Background Notes: Thailand, October 1998
Released by the Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs
U.S. Department of State
OFFICIAL NAME: Kingdom of Thailand
Area: 513,115 sq. km. (198,114 sq. mi.); about the size of Texas.
Cities (1996): Capital--Bangkok (pop. 9 million est.). Other
cities--Chiang Mai (83,000), Hat Yai (135,000), Nakon Ratchasima
Terrain: Densely populated central plain; northeastern plateau;
mountain range in the west; southern isthmus joins the land mass
Climate: Tropical monsoon.
Nationality: Noun and adjective--Thai(s).
Population (1996): 61 million.
Annual growth rate: 1.1%.
Ethnic groups: Thai 89%, other 11%.
Religions: Buddhist 95%, Muslim 4%, Christian, Hindu, other.
Languages: Thai (official language); English is the second
language of the elite; regional dialects.
Education: Years compulsory--9. Literacy--93%.
Health (1996): Infant mortality rate--6/1,000. Life expectancy--
67.3 yrs. male, 71 yrs. female.
Type: Constitutional monarchy.
Constitution: New constitution promulgated October 11, 1997.
Independence: Never colonized; traditional founding date 1238.
Branches: Executive--king (chief of state), prime minister (head
of government). Legislative--National Assembly (bicameral).
Judicial--three levels of courts; highest is Supreme Court
Administrative subdivisions: 76 provinces, including Bangkok
municipality, subdivided into 794 districts.
Political parties: Multi-party system; Communist Party is
Suffrage: Universal at 18.
GDP (1997): $153.9 billion; (1998, projected): $140 billion.
Annual growth rate (1997): 0.4%; (1998, projected): -7%.
Per capita income (1997): $2,062.
Natural resources: Tin, rubber, natural gas, tungsten, tantalum,
timber, lead, fish, gypsum, lignite, fluorite.
Agriculture (11% of GDP): Products--rice, tapioca, rubber, corn,
sugarcane, coconuts, soybeans.
Industries: Tourism, textiles, garments, agricultural processing,
cement, integrated circuits, jewelry.
Trade (1995): Exports--$56 billion: textiles and footwear,
fishery products, computers and parts, jewelry, rice, tapioca
products, integrated circuits, rubber. Major markets--U.S.,
Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, EU. Imports--$70.8 billion:
machinery and parts, petroleum, iron and steel, chemicals,
vehicles and parts, jewelry, fish preparations, electrical
appliances, fertilizers and pesticides. Major suppliers--Japan,
U.S., Singapore, Taiwan, Germany, South Korea, EU.
Thailand's population is relatively homogeneous. More than 85%
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 Thai (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 of the south (3%).
Other groups include the Khmer, the Mon (who are substantially
assimilated with the Thai), and the Vietnamese. Smaller,
predominantly mountain-dwelling tribes, such as the Hmong, Karen,
and Mein, number about 500,000.
The population is mostly rural, concentrated in the rice-growing
areas of the central, northeastern, and northern regions.
However, as Thailand continues to industrialize, its urban
population (18% of total population, principally in the Bangkok
area), is growing.
Thailand's highly successful government-sponsored family planning
program has resulted in a dramatic decline in population growth
from 3.1% in 1960 to around 1.1% today. Life expectancy has also
risen--a positive reflection of Thailand's efforts at public
health education. However, the AIDS epidemic has had a major
impact on the Thai population. Thai Government officials
estimate that Thailand has between 200,000 and 400,000 HIV
carriers. Chiang Rai Province in the north may have an infection
rate as high as 15%. In recent years, the Thai Government has
devoted substantial resources toward AIDS education and
Universal, free public education is compulsory for a period of
nine years. Education accounts for 16% of total government
expenditures. Current figures indicate that 93% of the adult
population is literate.
Theravada Buddhism is the official religion of Thailand and is
the religion of more than 90% of its people. The government
permits religious diversity, and other major religions are
represented. Spirit worship and animism are widely practiced.
