Thailand is larger than Laos and Cambodia combined but smaller than Burma. The physical regions that make up Thailand include the mountainous north, where peaks reach up to 8,415 feet; the large southeastern plateau bordering the Mekong River; and the mainly flat valley that dominates the center of the country.
The southern part of the country includes the narrow isthmus that broadens out to create the Malay Peninsula.
The tropical climate has dry and rainy seasons similar to Cambodia. The weather pattern in the main part of Thailand, north of the Malay Peninsula, has three seasons. The main rainy season lasts between June and October, when the southwest monsoon arrives with heavy rain clouds from over the Indian Ocean. After the rainy season, the land cools off and starts to receive the northeast monsoon, which is a cool dry wind that blows from November to February. Considered the dry season, its characteristics are lower humidity and cooler temperatures. From March to May, the temperatures rise and the land heats up. Then the cycle starts over again with the introduction of the rainy season.
The elephant is Thailand’s national symbol. Although there were 100,000 domesticated elephants in Thailand in 1850, the population of elephants has fallen to an estimated 2,000.
Hunters have decimated the populations of tigers, leopards, and other large cats for their pelts. Many animals (including tigers, bears, crocodiles, and king cobras) are farmed or hunted for their meat, which is considered a delicacy, and for their supposed medicinal properties. Although such trade is illegal, the well-known Bangkok market Chatuchak is still known for the sale of endangered species.
Thailand was formerly known as the Kingdom of Siam. In 1932, a constitutional monarchy was established after a bloodless revolution erupted in the country. The name was officially changed to Thailand in 1939. The ruling monarch remains head of state but a prime minister is head of the government.
Siam was never colonized by either the Europeans or the Japanese. The leaders of Siam played France and Britain against each other and remained independent of colonial domination. During World War II, the Japanese did extend influence in the region. Thailand briefly engaged the Japanese military in World War II but worked out an armistice that used the Japanese military to regain territories lost to Britain or France. At the same time, Thailand was working to support Allied efforts in the region.
About three-fourths of the population is ethnically Thai. There is a noticeable Chinese population and a small percentage of people who are ethnically Malay. There are various minority groups and hill tribes.
The country’s official language is Thai. Buddhism is adhered to by about 95 percent of the population. The ruling monarch is considered the defender of the Buddhist faith. Southern Buddhism is fervently practiced here. Thailand does not use the Western Gregorian calendar. Thailand uses an official calendar based on an Eastern translation of the Buddhist era, which essentially adds 543 years to the Gregorian calendar. For example, when it was 2010 AD in the West, it was 2553 BE in Thailand.
There have been clashes between Thailand’s small Muslim minority groups in the south, which have been increasing since 9-11. Islamic influences have been increasing near the border with Malaysia, which is about 60 percent Muslim. The Buddhist government of Thailand has sought to keep extremist groups like Al-Qaeda from operating within its borders. A series of Muslim-inspired bombings in recent years have increased social tensions and brought more attention to the religious division in the south.
Thai cooking places emphasis on lightly prepared dishes with strong aromatic components and a spicy edge.
Thailand has an excellent record of economic growth and has been one of Southeast Asia’s best performers in the past couple of decades. Thailand is developing its infrastructure and has established measures to attract foreign investments and support free-enterprise economic activities. The recent slowdown in the global economy and internal political problems have caused a sharp downturn in Thailand’s economic growth. Nevertheless, Thailand remains a strong economic force and one of the best economies in the region. The positive indicators include a strong focus on infrastructure, industrial exports, and tourism.
Urbanization rates are increasing; at least one-third of the population lives in cities. Family size has fallen to lower than two children per family, while education rates have increased. The country has also tapped into its natural resources for export profits as the world’s third-largest exporter of tin and the second-largest exporter of tungsten. The country is a major manufacturer of textiles, footwear, jewelry, auto parts, and electrical components. Thailand has been the major exporter of rice in the world and has a strong agricultural base. It’s reported that Thailand was the world’s third most unequal country, behind Russia and India. The top 10% of the richest people hold 79% of the country’s assets.
The tourism industry has grown immensely in Thailand over the past few decades. Green and lush tropical mountain landscapes, the exquisite architecture of ancient Buddhist temples, and beautiful golden beaches along warm tropical coastlines make for an excellent tourism market. Some of the best world-class tropical beach resorts are located along the sandy and sunny shores of Thailand. The country is open to outsiders and has welcomed tourism as part of its economic equation.
