Thailand country brief

Overview

The Kingdom of Thailand is at the centre of the Indochina peninsula in Southeast Asia, bordered by Myanmar and Laos to the north, Cambodia to the east, and Malaysia to the south. The Gulf of Thailand lies to the south and east, and the Andaman Sea to the west. The capital of Thailand is Bangkok. Formerly known as Siam, the kingdom was renamed ‘Thailand’ in 1939.

Thailand’s population is approximately 69 million (2018). In addition to the ethnic Tai majority, there are significant numbers of Thais of Chinese descent, migrants from Myanmar and other neighbouring countries, hill tribes and other minorities, and a sizeable population of Muslim-Malays in the south. Buddhists make up 93% of the population.

Thai authorities did an outstanding job coordinating the rescue effort of the Wild Boar junior soccer team in Tham Luang Nang Non Cave, Chiang Rai, in mid-2018. The operation was a remarkable demonstration of international cooperation, and Australia played an important role in providing expertise and support.

Political overview

System of government

Thailand is a constitutional monarchy. The Prime Minister is the head of government, and the head of state is a hereditary monarch. HM King Maha Vajiralongkorn Bodindradebayavarangkun became King upon his father’s death on 13 October, 2016. Prior to his death, King Bhumibol had been the world’s longest-serving head of state and was the country’s longest-reigning monarch.

Recent political developments in Thailand

On 22 May 2014, General Prayut Chan-o-cha, Thailand’s Army Chief, launched a military coup in Thailand and established the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO). On 21 August 2014, Prayut was nominated Prime Minister in a unanimous resolution of the new National Legislative Assembly.

In August 2016, a national referendum passed Thailand’s 20th constitution, which King Maha Vajiralongkorn promulgated in April 2017. On 13 September 2018, the King royally endorsed the two final legislative bills required to hold an election. The roadmap to elections, as stipulated in the constitution, should see an election in the first half of 2019.

Foreign policy

Thailand was one of ASEAN’s five original members (founded in 1967). It has developed increasingly close ties with other ASEAN members and is committed to ASEAN’s centrality in regional architecture. Thailand is the second biggest economy in ASEAN and is actively promoting integration efforts under the ASEAN Economic Community. From 2008 to 2012, Surin Pitsuwan, a Thai national, served as ASEAN Secretary-General. Thailand is a member of other ASEAN-centred regional forums, including the East Asia Summit and ASEAN Regional Forum. In 2019 Thailand will chair ASEAN and the East Asia Summit.

Thailand served as APEC host in 2003 and will host again in 2022. Thailand is also a member of the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM), and Indian Ocean Rim Association (IORA), and is participating in other regional organisations including the Organisation of American States, Pacific Islands Forum and the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, where it enjoys observer and partner status respectively.

Thailand is actively involved in the UN. It served as a member of the UN Human Rights Council from 2010-13, including as President of the Council. Thai national Supachai Panitchpakdi served as Secretary-General of the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development, from 2005 to 2013, and prior to that as Director-General of the World Trade Organization from 2001 to 2004. From 2016 to 2017, Thailand’s Vitit Muntarbhorn was the first Independent Expert on protection against violence and discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Thailand joined the Non-Aligned Movement in 1993.

Bilateral relations

Australia and Thailand have longstanding and deep connections. Formal diplomatic relations commenced in 1952. We cooperate in a broad range of areas of mutual interest, including trade and investment, law enforcement, counter-terrorism, education, security, migration and tourism. The bilateral relationship is supported by mutual membership of international and regional organisations.

The 65th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and Thailand was celebrated in 2017. The occasion was marked by a visit from the then Thai Deputy Prime Minister, H.E. General Tanasak Patimapragorn, and a troupe of 56 Thai dancers to stage a traditional “Khon” masked performance and exhibition at the Sydney Opera House, on Monday 28 August. The then foreign Minister Julie Bishop conducted a bilateral visit to Thailand in August 2017 to meet her counterpart H.E Don Pramudwinai, and open Australia’s new chancery on Wireless Rd.