Southeast Asia has been inhabited for more than half a million
years. Recent archaeological studies suggest that by 4000 B.C.,
communities in what is now Thailand had emerged as centers of
early bronze metallurgy. This development, along with the
cultivation of wet rice, provided the impetus for social and
political organization. Research suggests that these innovations
may actually have been transmitted from there to the rest of
Asia, including to China.
The Thai are related linguistically to groups originating in
southern China. Migrations from southern China to Southeast Asia
may have occurred in the 6th and 7th centuries. Malay, Mon, and
Khmer civilizations flourished in the region prior to the arrival
of the ethnic Thai.
Thais date the founding of their nation to the 13th century.
According to tradition, in 1238, Thai chieftains overthrew their
Khmer overlords at Sukhothai and established a Thai kingdom.
After its decline, a new Thai kingdom emerged in 1350 on the Chao
The first ruler of the Kingdom of Ayutthaya, King Rama Thibodi,
made two important contributions to Thai history: the
establishment and promotion of Theravada Buddhism as the official
religion (to differentiate his kingdom from the neighboring Hindu
kingdom of Angkor), and the compilation of the Dharmashastra, a
legal code based on Hindu sources and traditional Thai custom.
The Dharmashastra remained a tool of Thai law until late in the
19th century. Beginning with the Portuguese in the 16th century,
Ayutthaya had some contact with the West, but until the 1800s,
its relations with neighboring nations, as well as with India and
China, were of primary importance.
After more than 400 years of power, in 1767, the Kingdom of
Ayutthaya was brought down by invading Burmese armies, and its
capital burned. After a single-reign capital established at
Thonburi by Taksin, a new capital city was founded in 1782,
across the Chao Phraya at the site of present-day Bangkok, by the
founder of the Chakri dynasty. The first Chakri king was crowned
Rama I. Rama's heirs became increasingly concerned with the
threat of European colonialism after British victories in
neighboring Burma in 1826.
The first Thai recognition of Western power in the region was the
Treaty of Amity and Commerce with the United Kingdom in 1826. In
1833, the United States began diplomatic exchanges with Siam (as
Thailand was called until 1938). However, it was during the
later reigns of Rama IV (or King Mongkut (1851-1868)), and his
son Rama V (King Chulalongkorn (1868-1910)), that Thailand
established firm rapprochement with Western powers. The Thais
believe that the diplomatic skills of these monarchs, combined
with the modernizing reforms of the Thai Government, made Siam
the only country in South and Southeast Asia to avoid European
In 1932, a bloodless coup transformed the Government of Thailand
from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy. King Prajadhipok
(Rama VII) initially accepted this change but later surrendered
the kingship to his 10-year old nephew. Upon his abdication,
King Prajadhipok said that the obligation of a ruler was to reign
for the good of the whole people, not for a select few. Although
nominally a constitutional monarchy, Thailand was ruled by a
series of military governments interspersed with brief periods of
democracy from that time until the 1992 elections. Since the
1992 elections, Thailand has been a functioning democracy with
constitutional changes of government.
As with the rest of Southeast Asia, Thailand was occupied by the
Japanese during the Second World War. Since Japan's defeat in
1945, Thailand has had very close relations with the United
States. Threatened by communist revolutions in neighboring
countries such as Burma, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, Thailand
actively sought to contain communist expansion in the region.
Recently, Thailand also has been an active member in the regional
Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN).
GOVERNMENT AND POLITICAL CONDITIONS
The king has little direct power under the constitution but is a
symbol of national identity and unity. The present monarch--who
has been on the throne for 52 years--commands enormous popular
respect and moral authority, which he has used on occasion to
resolve political crises that have threatened national stability.
Thailand's legal system 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 76 provinces include the metropolis of greater
Bangkok. Bangkok's governor is popularly elected, but those of
the remaining provinces are career civil servants appointed by
the ministry of interior.