The downside of the thriving tourism industry is the sex trade. Relaxed laws on sexual activity have made Thailand a destination for people from around the world. Not surprisingly, a sharp increase in the number of individuals infected with sexually transmitted diseases has been documented. Approximately one million people in Thailand tested HIV positive in the mid-1990s. This industry has been big business for Thailand and at the same time has created an unfortunate negative stereotype for the overall tourism situation. Human trafficking is also an issue. Slavery still exists in this part of the world, even though it’s illegal.
The capital city of Bangkok is an economic core area for the country and the region. As large as New York City, Bangkok has developed into the political, cultural, and economic center of Southeast Asia. Often referred to as the “Venice of the East” because of its city canals, Bangkok has become a global city with a population of more than eight million people officially and more than fifteen million unofficially.
The Union of Myanmar (Union of Burma) is the official name for Burma. Since 1989, the military authorities in Burma have promoted the name Myanmar as a conventional name for their state. The US government and many other governments have not recognized or accepted the name change. Some groups within Burma do not accept the name because the translation of Myanmar is also the name of an ethnic minority in Burma. The use of the name Burma or Myanmar is split around the world and within the country.
Burma is the largest country on the Southeast Asian mainland in terms of physical area. It is about the same size in area as Texas and had a population in 2020 of about fifty-five million. The country has a central mass with a southern protrusion that borders Thailand toward the Malay Peninsula. The northern border area between India and China has high mountains that are part of the Himalayas, with towering peaks extending to 19,295 feet.
The Irrawaddy River cuts through the center of the country from north to south, creating a delta in the largest city, Rangoon (Yangon). Most of the country’s population lives along this river valley.
There are differences in physical landscape between the north and south. The northernmost area is mountainous with evergreen forests.
Cool temperatures are found in the north and warmer annual temperatures are found in the south. To the west of the Irrawaddy River and north of Mandalay the land cover is mainly deciduous forests. The eastern region from Mandalay to the Laos border is scrub forests and grasslands. This area is considered the dry zone, with an annual rainfall of about forty inches.
The more tropical south and coastal areas can receive higher levels of precipitation. The area around the core city of Mandalay was a major focus of agricultural development before British colonialism. Dryland crops were most common. During the colonial era, the British looked to the rich farmlands of the southern Irrawaddy delta and emphasized Rangoon as the center of their exploitations. Wetland rice is a major crop of the southern Irrawaddy basin. The southwest and the southern protrusion are mainly tropical evergreen forests. There has been oil exploration along the coastal regions of the Bay of Bengal and along the Andaman Sea.
The country was colonized by the British and was once a part of Great Britain’s empire in South Asia as a province of India. Burma was one of the most prosperous colonies of Britain until World War II, when the Japanese invaded and war devastated the region. Democratic rule existed from 1948 until 1962, when an authoritarian military dictatorship took over the country. A revolutionary council ruled the country between 1962 and 1974. This government nationalized most of the businesses, factories, and media outlets. The overall operating principle of the council was a concept called the Burmese Way of Socialism. This concept was based on central planning and Communist principles mixed with Buddhist beliefs.
Between 1974 and 1988, the sole political party of the country was the Burma Socialist Program Party, which was controlled by the same military general and his comrades who had been in control for decades. During this time, the rest of the world was advancing in technology and economic development and moving forward with advancements in health care and education. Burma remained an impoverished and isolated nation. A number of countries, including the United States, have trade restrictions with Burma. For decades, the authoritarian regime in Burma has been accused of serious human rights violations, which have largely been ignored by the outside world.
Protests against the military rule have always existed in Burma but have been suppressed by the armed forces and the authoritarian government. In 1962, the government cracked down on demonstrations at Rangoon University, resulting in fifteen students being killed and many others in need of medical attention. The military government has taken serious action against any anti-government protest activities. By 1988, the people of Burma were taking to the streets with widespread demonstrations and protests against the government over claims of oppression, mismanagement, and lack of democratic reforms.
A total crackdown on the people was implemented, with thousands of protesters killed. A new council led by a military general created the State Law and Order Restoration Council a year later. Martial law was imposed and even harsher policies were imposed on anyone opposing the government. This is when the name of Myanmar was first used for the country.
The name change and the military rule have not been universally accepted. The United States still refers to the capital city as Rangoon, not as Yangon.
In 2006, military rulers moved the capital north to the city of Naypyidaw. The purpose of the move was to establish a forward capital and shift development and political energy more toward the center of the country, rather than along the coast.