Reflecting the extensive cooperation between Australia and Thailand, a treaty-level Agreement on Bilateral Cooperation entered into force on 27 July 2005. It provides a framework for future bilateral cooperation in non-trade areas, including security and law enforcement, environment and heritage, science and technology, telecommunications, civil aviation, public administration, energy, immigration, education, culture and social development. Senior Officials’ Talks are held on a regular basis, most recently on 13 September 2018. A Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) on 'Work and Holiday' visas allows nationals of both countries to undertake 12-month working holidays in the other country.

People-to-people links

Our strong bilateral relations are reflected in extensive people-to-people links. Thailand attracts large numbers of Australians for tourism and business – approximately 800,000 Australians visit Thailand each year. More than 72,000 Thais live in Australia (2016 Census).

Australia continues to be a leading destination for Thai students, with more than 30,000 Thais studying in Australia in 2018, placing Thailand as our 7th largest source of foreign students. Since 2014, Thailand has hosted 505 Australian students under different types of New Colombo Plan (NCP) scholarships. In 2018, Australia supports 432 students to study in Thailand under the NCP, more than double the number in 2017.

Australia has enjoyed a close relationship with the Thai Royal Family. His Majesty the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej and his wife Queen Sirikit visited Australia in 1962 and the then Thai Crown Prince, His Majesty King Maha Vajiralongkorn, studied at secondary school and military college in Australia, subsequently completing training with the Australian Army's Special Air Service Regiment in Perth.

Security and counter-terrorism cooperation

Regional stability is a key area of mutual interest. Thailand was one of the first countries with which Australia concluded a bilateral MOU on Counter-Terrorism, in October 2002. This was followed by MOUs on police cooperation (June 2003), mutual assistance in customs matters (December 2003), and money-laundering (June 2004), and a Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty (July 2006). We continue to undertake regular high-level dialogues on regional security. Thailand has participated in two Regional Counter-Terrorism Financing (CTF) Summits co-hosted by Australia and Indonesia in Sydney (November 2015) and Bali (August 2016), and will host the 4th CTF Summit in November 2018.

Thailand is also a key player with Australia in efforts to strengthen regional cooperation against people smuggling and trafficking, and has extradited accused people smugglers to stand trial in Australia in recent years. Thailand also hosts the Regional Support Office for the Bali Process on People Smuggling, Trafficking in Persons and Related Transnational Crime. The Office supports and strengthens practical cooperation on refugee protection and international migration. In mid-2018, Thailand was upgraded to Tier 2 on the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report for its efforts to address human trafficking. Under the auspices of Taskforce Storm, the Australian Federal Police and Thai law enforcement agencies work together to disrupt narcotics trafficking and transnational organised crime.

Development assistance

In November 2003, the Royal Thai Government announced that Thailand would move from being an aid recipient to an aid donor. Thailand’s overseas aid program is focused on technical cooperation and training with an annual budget of approximately AUD200,000 million. A number of regional Australian aid programs in human trafficking, labour rights, health, disaster management and economic integration continue to include Thailand. Australia also provides limited support to Thailand as part of efforts to strengthen the capacity of regional organisations such as ASEAN and APEC.

Economic overview

Over the last four decades, Thailand has made remarkable economic progress, recovering strongly from the 1997 Asian Economic Crisis to move to upper-middle income status in 2011. According to World Bank figures, poverty declined from 67 per cent in 1986 to 11 per cent in 2014 on the back of high growth and rising agricultural prices. Average growth has slowed, however, in the face of a maturing economy and a series of political crises.

Thailand recovered well from the global financial crisis with rapid implementation of a fiscal stimulus package and monetary easing, but its economy suffered as a result of severe floods in 2011. GDP growth fell from 7.8 per cent in 2010 to 0.1 per cent in 2011. On the back of global economic recovery and higher domestic consumption, Thailand’s GDP grew 6.5 per cent in 2012, but weaker domestic demand and a contraction in investment saw growth drop to 2.9 per cent in 2013.

The economy grew less than 2 per cent in 2014-15, due mainly to cautious private consumption stemming from high household debt, weak merchandise exports, and the sluggish recovery of the tourism sector following seven months of prolonged political protests in 2013-14. Thailand experienced steady economic growth of 3.7 per cent in 2017, and is forecast to reach 4.3 per cent growth in 2018.

