History & Background
The Kingdom of Thailand is one of the few developing countries never to have been colonized. It is located centrally in Southeast Asia with both extensive Pacific coasts (Gulf of Thailand) and Indian Ocean (Andaman Sea). It shares borders with Myanmar (Burma) to the west and northwest, the Lao PDR to the north and northeast, Cambodia to the south and east, and Malaysia to the south. Thailand occupies an area of 514,000 square kilometers (319,194 square miles). Its population is 61,230,874 (estimated in July 2000), making it the sixteenth largest country in the world.
Though not as culturally diverse as other Southeast Asian countries, such as Myanmar, Laos, or Indonesia, Thailand has, nevertheless, considerable ethnic diversity. The three major groups are ethnic Thais (roughly 45 percent), Thais of Lao-Isan (northeast) ethnicity (roughly 30 percent), and Sino-Thais (roughly 14 percent) who are generally well-assimilated. Among the other three major ethnic groups are diverse hill peoples in the north and west such as the Hmong and Karen, Islamic Malay peoples in the southernmost four provinces of Thailand, and Khmer-Thais in the lower part of the northeast.
Prior to 1939 and from 1945-1949 the country was known as Siam. In 1949, the name reverted to Thailand, literally meaning land of the free. The country's origin dates back to 1238 when the Sukhothai Kingdom was established (1238-1378). The Sukhotahai Kingdom was followed by the Ayuthaya Kingdom (1350-1767), Thonburi Kingdom (1768-1781), and the current Chakri Dynasty-Bangkok Period (1782 to present). The country has had a literate culture from its beginning. Its phonetic alphabet was invented by King Ramkhamhaeng in 1283 and was derived originally from a form of the Brahmi script of Southern Indian called Grantha (Pongsak 2001).
Traditionally, education took place in Buddhist temples (wat). Teachers were Buddhist priests who were considered the learned members of the community and they provided both moral training and the basics of a literary culture. This system prevailed from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries. A lasting influence of this system can be seen today in what are known as "temple schools" located on the grounds of Buddhist monasteries (approximately 20 percent).
In the late nineteenth century under the visionary leadership of its modernizing monarch, King Chulalongkorn (King Rama V) (1868-1910), Siam established a modern secular system of education. The introduction of a modern printing press by Western missionaries in the mid-1800s made it possible to print books in the Thai language, an extremely important development for the future of Thai education. In 1858, King Mongkut (Rama IV) had the first government printing press established.
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