Naypyidaw is just too weird. I had to include a 2nd short video about it, lol:
World nations are divided on the issues of how to deal with the changes and the military regime in Burma. The governments of some countries believe more sanctions should be implemented to force the leadership into compliance. Other countries believe sanctions are not effective against the government; that is, sanctions harm the people and do not affect the military leadership. Countries on this side of the equation believe that open trade is the best policy.
Antigovernment protests erupted in 2007 when the military-ruled government allowed prices on fuel and energy to double and triple in price. Protesters were quickly and violently dealt with and many were arrested and jailed. Later that year, thousands of Buddhist monks led a peaceful protest to gain the government’s attention to make democratic changes. The demonstration ended in a renewed government crackdown. Another voice in the antigovernment demonstrations has been that of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a UN worker in the early 1960s and a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1991. Her opposition to the military rule has led to imprisonment and house arrest for decades. She has been a symbol of the opposition and hope for democratic reforms. In 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi was at long last released from house arrest and allowed more freedom of movement under government restrictions. In 2016 she became State Counsellor (a position akin to a prime minister leader). Now she has drawn criticism over inaction in response to the genocide of the Muslim Rohingya people in Rakhine State (on the western coast of Myanmar) and her refusal to accept that Myanmar’s military has committed massacres.
The next video gives more information about the ethnic cleansing that has been happening in Myanmar and explains some of the history of the country.
Burma has been placed in the same category as North Korea and Somalia in terms of authoritarian rule, lack of human rights, and a stagnant economy. Economic conditions are poor. The military rulers have gained control of the main income-generating enterprises in the country, including the lucrative drug trade from the prime opium-growing region of the northern Golden Triangle, where Burma borders Laos and Thailand. Myanmar is the world’s second-largest producer of opium, accounting for 25% of entire world production and is a major source of illegal drugs, including amphetamines.
Precious gemstones such as rubies, sapphires, and jade are abundant in Burma. Rubies bring the highest incomes. Burma produces about 90 percent of the world’s supply, with superb quality. The Valley of Rubies in the north is noted for quality gem production of both rubies and sapphires. Most of the gems are sold to buyers in Thailand.
Many US and European jewellery companies, including Bulgari, Tiffany and Cartier, refuse to import these stones based on reports of deplorable working conditions in the mines. Human Rights Watch has encouraged a complete ban on the purchase of Burmese gems based on these reports and because nearly all profits go to the ruling junta, as the majority of mining activity in the country is government-run.
Burma has become one of the poorest countries in Southeast Asia. China has emerged as the main trading partner with Burma and has been propping up the dictatorial military regime. China supplies the regime with arms, constructs many of the infrastructure projects, and supplies natural gas to the country.
Burma is ethnically diverse. Though it is difficult to verify, the government of Burma recognizes one hundred thirty-five distinct ethnic groups within its borders. It is estimated that there are over a hundred different ethnolinguistic groups in Burma.
About 90 percent of the population is Buddhist.
This high level of diversity is not generally conducive to unity and nationalism. The heavy emphasis on the national military is one of the only unifying forces within the population, even though the military leadership is also looked at with disdain by those desiring more openness and democratic conditions.
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Additional information and image credits:
Thailand map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32650098
Thailand photo By Kenzaza001 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79478976
South Thailand peaks By Kenzaza001 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=79478981
Elephants By Khunkay – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=41044145
Bangkok By Ninara from Helsinki, Finland – 4Y1A0066 Bangkok, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=69182471
Wat By BerryJ – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=82718171
Hill tribe girls By Steve Evans from Citizen of the World – Thailand, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=25840259
Myanmar map By OCHA, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=32649327
Thai cuisine https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thai_cuisine
Durians By Grossbildjaeger – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28871778
Thot man By Takeaway – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22941953
Khanom khrok By Takeaway – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16510271
Khao phat By Takeaway – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9654427
Myanmar mountains By LBM1948 – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86695065
Andaman Sea CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=278360
Burmese protesters By Burmese American Democratic Alliance., Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21759135
Swedagon Pagoda By Travel Burma – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54054040
Aung San Suu Ky https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aung_San_Suu_Kyi
Pah Oh girl By Paul Arps from The Netherlands – Pa-Oh girl (Myanmar 2013), CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=73433211
Bamar woman By This work has been released into the public domain by its author, Serinde. This applies worldwide.In some countries this may not be legally possible; if so:Serinde grants anyone the right to use this work for any purpose, without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law. – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=229911
Buddhists in Myanmar By Dan Lundberg – 20131115_Myanmar_4133 Yangon, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=53647254