Following the 1932 revolution which imposed constitutional limits
on the monarchy, Thai politics were dominated for half a century
by a military and bureaucratic elite. Changes of government were
effected primarily by means of a long series of mostly bloodless
Beginning with a brief experiment in democracy during the mid-
1970s, civilian democratic political institutions slowly gained
greater authority, culminating in 1988 when Chatichai Choonavan--
leader of the Thai Nation Party--assumed office as the country's
first democratically elected prime minister in more than a
decade. Three years later, yet another bloodless coup ended his
Shortly afterward, the military appointed Anand Panyarachun, a
businessman and former diplomat, to head a largely civilian
interim government and promised to hold elections in the near
future. However, following inconclusive elections, former army
commander Suchinda Kraprayoon was appointed prime minister.
Thais reacted to the appointment by demanding an end to military
influence in government. Demonstrations were violently
suppressed by the military; in May 1992, soldiers killed at least
Domestic and international reaction to the violence forced
Suchinda to resign, and the nation once again turned to Anand
Panyarachun, who was named interim prime minister until new
elections in September 1992. In those elections, the political
parties that had opposed the military in May 1992 won by a narrow
majority, and Chuan Leekpai, a leader of the Democratic Party,
became Prime Minister. Chuan dissolved Parliament in May 1995,
and the Thai Nation Party won the largest number of parliamentary
seats in subsequent elections. Party leader Banharn Silpa-archa,
became Prime Minister, but held the office only little more than
a year. Following elections held in November 1996, Chavalit
Youngchaiyudh formed a coalition government and became Prime
The onset of the Asian financial crisis caused a loss of
confidence in the Chavalit government and forced him to hand over
power to Chuan Leekpai in November 1997. Chuan formed a
coalition government based on the themes of prudent economic
management and reform of the political system. So far, Chuan has
been able to adhere to the IMF prescriptions and push through
constitutional reforms, but his coalition remains vulnerable
during the prolongation of the current economic contraction.
Principal Government Officials
Chief of State--Bhumibol Adulyadej
Prime Minister--Chuan Leekpai
Minister of Foreign Affairs--Surin Pitsuwan
Ambassador to the U.S.--Nitya Pibulsonggram
Ambassador to the UN--Asda Jayanama
Thailand maintains an embassy in the United States at 1024
Wisconsin Ave. NW, Washington DC 20007 (tel. 202-944-3600).
Consulates are located in New York City, Chicago, and Los
The ongoing region-wide Asian financial crisis, which began for
Thailand with the floating of the baht in July 1997, has created
uncertainty and difficulties for Thailand's economy. After years
of impressive economic growth--averaging 9.4% for the decade up
to 1996--the Thai economy may contract by 7% to 9% during 1998,
and recovery next year will be anemic at best. Prospects for
recovery depend, in part, on recovery of the Japanese economy and
a strong export demand for Thai manufactured goods. The Thai
have focussed on restructuring their financial sector and
stimulating domestic demand. Continued liquidity problems plague
the real sector, and the Thai government aimed for a budget
deficit of 3% of GDP through increased spending on economic
stimulus projects. The Thai government expects improved macro-
economic fundamentals to translate into renewed growth and a
modest rise in the GDP in 1999.
Before the financial crisis, manufacturing led the growth of the
Thai economy. Relatively abundant and inexpensive labor and
natural resources, fiscal conservatism, open foreign investment
policies, and encouragement of the private sector underlay the
economic success in the years up to 1997. The economy is
essentially a free-enterprise system. Certain services, such as
power generation, transportation, and communications, are state-
owned and operated, but the government is considering privatizing
them in the wake of the financial crisis.
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. To attract
additional foreign investment, the RTG has proposed changes in
the investment law.
The organized labor movement remains weak and divided in
Thailand; only 3% of the work force is unionized. In 1991, the
State Enterprise Labor Relations Act (SELRA) prohibited state
industry laborers from forming unions or engaging in acts of
"confederation." The Chuan Administration has sought to allay
ensuing international criticism of this policy by spearheading an
amendment process to the SELRA. As of this writing, SELRA
legislation allowing public sector unions passed the Parliament
but remains vulnerable to a constitutional challenge.
