April 5, 2016
by Stanley A. Weiss
BANGKOK—In the summer of 1818, as then-United States Army General Andrew Jackson led troops south into Spanish Florida and the U.S. pressed westward with the admission of Illinois as the 21st state, America’s horizons broadened invisibly but indelibly halfway around the world. On a hot and hazy June day of that year, after a stomach-churning 190-day ocean voyage from U.S. shores to Southeast Asia, the first American set foot in Thailand, then known as Siam.
Captain Stephen Williams, a veteran of the War of 1812 between the U.S. and Britain, was not an official envoy. Instead, he was a Massachusetts spice merchant who had come to Siam seeking sugar. Journeying up the Chao Phraya River, he was received in the city of Siam by the minister of trade and foreign affairs, who brought him to the palace for an audience with the Crown Prince, who would soon succeed his father to become Rama III, King of Siam. In a letter to U.S. President James Monroe, discovered among Monroe’s papers years after he died, Siamese nobleman and court reporter Dit Bunnag recounted the royal meeting and exhorted the U.S. commander-in-chief that if another American merchant should find his way to Siam, “he should bring as many good rifles as can be carried” to offer as trade.
June 17, 2014
by Stanley A. Weiss
LONDON–In the 1950s and ’60s, when Thailand experienced the bulk of its 19 military coups , a dark joke circulated through the market stalls of Bangkok that the country had three political parties — the army, the navy, and the air force. Last month, it was the army, headed by General Prayuth Chan-ocha, which stepped in on May 20th to declare martial law and then, two days later, a coup d’etat. In one of their first — and most ironic — acts, the military banned a screening of George Orwell’s 1984, a dystopian tale about life in a police state. Though a coup is nothing new in the “Land of Smiles,” the current situation — exacerbated by the uncertainty surrounding the failing health of Thailand’s revered, 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej — threatens to tear Thailand apart.
This story — of a factionalized country forcibly welded together through military might — is as old as Thailand itself. Older, in fact. The pattern began some seven centuries ago , when the region’s city-states first began jockeying for control of the Mekong and Chao Praya basin. With none able to gain the upper hand for long, the so-called land of Siam — with no borders or defined geographic boundaries — gradually coalesced into a loose collection of ethnically-diverse warring states and kingdoms.