Thailand and its neighbouring countries work well together when it comes to the crunch, but it hasn’t always been so. Situated at the heart of the Indo- China region, Thailand shares borders with four countries. To the west is Myanmar, to the northeast across the Mekong is Laos, due east is Cambodia and to the south is Malaysia. Although Vietnam and Singapore do not border Thailand, their influence can be felt here too.
Through the centuries Siam waged war with Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam, and Malaysia and it is true that in different dynastic periods our borders have ebbed and flowed like a watermark. That said, in times of peace we have always traded with each other and by and large enjoyed good diplomatic relationships. But do we Thais love our neighbours?
From the Sukhothai to early Rattanakosin periods, Burma was our arch-nemesis. Countless battles took place between us and twice the old capital of Ayutthaya was occupied by invading armies from Hongsawadee. Nowadays, like many other neighbouring countries we see Myanmar it as the next frontier, a place ripe for investment and one where millions are to be made.
We have always looked upon Laos with a somewhat fraternal attitude. Branching out from the main Tai tribes that settled Thailand, the Tai Yai made what is now the Shan State their home, while the Tai Noi set themselves up in Laos. And despite the inevitable conflicts and warfare, we have remained more than neighbourly with our Lao cousins. Our languages are similar. The food in the north and northeast of Thailand has been influenced by Laotian cuisine. Even the Emerald Buddha, a national treasure in Thailand, was taken from Laos in the reign of King Rama I.
It is almost certainly the case that some of our ancestors were involved in the building of the Khmer temples at Angkor. In fact, without Cambodia’s originating empire there probably wouldn’t have been a Thailand – some historians believe that early lesser Khmer tribes may well have rebelled against their overlords to established small fiefdoms in Siam. Certainly the following emergence of Sukhothai included a host of Khmer principles and beliefs. And the subsequent Devaraja doctrine and royal language of Ayutthaya almost certainly borrowed from the earlier Khmer empire. In more recent times Thailand was quick to offer Cambodian refugees a safe haven when that country descended into civil war and genocide. Diplomatic relations since have sometimes been strained (witness the recent spat over the Preah Vihear temple ruins) but on balance we hold each other in high regard.
Despite not having shared boundaries, Vietnam has made its influence felt in Thailand too. The descendants of Annamese settlers still have their homes and temples in Bangkok and around the country and we have watched Vietnam’s economic growth in recent years with admiration. But it is with Malaysia that we have enjoyed possibly the longest relationship, an association dating back to the Srivijaya kingdom. As with parts of Burma, Laos and Cambodia, the northern territories of Malaysia were once part of Siam until King Rama V had to cede them to the British and French as a bargaining chip to retain Siamese sovereignty. The roots (in part) of the sectarian troubles seen today in the southern provinces and around the Malay border stem from this period. And yet on the whole we remain good neighbours.
Ever since it became a model state, we have both admired and envied Singapore. The island-nation has shown the world how a small country can develop and sustain progress in education, human resources, technology, and ecology. And whereas Bangkok was continually referred to as the regions ‘hub’ for all things 10 years ago, that title surely now belongs to the Lion City.
Our relationships with our neighbours are about to change once again with the introduction of the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC) next year. We will be part of a region with a single market, the free movement of goods, services, investment, skilled labour, and flow of capital. Of course, there is always the potential for misunderstandings and envy, even in such a homogenous arrangement, but one hopes the new community will bring us all even closer together.