More than 60% of Thailand's labor force is employed in
agriculture. Until the onset of the economic crisis in 1997, the
manufacturing sector was outstripping agriculture in relative
importance. But throughout 1997 and 1998 agriculture has been
the only high-performing sector in the economy. Rice is the
country's most important crop--Thailand is a major exporter in
the world rice market. Other agricultural commodities produced
in significant amounts include fish and fishery products,
tapioca, rubber, corn, and sugar. Exports of processed foods
such as canned tuna, pineapples, and frozen shrimp have risen
Thailand's increasingly diversified manufacturing sector made the
largest contribution during the nation's economic boom.
Industries registering rapid increases in production included
computers and electronics, garments and footwear, furniture, wood
products, canned food, toys, plastic products, gems, and jewelry.
These industries are expected to be the leading Thai exports once
economic recovery is under way.
The United States is Thailand's largest export market and second-
largest supplier after Japan. While Thailand's traditional major
markets have been North America, Japan, and Europe, the recent
creation of an ASEAN Free Trade Area (AFTA) has enabled Thailand
to expand trade with its neighbors; however, while volumes have
increased, the dollar value of this trade has actually fallen
during 1997-1998. Recovery from the financial crisis depends
heavily on increased exports to the rest of Asia and the U.S.
Machinery and parts, electronic integrated circuits, chemicals,
crude oil and fuels, and iron and steel are among Thailand's
principal imports. As much of this import volume fed the
manufacturing and export cycle, import levels have decreased
dramatically during 1997-1998, as liquidity has dried up almost
Thailand is a member of the General Agreement on Tariffs and
Trade (GATT), and the Cairns Group of agricultural exporters.
Tourism is Thailand's single-largest foreign exchange earner,
producing about $5.6 billion in 1993.
Bangkok and its environs are the most prosperous part of
Thailand, and the infertile northeast is the poorest. An
overriding concern of successive Thai Governments, and a
particularly strong focus of the current government, has been to
reduce these regional income differentials, which have been
exacerbated by rapid economic growth in and around Bangkok and
the financial crisis. The government tried to stimulate
provincial economic growth with programs such as the Eastern
Seaboard project and developing an alternate deep-sea port on
Thailand's southern peninsula. It is also conducting discussions
with Malaysia to focus on economic development along the Thai-
Return to growth rates of the early 1990's is not likely anytime
soon. Recovery from the current economic downturn could take at
least a year and depends on restructuring the financial sector,
attracting foreign investment, and increasing exports of
manufactured goods. Problems of infrastructure, evident before
the financial crisis, will constrain future growth.
Telecommunications, roadways, electricity generation, and ports
showed increasing strain and bottlenecks during the period of
sustained economic growth. Thailand's growing shortage of
engineers and skilled technical personnel threatens its future
technological creativity and productivity.
Thailand's foreign policy includes support for ASEAN in the
interest of regional stability and emphasis on a close and long-
standing security relationship with the United States.
Thailand participates fully in international and regional
organizations. It has developed increasingly close ties with
other ASEAN members-- Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines,
Singapore, Brunei, Laos, Burma, and Vietnam--whose foreign and
economic ministers hold annual meetings. Regional cooperation is
progressing in economic, trade, banking, political, and cultural
After the Vietnamese occupation of Cambodia in early 1979, the
Cambodian civil conflict was Thailand's primary regional foreign
policy concern. For more than a decade Thailand provided
humanitarian relief for displaced Cambodians along the Thai-
Cambodian border. Following negotiations throughout 1991, a
peace agreement was signed in Paris in October 1991. Following
this, hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were repatriated, and
elections were held in Cambodia in 1993. Developments in
Cambodia since the political upheaval of July 1997 remain a key
concern for Thai policymakers.
