Thailand's 514,000 square kilometers lie in the middle of mainland Southeast Asia. The nation's axial position influenced many aspects of Thailand's society and culture. The earliest speakers of the Tai language migrated from what is now China, following rivers into northern Thailand and southward to the Mae Nam (river) Chao Phraya Valley. The fertile floodplain and tropical monsoon climate, ideally suited to wet-rice (thamna) cultivation, attracted settlers to this central area rather than to the marginal uplands and mountains of the northern region or the Khorat Plateau to the northeast. By the twelfth century, a number of loosely connected rice-growing and trading states flourished in the upper Chao Phraya Valley. Starting in the middle of the fourteenth century, these central chiefdoms gradually came under the control of the kingdom of Ayutthaya at the southern extremity of the floodplain. Successive capitals, built at various points along the river, became centers of great Thai kingdoms based on rice cultivation and foreign commerce. Unlike the neighboring Khmer and Burmese, the Thai continued to look outward across the Gulf of Thailand and the Andaman Sea toward foreign ports of trade. When European imperialism brought a new phase in Southeast Asian commerce in the late 1800s, Thailand (known then as Siam) was able to maintain its independence as a buffer zone between British-controlled Burma to the west and French-dominated Indochina to the east.
Thailand in the late 1980s shared boundaries with Burma, Malaysia, Laos, and Cambodia. Although neither China nor Vietnam bordered Thailand, the territory of both countries came within 100 kilometers of Thai territory. Many parts of Thailand's boundaries followed natural features, such as the Mekong River. Most borders had been stabilized and demarcated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in accordance with treaties forced on Thailand and its neighbors by Britain and France. In some areas, however, exact boundaries, especially along Thailand's eastern borders with Laos and Cambodia, were still in dispute in the late 1980s.
Disputes with Cambodia after 1950 arose in part from ill-defined boundaries; the most notable case was a dispute over the Preah Vihear Temple area submitted to the International Court of Justice, which ruled in favor of Cambodia in 1962. During the years that the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, was controlled by the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot (1975-79), the border disputes continued. In the early 1980s, the People's Republic of Kampuchea and its mentor, Vietnam, made an issue of boundaries in Prachin Buri Province in eastern Thailand. In contrast to these incidents, which attracted international attention, boundary disputes with Malaysia and Burma were usually handled more cooperatively. Continuing mineral exploration and fishing in the Gulf of Thailand, however, were sources of potential conflict with both neighbors. Adding to general border tensions were the activities of communist-led insurgents, whose operations had been of paramount concern to the Thai government and its security forces for several decades. The problem of communist insurgency was compounded by the activity of what the Thai government labeled "antistate elements." Often the real source of border problems was ordinary criminals or local merchants involved in illegal mining, logging, smuggling, and narcotics production and trade.
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