Inside an Adidas football factory near Bangkok.

Patrick Brown / Panos /

In October 2006, Thailand expanded its list of tourist attractions with one of the world’s most laid-back military coups. Tourists and local residents alike posed for photos alongside the tanks and cheerful soldiers. Thais are typically easy-going and notably their language has no word for ‘no’ – they have to say ‘not yes’. But on this occasion Bangkok residents seemed quite happy to say yes, especially when it appeared that their revered King Bhumibol – hitherto the country’s principal guardian of democracy – had acquiesced in the military takeover.

Thailand’s 60 million people have a great respect for their king, and also for their religion. More than 90 per cent are Buddhist and the country is dotted with thousands of gilded red-roofed temples as well as myriad miniature shrines in every nook and cranny. Every Thai boy is expected to have his head shaved and spend a short time as a monk.

By Asian standards, they are also culturally relatively homogenous. Certainly there are minorities: around half a million people belonging to marginalized hill peoples in the north and three million Muslim Malays live in the three provinces of the ‘deep South’. Nevertheless, culturally the majority of Thais have a great deal in common.

Economically, however, the divisions run deeper – with conflicts of interest between the rural poor and the urban middle classes. Around two-fifths of Thais make their living from farming. Indeed, the vast irrigated patchwork of paddy fields on the fertile central plains has made this the world’s largest rice exporter. But most of the new wealth has been generated elsewhere: in recent years Thailand has been catapulted into a dizzying process of modernization. Tourism now provides five per cent of GDP, with eleven million visitors per year, and more than a third of the country’s economic output is generated by manufacturing, much of which is now turning out electronic goods and cars.

A lot of this industry is concentrated in and around the sprawling capital, Bangkok, whose Thai name Krung Thep means ‘city of the angels’. Until recently it was more notorious for its diabolical traffic jams, but mercifully people can now glide above or below the car-choked streets on the Skytrain or the Metro.

Thailand’s breakneck modernization has, however, exacerbated rural-urban disparities. Families in the parched, impoverished northeast have to send their sons and daughters to the densely packed slums that house around a fifth of Bangkok’s population. The fracturing of family ties has also contributed to problems with drugs, particularly amphetamines, the ‘crazy pills’.

Most vulnerable of all are immigrants. Thailand’s booming economy has attracted more than a million Burmese to work on the farms and building sites. And Thailand is the nexus of trafficking routes for young women from Burma, Cambodia or China – lured by promises of factory jobs, but in fact destined for brothels. Child beggars are often Cambodians employed by organized gangs.

From the 1930s, Thailand had a series of military governments, but from the early 1990s the country seemed to have achieved a workable democracy. Things changed radically, however, from 2000 with the arrival of former telecoms tycoon Thaksin Shinawatra and his Thai Rak Thai (Thais love Thais) party. Thaksin’s populist ‘action man’ approach, and especially a new system of health finance for the poor, made him popular in the countryside. But he also undermined many democratic institutions and often proved heavy handed, having around 2,000 drug offenders shot, for example, and sending in the army to crush protests in Muslim provinces in the south.

Early in 2006, following an especially dubious business deal by his family, there were mass public protests in Bangkok. Seeking a new mandate, Thaksin called a snap election but this was boycotted by the opposition and eventually annulled. The army, anticipating that in a rerun election the rural vote would simply produce another victory for Thai Rak Thai – and provoke further urban unrest – decided to oust Thaksin.

Fact file

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Human Development Index
Last profiled June 1992

At a glance

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  • NI Assessment (Politics)