Since World War II, the United States and Thailand have developed
close relations, as reflected in several bilateral treaties and
by both countries' participation in UN multilateral activities
and agreements. The principal bilateral arrangement is the 1966
Treaty of Amity and Economic Relations, which facilitates U.S.
and Thai companies' economic access. Other important agreements
address civil uses of atomic energy, sales of agricultural
commodities, investment guarantees, and military and economic
The United States and Thailand are among the signatories of the
1954 Manila pact of the former Southeast Asia Treaty Organization
(SEATO). 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 SEATO in 1977, the Manila pact remains in
force and, together with the Thanat-Rusk communique of 1962,
constitutes the basis of U.S. security commitments to Thailand.
Thailand continues to be a key security ally in Asia, along with
Australia, Japan, and South Korea.
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. However,
the bilateral aid program is now being phased out, as Thailand
becomes more developed. The U.S. Peace Corps in Thailand has
about 45 volunteers, focused on primary education, with an
integrated program involving teacher training, health education
and environmental education.
Thailand has received U.S. military equipment, essential
supplies, training, and assistance in the construction and
improvement of facilities and installations since 1950. In
recent years, U.S. security assistance has consisted of military
training programs carried out primarily in the U.S. A small U.S.
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 part of their mutual defense cooperation over the last decade,
Thailand and the United States have developed a vigorous joint
military exercise program, which engages all the services of each
nation and now averages 40 joint exercises per year.
Thailand is a route for Golden Triangle--the intersection of
Burma, Laos, and Thailand--heroin trafficking to international
markets, including the United States. While Thailand is no
longer a significant opium producer, money laundering, police and
military corruption, and a continuing narcotics flow out of Burma
have hindered efforts to limit its role as a transfer point.
The United States and Thailand work closely together and with the
United Nations on a broad range of programs to halt the flow of
narcotics. A memorandum of understanding was signed in 1971
affirming U.S.-Thai cooperation, resulting in a strengthened Thai
enforcement program. With U.S. support, Thailand has a good
record in crop control, law enforcement, and demand reduction but
would benefit from greater efforts to stem money laundering.
TRADE AND INVESTMENT
Trade, long an engine of Thailand's economic growth, is down
considerably from pre-crisis levels. Thailand's trade balance
returned to positive territory in the first half of 1998, but
this resulted from a collapse of imports rather than a surge of
export goods. The U.S., Japan, ASEAN, and the EU remain
Thailand's largest trading partners. The U.S. is Thailand's
largest export market, taking 20% of Thai exports.
Japan is Thailand's largest foreign investor, followed by Hong
Kong and the U.S. American investment, concentrated in the
petroleum and chemicals, finance and automobile production
sectors, is estimated slightly in excess of $16 billion.
While many areas of agreement strengthen understanding and
cooperation between the United States and Thailand, U.S. calls
for Thailand to play a role in the world economic structure
proportionate with its industrial diversification and growing
economic importance have led to trade frictions and strains on
otherwise excellent bilateral relations. Thailand has made
considerable progress in improving legal protections for
intellectual property. In recognition of this progress and
following passage of a new copyright act in 1994, Thailand was
removed from the priority watch list. Thailand remains on the
watch list, however, and the U.S. Government continues to work
with Thailand to secure additional improvements in its legal
regime and to encourage effective enforcement of existing
The United States also has an ongoing dialogue with Thailand on
promoting worker rights. U.S. legislation links worker rights
with U.S. trade policy and continues to seek improved access for
U.S. products and services in the Thai market.
Principal U.S. Embassy Officials
Deputy Chief of Mission--Marie Huhtala
Acting Political Affairs Counselor--Eric Sandberg
Economic Affairs Counselor--Robert Fitts
Public Affairs Counselor--Virginia Loo Farris
Consul General--Alice C. Moore
The U.S. embassy in Thailand is located at 120/22 Wireless Road,
Bangkok (tel. 66-2-205-4000). There is a consulate at Chiang
Mai, Vidhyanond Road (tel. 66-2-252-629/30-33).
