplier. Other major trading partners are the European Community, Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China. Thailand's principal imports, machinery and parts, reflect the large-scale investments being made by foreign, particularly Japanese, manufactures. As a result, Thailand has been running an overall merchandise trade deficit. The deficit is to some degree offset by earnings from tourism and remittances from Thai workers abroad. Tourism is Thailand's single largest earner of foreign exchange. In the late 1980s, earnings from tourism tripled, in large part due to the publicity associated with "Visit Thailand Year" in 1987-88. Many new luxury hotels and other tourist facilities have opened in order to serve the growing number of tourists from Japan, Europe, the United States, and Taiwan. Foreign investment plays a significant role in the Thai economy. The single largest foreign investment--that by Union Oil of California--is an estimated $3 billion investment in the development of gas fields in the Gulf of Thailand. Many large multinational electronics companies have set up production in Thailand; international brands manufactured there are sold on the local market. Thailand's favorable economic prospects and excellent credit rating allow it to borrow commercially at highly favorable rates. Additionally, Thailand has received official credits from foreign governments and from multilateral financial institutions, such as the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank. While some problems with external debt levels were encountered in the early 1980s, prudent fiscal policies and rapid economic growth since have enabled Thailand to cut the debt service ratio almost in half, and, by 1991, the debt service ratio stood at the manageable level of about 9%. Thailand is a member of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) and actively supports the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations. It is a member of the Cairns group of agricultural exporters. Although the Association of Southeastern Asian Nations (ASEAN) has set up preferential trading arrangements, the trade profiles of the ASEAN members (including Thailand) are competitive rather than complementary, and the majority of Thai trade continues to be with Japan, the United States, and the EC. Bangkok and its environs have traditionally been by far the richest part of Thailand and the infertile northeast the poorest. One of the overriding concerns of successive Thai governments has been to reduce regional income differentials, which have been exacerbated by rapid economic growth in and around Bangkok in recent years. In response, the government has tried to encourage the decentralization of economic activity out of Bangkok. However, many feel that for the foreseeable future, the economic opportunities available in Bangkok will continue to outpace those in the provinces by a considerable margin. Although predictions are always difficult, it is likely that Thailand's economy will continue on its path of rapid growth and industrialization. A possible obstacle to sustained rapid growth would be infrastructural capacity constraints, which are increasingly evident in telecommunication, roadway, electricity generation, and port systems. Another possible problem area would be the shortage of engineers and skilled technical personnel.


The army, navy, and air force stress the defense of Thailand from external attack as their primary duty and internal security and national development as important secondary missions. The armed forces have a combined strength of about 294,000 personnel. The government spends about 16% of its budget on defense. Expenditures in fiscal year 1991 totaled $2.4 billion, about 3% of the GNP. The US foreign military sales (FMS) program, the primary source of modern military equipment for Thailand, has contributed to the continued improvement of the capability of the Thai military to counter potential threats to the country's territorial security. Due to a declining trend in US military assistance in recent years, FMS purchases are now largely financed out of Thailand's own budgetary resources. In addition, the two countries maintain a vigorous bilateral exercise program involving all the military services of each country.


Thailand's history of freedom from formal Western colonialism sets the country apart from its neighbors. Pursuit of the national interest through flexible and pragmatic diplomacy continues to be the keystone of government policy. The country's foreign policy includes support for ASEAN in the interest of regional stability and emphasis on the security relationship with the United States. Thailand participates in international and regional organizations. It has developed increasingly close ties with other ASEAN members--Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Brunei--whose foreign and economic ministers hold annual meetings. Regional cooperation is progressing in economic, trade, banking, political, and cultural matters. Since the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia in early 1979, that conflict has been Thailand's primary regional foreign policy concern. Following negotiations throughout 1991, a peace agreement was signed in Paris in October 1991. Successful implementation would allow for the repatriation of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians displaced by the conflict, and perhaps an end to the flow of refugees from Vietnam and Laos, which has been a pressing foreign policy issue for Thailand.


