BANGKOK – Thailand's latest round of political turmoil has prompted the army to declare martial law, once again propelling into international headlines a colorful country known for its beaches and pagodas, spicy food and nightlife, and relative prosperity in a developing region. Here's a look in closer focus at some of Thailand's significance:
Thailand's turquoise waters, white-sand beaches, serene Buddhist temples and piquant nightlife have made it one of the world's top tourist destinations. Even in times of crisis, it lives up to its nickname, "The Land of Smiles." Martial law Thai-style means tourists can take home souvenir selfies with smiling soldiers. It's too soon to say if the martial law imposed Tuesday will scare off future visitors. Political turmoil that started in 2006 has hit the tourism industry in waves, each time bringing dire predictions that the kingdom's allure for foreigners may be harmed. But each time it recovers, and its beaches, jungles, spas and urban malls soon swarm again. Annual arrivals reached an all-time high of 26.7 million in 2013, a 20 percent increase from the 22 million a year earlier. Movies set in Thailand, including "The Hangover Part II" of 2011, have added to the appeal. The wildly popular 2012 Chinese film "Lost in Thailand" introduced the country, its scenery and its transgender people known as "ladyboys" to China's public and made Thailand all the rage for its increasingly globe-trotting travelers. A regional traffic hub for Southeast Asia, the Thai capital Bangkok has one of the Asia's busiest international airports.
Thailand's openness to foreign investment and tourism has provided a model of development for other developing nations and helped power its rise to the sixth biggest economy in Asia. Significant investments in manufacturing by global corporations have broadened the economy beyond its agricultural base and added to its resilience. Though dwarfed in the region by giants such as China and India, Thailand is a crucial player in several industries. It has long been known as one of the world's top producers of rice, sugar and rubber. Less well known is its technology role, with about 40 percent of computer hard drives manufactured in the country. It also a production base for automakers such as GM and Toyota and now makes about 3 percent of all vehicles. A notorious downside of the country's rapid economic and financial development was its role in spawning the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s that rippled around the world.
The country's recent political turmoil has eroded its position of recent decades as a leader and exemplar of democracy among a lineup of Southeast Asian governments that include Vietnam's Communist Party-controlled state, Singapore's authoritarian one-party rule and Brunei's absolute monarchy. Thailand's army, which declared martial law again Tuesday, has always played a major role in politics, seizing power at least 11 times in the last century. The country is technically a constitutional monarchy under 86-year-old King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest reigning monarch. Thailand was a staunchly anti-communist ally of the U.S. during the Cold War. The Thais pride themselves over never having been colonized.
Thailand's most high-profile cultural export is its food, with its hot, chili-fired spiciness and lemongrass and kaffir lime tanginess. Thai restaurants are popular from Bangalore to Berlin to Baltimore, and for countless people in the West, Thai has become the new Chinese when choosing a cuisine from the Far East. Thai food first became widely known globally in the 1960s when the country started becoming a destination for international tourists and U.S. troops during the Vietnam war; it has benefited from government promotional campaigns in recent decades. Nowadays, higher-end supermarkets in most country stock key Thai ingredients from coconut milk to the ginger-like root galangal. Thai cuisine shares the imperative common among Southeast Asian cuisines to get the right balance of five kinds of taste sensations: sour, sweet, salty, bitter and spicy. Thailand is the world-leading exporter of rice.
Jocelyn Gecker, Stephen Wright and Ian Mader in Bangkok contributed.