Thailand is the only Southeast Asian nation to have skirted around European colonial pursuits but still avoided occupation. From the 1980s, the constitutional monarchy experienced a significant change to its economic climate, transitioning rapidly from an agricultural to an industry and services-based economy. With its well-developed infrastructure, a free-enterprise economy, and generally pro-investment policies, it was largely successful in its economic expansion. However, since the late 1990s, progress has been interrupted by factors including regional and global recessions, along with domestic conflict including military coups and separatist movements by Thailand’s southern ethnic Malay-Muslim minorities.
In September 2006, a military coup ousted Prime Minister Thaksin Chinnawat. The military-installed government proceeded to impose capital controls and planned changes to foreign investment rules and other business legislation. Although the controls have since been lifted and the proposed changes didn’t take place, overall business confidence in Thailand, domestically and internationally, has not fully recovered. The 2008 global financial crisis also further damaged Thailand’s economic prospects and the continued political instability is set to stall the future development of infrastructure mega-projects. Generally free and fair multi-party elections held in December 2007 have subsequently restored democratic governance in the country.
Thailand’s southern border provinces have long been host to a Malay Muslim separatist movement rallying around a regional ‘Patani’ identity. Since 2004, separatists have conducted an increasingly violent insurgency in these areas against both the central government authority and Buddhist and Muslim civilians that has resulted in thousands of deaths.
The Thai population remains mostly rural, concentrated in the rice-growing areas of the central, northeastern and northern regions. However, Thailand continues to industrialize, and its urban population—currently about 32 per cent of the total population, principally in the Bangkok area—is growing.
In terms of foreign policy, Thailand takes an active role in the global sphere. Since World War II, Thailand has developed particularly close relations with the US after receiving US assistance in its efforts to contain communist expansion in the region. The country has also reached out to various regional organizations including the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and has contributed troops to reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Thailand is an active member of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum. When East Timor gained independence from Indonesia, Thailand contributed troops and UN force commanders to the international peacekeeping effort, and continues to maintain its efforts to further increase international ties.