Official US-Thai relations date from 1833, when the two countries signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce, the first US treaty with an Asian country. Since World War II, the United States and Thailand have developed close relations in many fields, as reflected in several bilateral treaties and both countries' participation in many multilateral activities and agreements under the UN aegis. The principal bilateral arrangement in force is the Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations signed in 1966. Other important agreements cover air transport, civil uses of atomic energy, sales of agricultural commodities, investment guarantees, and military and economic assistance. While numerous areas of agreement exist and serve to strengthen understanding and cooperation between the United States and Thailand, US calls for Thailand to play a role in the world economic structure commensurate with its industrial diversification and growing economic importance have given rise to trade frictions and strains on otherwise very good bilateral relations. Particularly since 1985, and as part of a global policy enjoying bipartisan support in the United States, the US Government has sought improvements in the Thai regime for protecting US intellectual property comparable to those standards achieved in other East Asian countries. Progress has been made, but further efforts are required. The United States also initiated a dialogue with Thailand on promoting worker rights in response to recent US legislation linking these rights with US trade policy. The United States also continues to seek improved access for US products and services in the Thai market. In recent years, as the worldwide campaign against trafficking in illicit narcotics and dangerous drugs has become increasingly important, the United States and Thailand have worked together and with the United Nations in a broad range of programs. A memorandum of understanding was signed in 1971 affirming US- Thai cooperation, and a strengthened Thai enforcement program has resulted. With US support, this program has registered a number of successful seizures and arrests as part of an effort to interdict the flow of illicit opiates out of the remote jungle area where Burma, Laos, and Thailand meet (the so-called Golden Triangle). In recent years, the Thai Government has undertaken an active program to eradicate opium planted in its territory. The United States and Thailand are among the signatories of the 1954 Manila pact. Article IV(1) of this treaty provides that, in the event of armed attack in the treaty area (which includes Thailand), each member would "act to meet the common danger in accordance with its constitutional processes." Despite the dissolution of the South East Asia Treaty Organization in 1977, the Manila pact remains in force and, together with the Thanat-Rusk communique of 1962, constitutes the basis of the US security commitment to Thailand. During Thai Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan's visit to the United States in June 1990, President Bush reaffirmed US support for the Manila pact. Thailand's stability and independence are important to the maintenance of peace in the region. Economic assistance has been extended in various fields, including rural development, health, family planning, education, and science and technology. The US Peace Corps program in Thailand has about 170 volunteers, almost half of whom teach English. The remainder are engaged in education, agricultural and rural development, and health programs. Thailand has received US military equipment, essential supplies, training, and assistance in the construction and improvement of facilities and installations since 1950. A small US military advisory group in Thailand oversees the delivery of equipment to the Thai armed forces and the training of Thai military personnel in its use and maintenance. As required by law, the bulk of US military and other assistance to Thailand was suspended following the February 1991 coup. In FY 1990, the US provided $3 million in military assistance grants and $2.2 million for military education and training. As part of their mutual defense cooperation, Thailand and the United States over the last decade have developed a vigorous bilateral military exercise program, which engages all the services of each nation and now averages 40 joint exercises per year. The annual schedule is highlighted by Cobra Gold, which is the second largest bilateral exercise in which the US participates in the Pacific region.
Principal US Officials
Ambassador--David F. Lambertson Deputy Chief of Mission--Victor L. Tomseth Counselor for Political Affairs--Ralph L. Boyce Counselor for Economic Affairs--John Medeiros Counselor for Administrative Affairs--Jose Cao-Garcia Commercial Counselor--Herbert A. Cochran Agricultural Attache--Richard K. Petges Public Affairs--Donna Marie Oglesby Director, US Agency for International Development Mission--Thomas H. Reese, III Defense Attache--Col. William P. Kinnear, Jr., USAF Chief, Joint US Military Advisory Group--Brig. Gen. Robert Lewis Stephens, Jr., USA Consul General--James C. Struble The US Embassy in Thailand is located at 95 Wireless Road, Bangkok (tel. 252-5040/5171). Consulates are at Chiang Mai, Vidhyanond Road (tel. 252-629/30-33); Songkhla, 9 Sadao Road (tel. 311-589); and Udorn, 35/6 Supakitjanya Road (tel. 221-548).
Travel Notes
Entry Requirements and Customs. A valid passport is required. US visitors are admitted without visas for a stay of 15 days or less; for longer stays, a visa appropriate for the purpose of the visit (e.g., tourism, business, student) must be obtained before arrival. No immunizations are required; however, travelers to rural areas may wish to take typhoid, tetanus, rabies, gamma globulin, and cholera shots and a malaria preventative. Customs prohibits the export of religious images, regardless of the age of the item. A Thai government permit is required to take antiques out of the country. Narcotics and the Law. Thailand has an extremely strict anti- narcotics law that provides for severe sentences, including the death penalty, for narcotics traffickers and users. Several hundred foreigners are imprisoned in Thailand on narcotics charges, a number of whom are serving life sentences. Climate and Clothing. Lightweight, washable clothing is comfortable and practical for Bangkok's tropical climate. In northern Thailand, a jacket or sweater is needed during the cool season. Health. Hospitals are available for routine treatment. Mosquitoes are plentiful, but malaria is not a problem in Bangkok. Hepatitis is fairly common in Thailand. Avoid tapwater, raw milk, ice cream, uncooked meats, and unwashed fruits and vegetables. Telecommunications. Good 24-hour telephone service to the US is available at the Central Radio Telephone Service of the General Post Office. Telegrams can be sent from any post office and many hotels. Bangkok is 12 hours ahead of eastern standard time. Transportation. Flights are available from the US to Bangkok via Tokyo and Hong Kong. Principal cities within Thailand can be reached by air, and many towns and cities are served by comfortable, dependable trains. Buses, taxis, rental cars, and samlors (three-wheeled motor vehicles) can be hired in Bangkok. Agree on the fare before entering a taxi or samlor. Local transportation in small towns is more often by pedicab than by taxi. Highways vary in quality from modern divided highways to unpaved, ungraded roads that may be impassable in the rainy season. Traffic moves on the left. Tourist Attractions. Bangkok offers its visitors the opportunity to visit many royal and religious monuments, including the Grand Palace compound and the temples of the Golden Buddha and the Reclining Buddha. Outside the capital, the northern city of Chiang Mai (644 km./386 mi. from Bangkok) is the gateway to excursions into the villages of the Thai hill tribe peoples. Ayutthaya, the old capital city, has many ancient temples. Beach resorts include well-developed facilities in Pattaya (80 km./48 mi. southeast of Bangkok) and Phuket (862 km./517 mi. southwest of Bangkok). National Holidays. Thai business establishments (and the US Embassy) may be closed on holidays set by the lunar calendar, which changes from year to year. Check with the Thai Embassy or consulates for exact dates. Published by the United States Department of State -- Bureau of Public Affairs -- Office of Public Communication -- Washington, DC --Series Editor: Peter Knecht--Department of State Publication Background Notes Series. This material is in the public domain and may be reprinted without permission; citation of this source is appreciated. For sale by the Superintendent of Documents, US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC 20402.(###)