If you live in Thailand or travel there enough, the question of whether Thailand is a Third World Country is bound to come up. If you search the interwebs you are sure to find a variety of answers. Many people posit their theories and their understandings, most of which are wrong, or only partially correct at best.
I thought I’d put together some research, facts, and dig through the mountains of information to set the record straight. But as you’re about to find out, the answer is not as simple as the question.
The Three World Model
We didn’t start referring to countries as the First, Second, and Third world until after the end of World War Two. As the world headed into the Cold War, nations began to align into opposing sides around the two new Super Powers, the United States and the U.S.S.R. The democratic, capitalist, countries of the West and the communist countries led by the former Soviet Union began a face-off that would last decades.
Political Scientists, academics, and governments started to classify countries into different groups, and an “us or them” model began gaining popularity. We’ll take a brief look at the Three World model that dominated the Cold War period.
First World Countries
The First World Countries consisted of NATO countries (U.S., Canada, Western Europe), Australia, New Zealand and Japan
Second World Countries
The Second World Countries were the Soviet Union, which was made up of Russian and 14 former communist countries brought under the control of Russia after the end of World War II
Third World Countries
The term Third World was first coined in 1952 by Alfred Sauvy, a French Demographer. In this model, the Third World countries consisted of any other country, not in the first two groups. It had countries that were democratic, communist, capitalist, rich, and poor. A far cry from what we think of today when someone says a Third World Country. (Source)
According to the Alfred Sauvy definition, Thailand would be classified as Third World. But as we’ll see, the term has evolved over the last 60+ years, and that is far from the final answer.
Evolution of The Three World Model
As the Cold War grew chillier, academics started to expand on the work of Sauvy and further expanded the types of countries included in the First and Second World. Allies and supporters of the two Super Powers began to be included.
Thailand Declared War on The United States and Great Britain during WWII
Without going into full detail of Thailand’s involvement in World War Two, a brief understanding is helpful when thinking through their place in the Three World Model.
Thailand was neutral in the war until they were invaded by Japan in December 1941. In 1942, Thailand declared war on Britain and the United States. It’s been long held this was done out of duress and it was opposed by the majority of Thai people, but they were on the side of the AXIS none the less.
Thailand After WWII and Closer Ties with The United States
At the end of the war, Thailand declared their original declaration of war was unconstitutional and precluded them from having to surrender. The United States supported this position and pushed the Allies to do the same. This was the beginning of closer ties with the U.S.
In 1948, Thailand joined the American push fighting against communism around the world and sought economic and military assistance from the United States. In 1950 Thailand sent troops and supplies to fight with the Americans in North Korea. Shortly after they signed an agreement for the U.S. for Military Assistance. (Source)
So, as the definition of the Three Worlds expanded to Allies of the Super Powers, Thailand was added to the list and during that time was considered a First World Nation. (Source) But once again, that is not the end of the story.
Third World & Developing Nations – Current Usage
As the Cold War warmed and the Berlin Wall came down, the need to divide the world in three became irrelevant. The use of the term Second World fell out of use and we now just talk about nations of the world in two parts – the First and Third Worlds.
However, now that the well-defined meanings of the terms were abandoned and their use became commonplace, new meanings began to evolve. Today’s version separates the world into well-established industrialized economies and everyone else. The Third World became more of a concept than a definition. One of the most generally accepted notions categorizes all the countries in Asian (ex. Japan), Africa (ex. South Africa), Latin America, and the Caribean as the Third World. (Source).
As the terms have dropped from use across most academic and government usage, new terms have come along to replace them. Nowadays you are more likely to hear developed and developing nations, which are also ill-defined and disputed. Yet these terms are used by major international organizations such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, and other global organizations.
But most like the First World and Third World terms, there is no commonly agreed upon definition of what makes a developed or developing nation. Even the IMF states: “it is not based on strict criteria, economic or otherwise.” (Source)
Another new classification is that of Newly Industrialized Country, which Thailand is classified under. It means the country has advanced farther relative to others, but still hasn’t reached the levels of modern industrialized nations, (i.e. the Western Nations).
As you can see, the terms and classifications of countries have become quite muddy with no new standards to fall back on. This is where it gets confusing. One can easily make the case that Thailand is either a First World or Third World nation when there is not a fixed definition. However, the U.N. and IMF both classify Thailand as a developing Nation. (Source)
Even with the modern city and infrastructure that Bangkok has achieved, a large part of the country is still rural and relatively poor. The access to modern technologies and health care is out of reach of many. Some of the key factors in categorizing a country as a developing nation or Third World.
The Verdict – Is Thailand A Third World Country?
In the past Thailand has been classified as both a Third World and First World Country. However, today, as we’ve seen there isn’t a completely a cut and dry answer. The lack of common standards leaves it open to debate. However, Thailand is classified as a developing nation by a large number of international organizations, which look at a number of factors such as the economy, Human Development Index (the HDI), as part of their classifications.
There is a strong argument to be made that Thailand is a Third World country in the Two World model. While it has made great advances, one would struggle to compare the countries level of development to that of a large industrialized nation in the West. Whether this is a fair comparison and classification system is a topic for another debate.