In October 2014, the Thai government announced an economic reform agenda to make Thailand more attractive as a regional trading hub and to develop its digital economy. Reforms will focus on promoting Thai investment overseas, reducing the cost of doing business, tackling corruption, improving logistics and infrastructure, building a better tax structure, and developing a new body to govern the digital economy. Through these reforms the Thai government intends to support the Thai private sector, facilitate trade and promote overseas investment.

In 2017, Thailand laid out its long-term economic goals in its 20-Year National Strategy (2017 – 2036) for attaining developed country status and transitioning to a digital economy. A key policy underpinning the strategy is “Thailand 4.0” covering three core elements: advancing technology and innovation to improve the productivity of already high performing industries; enhancing Thailand’s ‘hub’ capability by upgrading ports, road and rail links and airport infrastructure; and promoting policies to enhance the capability and digitalisation of Small to Medium Sized enterprises, in areas such as agriculture and healthcare. Thailand hopes to develop its Eastern Economic Corridor (EEC) into a leading ASEAN economic zone focusing on technological manufacturing and services. The EEC straddles three eastern provinces including Chonburi, Rayong, and Chachoengsao.

Trade and investment

Australia's trade and economic relationship with Thailand has grown strongly since the entry into force of the Thailand-Australia Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) on 1 January 2005. Trade in goods has more than doubled since 2004 [from $6.8 billion in 2004 to $18.9 billion in 2017]. In 2017, Thailand was Australia’s 5th highest goods import source. Thailand is now also Australia's 9th largest goods and services trading partner, and our second-largest in ASEAN. Total Thai investment stock in Australia has grown significantly from $294 million in 2006 to $3.1 billion in 2017; while Australian investment stocks in Thailand were valued at $4.5 billion at the end of 2017. Australia’s key goods exports to Thailand are crude petroleum, gold, aluminum and coal, and Thailand’s key exports to Australia are passenger and goods vehicles.

Australia continues to work with Thailand on the implementation of TAFTA. Most recently, a Joint Working Group on Agriculture meeting was held in Chiang Mai on 13-15 September 2017.

Australia and Thailand are also parties to the ASEAN-Australia-New Zealand Free Trade Agreement, which entered into force on 1 January 2010. Both Australia and Thailand are currently participating in negotiations for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, launched in November 2012.

For further information on doing business in Thailand, TAFTA as well as Australia’s trade and investment relationship with ASEAN:

High-level visits

July 2018: Assistant Minister for Trade Tourism and Investment, Mark Coulton, met with Thai ministers including: Minister for Agriculture and Cooperatives, Krisada Boonrach, Minister Attached to the Prime Minister’s Office Kobsak Pootrakul, and Minister for Education Teeraiat Jareonsettasin.

March 2018: Prime Minister Prayut Chan-ocha, attended the ASEAN-Australia Special Summit in Sydney and met the then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

November 2017: the then Minister for Justice, the Hon Michael Keenan, met the then Minister for Justice Suwaphan Tanyuvardhana, National Security Council Deputy Secretary-General General Sing Visespochanakit, and Deputy Police Commissioner, General Chalermkiet Srivorakan.

August 2017: the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop, met Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha, Minister for Foreign Affairs Don Pramudwinai Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence Prawit Wongsuwan, Deputy Prime Minister for Economic Affairs Dr Somkid Jatusripitak.

August 2017: the then Minister for Defence, the Hon Marise Payne, met Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Defence, Prawit Wongsuwan.

August 2015: the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and to the Minister for Trade and Investment, the Hon Steven Ciobo, met with the then Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Norachit Sinhaseni, and the then Deputy Minister for Commerce, Suwit Mesinsee.

May 2015: the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Julie Bishop, met Prime Minister Prayuth Chan-o-Cha and the then Foreign Minister Tanasak Patimapragorn, as well as former Prime Ministers Yingluck Shinawatra and Abhisit Vejjajiva.

November 2013: the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Prime Minister, the Hon Josh Frydenberg, visited Thailand for the Bangkok Dialogue on the Rule of Law.

February 2013: the then Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Hon Bob Carr, met the then Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr Surapong Tovichakchaikul in Thailand.

May 2012: To mark the 60th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Australia and Thailand, the then Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra visited Australia.

August 2012: His Majesty’s daughter, Princess Bajarakitiyabha visited Australia to highlight the anniversary celebrations.

Last Updated: 26 October 2018