Official name: Kingdom of Thailand (Ratcha Anachak Thai)
Government type: Constitutional monarchy
Population: 66.7 million (CIA World Factbook, July 2011 estimate)
Area: 513, 120 sq km
Languages: Thai (official), English (secondary language of the elite)
Major religion: Predominantly Buddhist, approx. 4 per cent Muslim in southern regions
Life expectancy: 71.2 years male, 76 years female
Monetary unit: Thai baht
Literacy: Total population: 92.6%; Male: 94.9%; Female: 90.5%
GDP per capita: $8,700
Thailand had been an absolute monarchy for over seven centuries until a bloodless revolution in 1932, which led to the establishment of the current constitutional monarchy. Known as Siam until 1939, it is the only Southeast Asian country never to have been taken over by a European power.
Since the 1932 political reform, Thailand has had 18 constitutions and charters with the form of government ranging from military dictatorship to electoral democracy. But all have acknowledged a hereditary monarch as the head of state, the current being King Rama IX.
The country has suffered from increasing instability over the last six years, with a series of coups, changes in government and mass demonstrations – all of which reveal deep rifts within an outwardly peaceful country.
Five prime ministers have come and gone, parts of Bangkok, the country’s capital, have been paralysed by street protests, two airports have been taken over, and there have been outbreaks of violence.
Thailand’s political turbulence is centred around a power struggle between the country’s establishment – royalists, bureaucrats, senior military officers and business leaders – and the rural poor majority who have lionised Thaksin Shinawatra – who was prime minister before his oust in a 2006 coup. Thaksin remains a major force in Thai politics even though he fled to the United Arab Emirates to avoid a prison sentence for corruption.
Thaksin supporters have rioted in 2009 and staged protests between March and May 2010, occupying parts of downtown Bangkok. Clashes between security forces and protesters, elements of which were armed, resulted in at least 91 deaths and an estimated $1.5bn in arson-related damages.
These protests exposed major cleavages in the Thai body politic that continue to hamper the current government.
After 18 coups in the course of 80 years, Thai military remains a powerful force in Thai politics.
Opposition to the army’s dominance peaked in 1992, following a bloody crackdown on street protests against a military-backed government that left at least 52 dead and many still unaccounted for.
A new constitution introduced in 1997 was intended to usher in a new era of Thai politics, free from military involvement.
But that constitution was annulled following the 2006 coup that ousted Thaksin, after which Thailand again came under the rule of a military-backed government.
In the subsequent waves of yellow- and red-shirted protests, the military has seemed unwilling to intervene, failing to stop last year’s demonstrations by the PAD, taking no action against protesters blockading Bangkok’s airports, and doing little to prevent the storming of the Pattaya summit.
Thailand is export-dependent with export of goods and services equivalent to nearly 70 per cent of its GDP in 2010.
Thailand’s recovery from the 1997-1998 Asian financial crisis, which brought a double-digit drop in GDP), relied largely on external demand from the US and other foreign markets.
From 2001-2006, the administration of former Prime Minister Thaksin embraced a “dual track” economic policy that combined domestic stimulus programs with Thailand’s traditional promotion of open markets and foreign investment.
Political uncertainty and the global financial crisis in 2008 weakened Thailand’s economic growth by reducing domestic and international demand for both its goods and services (including tourism).
Its economy has been on a steady recovering path from the global economic and financial crisis in 2009.
Thailand is one of the largest producers of rice and natural rubber in the world and agriculture is the primary employment sector. It is also a major producer of automobiles and electronics for export and a popular tourist destination.
The Royal Thai Government welcomes foreign investment, and investors who are willing to meet certain requirements can apply for special investment privileges through the Board of Investment. To attract additional foreign investment, the incumbent Abhisit Vejjajiva administration has promised to look for ways to expand investment opportunities, focusing more on green technology/manufacturers.
The Preah Vihear temple, located on the Thai-Cambodia border, has been the flashpoint of serious border skirmishes, amid conflicting claims over sovereignty and age-old historic rivalry between the two countries.
The Thai-Cambodia border has never been fully demarcated, partly because it is littered with landmines left over from decades of war in Cambodia.
This Hindu-inspired 11th century temple, spectacularly perched atop a mountain escarpment, hugs the border between Cambodia and Thailand.
Ties have been strained since Preah Vihear was granted UN World Heritage status in July 2008.
The International Court of Justice ruled in 1962 that the ancient Hindu temple belonged to Cambodia, but both countries claim ownership of a 4.6sq km surrounding area.
Observers say the temple dispute has been used as a rallying point to stir nationalist sentiment in Thailand and Cambodia.
The Thai Patriots Network and the People Alliance for Democracy (PAD) have recently cranked up the pressure on Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva, pushing him towards a more hard-line stance over this festering border conflict with Cambodia in the months prior to the general election set for July 3.
Also in the southern Thailand region, the separatist movement in the ethnic Malay-Muslim provinces has killed as many as thousands since January 2004 in the increased violence associated with their cause.
Source: Al Jazeera, News Agencies