Since 1911 Thailand has taken frequent national censuses, and its National Statistical Office, working closely with a number of international agencies, was in the 1980s one of the most extensive sources of statistical information in Asia. One of the 20 most populous nations in the world, Thailand had in 1987 about 53 million people. This total was divided about equally between males and females. The regional breakdown was approximately 16.7 million in the Center (which included the Bangkok metropolitan area), 17.8 million in the Northeast, 11.3 million in the North, and 6.8 million in the South. As in most Southeast Asian nations, the population was youthful and agrarian; approximately 37 percent of the population was between the ages of 15 and 29. In the decades after World War II, however, the percentage of agricultural population declined; it decreased from 79.3 percent to 72.3 percent of the population between 1970 and 1980, for example.
The shrinking of the rural population resulted in part from internal migration to the capital and provincial centers. In 1987 about 10 percent of the population lived in Bangkok, which had 3,292 persons per square kilometer. The 9 largest cities after Bangkok ranged in population from 80,000 to 110,000. They were Khon Kaen, Hat Yai, Chiang Mai, Ubon Ratchathani, Nakhon Sawan, Nakhon Ratchasima, Krabi, Udon Thani, and Songkhla.
Bangkok, with 1,537 square kilometers, represented the combining of the royal capital of the Chakkri Dynasty with Thon Buri, the capital of King Taksin. In the late 1980s, this urban area was made up of 24 districts (khet), with a combined population of 5.5 million. In spite of massive construction and changes in the economy, many of the districts retained their unique identities. For example, Dusit District, where the royal family had its principal residence, was also home to many of the city's military officers and civil servants.
Rapid urbanization in the 1980s was changing not only where the Thai lived but also how they lived. Separate private houses were located in high-density areas or out in new sprawling suburbs. The Thai were also moving into townhouses and condominiums; by 1984 sixty-nine residential condominium communities had been built or were in the final phase of construction. A family compound along a tree-shaded khlong (canal) was a rare sight. Although ferries continued to ply the Chao Phraya, the boat was no longer the main mode of transportation. Bangkok had about 900,000 registered motor vehicles and a new superhighway system partially completed in the late 1980s; massive traffic jams, noise, and air pollution had become part of everyday life. Most of the canals in the "Venice of the East" had been replaced with roads; this replacement was in part causing the city to sink. Annual flooding in the city and growing slums such as Khlong Toei often made city services rather than politics the key issue in metropolitan elections. Bangkok had 10 percent of the national population, but the capital required a disproportionate percentage of the national budget to maintain basic city services.
Thailand's rush both to develop and to satisfy the demand for consumer products had several side effects, including dwindling agricultural land, the destruction of forests, and damage to watersheds. These consequences prompted the central government, with support from international agencies, to make a concerted effort to limit population growth. In 1968 the cabinet sanctioned a family-planning service, and by March 1970 a national population policy was announced. The official slogan "Many Children Make You Poor" and the economic arguments for keeping the number of children at two per family found acceptance among both city and rural populations. Successful programs were undertaken by the Planned Parenthood Association of Thailand and the Family Planning Services. By 1974 an estimated 25 percent of all married couples of childbearing age were using modern contraceptives, one of the highest percentages for developing countries. The population growth rate, 3.4 percent per annum in the 1960s, had been reduced to 1.9 percent per annum by 1986. The goal for the late 1980s was a growth rate of 1.5 percent.
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