TRAVEL AND BUSINESS INFORMATION
The U.S. Department of State's Consular Information Program
provides Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets. Travel
Warnings are issued when the State Department recommends that
Americans avoid travel to a certain country. Consular
Information Sheets exist for all countries and include
information on immigration practices, currency regulations,
health conditions, areas of instability, crime and security,
political disturbances, and the addresses of the U.S. posts in
the country. Public Announcements are issued as a means to
disseminate information quickly about terrorist threats and other
relatively short-term conditions overseas which pose significant
risks to the security of American travelers. Free copies of this
information are available by calling the Bureau of Consular
Affairs at 202-647-5225 or via the fax-on-demand system: 202-647-
3000. Travel Warnings and Consular Information Sheets also are
available on the Consular Affairs Internet home page:
http://travel.state.gov and the Consular Affairs Bulletin Board
(CABB). To access CABB, dial the modem number: 301-946-4400 (it
will accommodate up to 33,600 bps), set terminal communications
program to N-8-1(no parity, 8 bits, 1 stop bit); and terminal
emulation to VT100. The login is travel and the password is
info. (Note: Lower case is required). The CABB also carries
international security information from the Overseas Security
Advisory Council and Department's Bureau of Diplomatic Security.
Consular Affairs Trips for Travelers publication series, which
contain information on obtaining passports and planning a safe
trip abroad, can be purchased from the Superintendent of
Documents, U.S. Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 371954,
Pittsburgh, PA 15250-7954; telephone: 202-512-1800; fax 202-512-
Emergency information concerning Americans traveling abroad may
be obtained from the Office of Overseas Citizens Services at
(202) 647-5225. For after-hours emergencies, Sundays and
holidays, call 202-647-4000.
Passport Services information can be obtained by calling the 24-
hour, 7-day a week automated system ($.35 per minute) or live
operators 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. (EST) Monday-Friday ($1.05 per
minute). The number is 1-900-225-5674 (TDD: 1-900-225-7778).
Major credit card users (for a flat rate of $4.95) may call 1-
888-362-8668 (TDD: 1-888-498-3648).
Travelers can check the latest health information with the U.S.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia.
A hotline at (404) 332-4559 gives the most recent health
advisories, immunization recommendations or requirements, and
advice on food and drinking water safety for regions and
countries. A booklet entitled Health Information for
International Travel (HHS publication number CDC-95-8280) is
available from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington,
DC 20402, tel. (202) 512-1800.
Information on travel conditions, visa requirements, currency and
customs regulations, legal holidays, and other items of interest
to travelers also may be obtained before your departure from a
country's embassy and/or consulates in the U.S. (for this
country, see "Principal Government Officials" listing in this
U.S. citizens who are long-term visitors or traveling in
dangerous areas are encouraged to register at the U.S. embassy
upon arrival in a country (see "Principal U.S. Embassy Officials"
listing in this publication). This may help family members
contact you in case of an emergency.
Further Electronic Information
Department of State Foreign Affairs Network. Available on the
Internet, DOSFAN provides timely, global access to official U.S.
foreign policy information. Updated daily, DOSFAN includes
Background Notes; Dispatch, the official magazine of U.S. foreign
policy; daily press briefings; Country Commercial Guides;
directories of key officers of foreign service posts; etc.
DOSFAN's World Wide Web site is at http://www.state.gov.
U.S. Foreign Affairs on CD-ROM (USFAC). Published on an annual
basis by the U.S. Department of State, USFAC archives information
on the Department of State Foreign Affairs Network, and includes
an array of official foreign policy information from 1990 to the
present. Contact the Superintendent of Documents, U.S.
Government Printing Office, P.O. Box 371954, Pittsburgh, PA
15250-7954. To order, call (202) 512-1800 or fax (202) 512-2250.
National Trade Data Bank (NTDB). Operated by the U.S. Department
of Commerce, the NTDB contains a wealth of trade-related
information. It is available on the Internet (www.stat-usa.gov)
and on CD-ROM. Call the NTDB Help-Line at (202) 482-1986 for
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