A brief history
The region of nowaday Thailand has been inhabited by human beings since the paleolithic period (about 500,000 - 10,000 years ago). Due to its geographical location, Thai culture has always been greatly influenced by India and China as well as the neighboring cultures of Southeast Asia.
However, the first Thai or Siamese state is traditionally considered to be the Buddhist kingdom of Sukhothai was founded in 1238, followed by the decline and fall of the Khmer empire in the 13th - 15th century AD.
A century later, Sukhothai's power was overshadowed by the larger Siamese kingdom of Ayutthaya, established in the mid-14th century. After the sack of Angkor by the Siamese armies in 1431, much of the Khmer court and its Hindu customs were brought to Ayuthaya, and Khmer customs and rituals were adopted into the courtly culture of Siam.
After Ayuthaya fell in 1767 to the Burmese, Thonburi was the capital of Thailand for a brief period under King Taksin the Great. The current (Ratthanakosin) era of Thai history began in 1782 following the establishment of Bangkok as capital of the Chakri dynasty under King Rama I the Great.
European powers began travelling to Thailand in the 16th century. Despite European pressure, Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country never to have been colonised by a European power.
The two main reasons for this is that Thailand had a long succession of very able rulers in the 1800s and that it was able to exploit the rivalry and tension between the French and the British. As a result, the country remained as a buffer state between parts of Southeast Asia that were colonised by the two European colonial powers.
Despite this, Western influence led to many reforms in the 19th century and major concessions to British trading interests. This included the loss of the three predominantly ethnic Malay southern provinces, which later became Malaysia's three northern states.
However, another ethnic Malay province named Pattani, now subdivided further into four smaller districts, has remained as Siamese territory to this day.
In 1932, a bloodless revolution resulted in a new constitutional monarchy. During the war, Thailand was allied with Japan. Yet after the war, it became an ally of the United States. Thailand then went through a series of coups d'état, but eventually progressed towards democracy in the 1980s.
In 1997, Thailand was hit with the Asian financial crisis and the Thai baht for a short time peaked at 56 baht to the U.S. dollar compared to about 25 baht to the dollar before 1997. Since then the baht has regained most of its strength and as of May, 2007, is valued at 33 baht to the US dollar.
The official calendar in Thailand is based on Eastern version of the Buddhist Era, which is 543 years ahead of the Gregorian (western) calendar. For example, the year AD 2007 is called 2550 BE in Thailand.
Since the overthrow of the absolute monarchy in 1932, Thailand has had 17 constitutions and charters. Throughout this time, the form of government has ranged from military dictatorship to electoral democracy, but all governments have acknowledged a hereditary monarch as the head of state.
The 1997 Constitution was the first constitution to be drafted by popularly-elected Constitutional Drafting Assembly, and was popularly called the "People's Constitution".
The 1997 Constitution created a bicameral legislature consisting of a 500-seat House of Representatives and a 200-seat Senate. For the first time in Thai history, both houses were directly elected. Many human rights are explicitly acknowledged, and measures were established to increase the stability of elected governments.
The House was elected by the first-past-the-post system, where only one candidate with a simple majority could be elected in one constituency. The Senate was elected based on the province system, where one province can return more than one Senator depending on its population size. Members of the House of Representatives served four-year terms, while Senators served six-year terms.
The court system included a constitutional court with jurisdiction over the constitutionality of parliamentary acts, royal decrees, and political matters.
Thailand is a country of mountains, tropical rainforests and flat plains. Religion, the monarchy and the military have helped to shape its society and politics.
For many years agriculture was the main employer. But from the 1980s a thriving, rapidly-growing economy attracted large numbers of Thais to the expanding industrial and services sectors.
The bubble burst in 1997 with the south-east Asian financial crisis. Stock and property prices plummeted, dragging down the currency and leading to bankruptcies, recession and unemployment.
The government of the time - under Chuan Leekpai - worked with the IMF to reform the battered economy.
But the 1997 experience caused many Thais to regard international finance with deep distrust. Mr Chuan lost the 2001 elections to an opponent who promised to help people with their daily difficulties.
Bangkok expanded rapidly with the influx of workers during the boom years. It is one of Asia's most vibrant, and heavily-congested, cities.
Thailand has a minority Muslim population, concentrated in its southern provinces. A decades-old separatist struggle in the region - which abated in the 1980s - flared again in 2004. The violence, mostly targeting members of Thailand's majority Buddhist population, has claimed more than 1,500 lives.
Though its recent governments have been civilian and democratically-elected, Thailand has seen turbulent times. The military governed, on and off, between 1947 and 1992 - a period characterised by coups, coup attempts and popular protests.
Thai cuisine is known throughout the world for its use of hot, sweet and sour spices. Sculptures of the Buddha in sitting or reclining positions are also characteristic of Thailand, as is classical dance.
Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. Its king, Bhumibol Adulyadej, assumed the throne in June 1946 and is the world's longest-reigning monarch. The royal family is revered by many Thais. Interim prime minister: Surayud Chulanont
The military, led by army commander-in-chief General Sonthi Boonyaratglin, seized power in a bloodless coup while Thaksin Shinawatra, the prime minister, was attending the UN General Assembly on 19 September 2006.
The coup was condemned abroad but the new leadership was endorsed by the king. It was Thailand's first coup in 15 years but its 18th since it became a constitutional monarchy in 1932.
The coup leaders, who call themselves the Council for National Security, said they seized power to unite the nation after months of political turmoil and promised to return the country to civilian rule.
They introduced an interim constitution which gives them the power to hire and fire the government as well as the acting parliament.
It also allows them to select the people who will draw up a new constitution and to vet the draft before it is subjected to a referendum.
Retired General Surayud Chulanont was appointed as interim prime minister. He will govern until elections which are expected in December 2007.
Mr Surayud gained a reputation for incorruptibility during his four-decade military career. He became army chief in 1998 and resigned in 2003. As a member of the Privy Council, he is a senior royal advisor.
The government and military control nearly all the national terrestrial television networks and operate many of Thailand's radio networks. The radio market, particularly in Bangkok, is fiercely competitive.
There are more than 60 stations in and around the capital.
The media are free to criticise government policies, and cover instances of corruption and human rights abuses, but journalists tend to exercise self-censorship regarding the military, the monarchy, the judiciary and other sensitive issues.
The print media are largely privately-run, with a handful of Thai-language dailies accounting for most newspaper sales.
A series of media reforms are under way, aimed at reducing military interest and influence in the media and opening up more opportunities to the private sector.
Source: Wikipedia, BBC