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Red- and yellow-shirted political demonstrations are shaking Thailand's democracy

Thailand's distinctive geographical shape extends over four main regions. In the far north are mountain ranges covered by forests of tropical hardwood, while the north-eastern area is much dryer—a barren plateau that makes up one-third of the country. The southern region, which stretches down the Malay peninsula, is mountainous with narrow coastal plains. But the core of Thailand, and the focus of most activity, is the central plain—a rich agricultural area criss-crossed with rivers and canals.

Thailand's people are relatively homogenous—held together by language, religion, and a deep respect for the monarchy. The majority of people speak Thai and almost all are Buddhist—most communities have ornate temples. Nevertheless, Thailand also has distinct ethnic groups. In the northern region these include the hill tribes and in the far south Malays, who are Muslims and have affinities with Malaysia. But the largest group of non-Thai origin, even if now mostly assimilated, are the Chinese who are the driving force in many commercial activities.

Thailand has made rapid progress in human development in recent years. Literacy is high, and secondary school enrolment, previously low, is now rising. Citizens now also have access to free basic health care.

Although incomes have increased, millions still live in poverty, particularly in the north-east, and there are many child labourers.

Thailand is a migration hub. Although many Thai workers have headed overseas, chiefly to Saudi Arabia, Brunei, and Singapore, around one million immigrants have also arrived from neighbouring countries, mainly Burma and Cambodia, to work on construction sites and sugar mills or in the ‘entertainment’ industry.

Thailand's population is still predominantly rural and 40% of the labour force still work in agriculture, mostly on small farms. Thailand's fertile land has enabled it to become the world's largest rice exporter.

Rapid economic growth has, however, taken its toll on the environment—particularly on the forests. Since the mid-1960s forest cover has been halved to around 25%.

In recent years the most dramatic development has been the hectic process of modernization and urbanization. In the 1960s the government opened up the economy and invested in infrastructure. This helped to expand exports, first of agricultural products and then of manufactured goods and later moving into higher technology items.

Above and below Bangkok's traffic

Most of the country's industrial activity is focused on the sprawling capital Bangkok which, with its environs, now accounts for more than half the country's GDP—a rapid expansion that made the city a byword for pollution and traffic congestion. In recent years there have been considerable improvements. Bangkok now boasts an overhead railway, the Skytrain, and a subway system, and pollution has fallen.

Thailand's leading source of foreign exchange is tourism. More than 15 million people visit each year, attracted to beach resorts such as Phuket and Samui, and to the often raucous nightlife, as well as the more peaceful hills around Chiang Mai.

Thailand was never colonized. It became a constitutional monarchy in 1932, and since 1946 has been ruled by King Bhumibol who is revered by most Thais. It has, however, had many autocratic or military governments and a number of coups. In 1992 the middle classes took to the streets protesting against military-backed parties, and this, along with an intervention by the king, opened the way to civilian rule.


Subjects: Arts and Humanities.

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