Welcome to Chiangmai and Chiangrai magazine
Site Map

Campaign : The Reversal of Thailand to Siam

Since this country first Changed its name from Siam to Thailand in 1939, there have been several attempts to discredit the move, claiming that the instigator, pro-Japanese leader Field Marshall Pibulsonggram, was influenced by racism as opposed to nationalism. While one man's patriotism is another's jingoism, the Siam-Thailand controversy is an interesting issue with roots buried deep in the country's history.

If a poll were to be taken today the issue would attract little or no attention, given that the economy, cost of living, national security and the very governance of the country would dominate public concern. That said it is worth looking at why some people still see this as a burning issue.

There is, however, no definitive version that can be taken as historical fact, opinions on the issue being both wide and varied; this is one of them.

An auspicious name of "Saama Thesa" in Makote language was honored to Queen Jaammathewi, the founder of the Kingdom of Haripoonchai (the present-day Lumpoon) 1300 years ago. She was the 3rd child of Lawo king, another ancient kingdom in the present - day Lopburi that lasted 500 years. The word of "Saam" means the number of 3, even before the official Kingdom of Sukhothai was founded.

Again 100 years later the Lawo king sent one of his powerful leaders to build a new city of "Sukhothai" and followed by another city nearby -- "Chaliang". Unfortunately, the two cities were attacked and ruined by Khorm troops. One hundred years later, the ruler of Haripoonchai Kingdom sent his strong leader and men to rebuild Sukhothai and Chaliang cities. As sister cities, three cities of Haripoonchai, Sukhothai, and Chaliang were bonded with the name of "Saam Thes". Later the name of this region in Sanskrit language appeared later as "Sayam Prathet" as well as "Sayam Raath". As a matter of fact, Sukhothai became the city of wealth in agriculture.

During the 10th and 11th centuries, the "Saam Thes" lost their independence two times to the kings of Khorm or Angor Kingdom. Khorm troops destroyed at least 2 cities of Sukhothai and Chaliang. They also attacked the Kingdom of Lawo. Altogether, the Khorm people called the regions they overcame as "Sayam Gode" (or "Sayam Yord") and "Sayam Gok" for the northern kingdom (Sukhothai) and southern kingdom (Lawo) respectively. The historical sculpture still appears at Angor Wat.

There's a gallery on Angkor Wat in Cambodia depicting Tai, or Sayam as mercenaries fighting for the Khmer during the following century, 1113-1125 AD. Meanwhile, the word of Sayam as well as Jodia was first found in the Burmese inscription in 1120.

Even earlier than Khorm inscriptions are references to the Tai as Sayam in 11th century. Jampa, the former Vietnam and which was frequently at war with the Khorm, reference to the Tai was made with regard to their status as prisoners of war.

During 13th century the Khorm empire was firmly established in the Chao Phraya valley and on the great plain of Koraj. The Tai captured the Khorm town of Sukhothai and established a new Tai nation with Sukhothai as its capital. During this time, 1260-1350, King Ramakamhaeng borrowed from the Khorms of Cambodia the alphabet that Thais still use to this day. The word Siam in Khorm can be found in inscriptions describing the Tai of the 11th century as Sayam.

The Tai people lived in Yunnan in southern China where by 650 A.D., they had established the independent Kingdom of Nanchao. During this period, some groups who were ethnically related to the Lao of Laos and the Shan of Burma drifted to the northern hill country of neighboring Siam. When the Mongol hordes led by Kublai Khan laid waste to Nanchao in the year 1253, this gradual infiltration of Siam become a flood as tens of thousands of Tai fled southern China.

The Chinese explorers traveled by ships and traded with people in Southeast Asia and other part of the world before the 13th century. Suvarnabhumi or The Golden Peninsula was the popular region for them. The Chinese learned about the names of the people in our region from Khorm and they adopted the names into Chinese language as "Sien Gok" and "Lor-Hok Gok" for the region of Sukhothai (northern Siam) and Lawo (southern Siam) respectively. Altogether, the Chinese called Siamese people in the north and south (at that time) as "Siie Lor-Hok Gok" therefore, the word Siam is believed to have either Chinese or Khorm origins as the people of Sukhothai and those living in the kingdom of Ayutthaya a century later used Siam in reference to themselves. Indeed the Chinese referred to Siam's great central plain of Suvarnabhumi (the Golden Peninsula) as being the Kingdom of Sien (The names of "Sien-Lo Kok", "Sien-Lo", "Hsien", or "Hsien-Lo" were also appeared in some Chinese chronicles.), while those living in that area were known as Chao Sayam-(Siamese people).

Malay people in the southern tip of Suvarnabhumi -- "Malayu" called us "Seeyum" in their accent from the original words that Khorm and Chinese people did. That was before 1100 years ago.

Marco Polo (1254-1324), a Venetian traveller who spent about seventeen years in the service of The Emperor Kublai Khan of China, made use of the Chinese material when he wrote a book on the countries in the Far East. He called the country of the Thais "Locac" a strange version of Siam. His book "Travels of Marco Polo" was widely read and translated into many Western languages. Thus the Europeans began to take great interest in China which was supposed to be an exceptionally rich country of the Thais as Siam with some variations after the Chinese.

Odoric de Pordenone (1286-1331) mentioned "....qui appartient aussi au Roy de Siam" in his book of travels. The Portuguese, however, came on the Thai soil, and coined different names for the country such as Sarnau, Xarnauz, Sion, Ciama, and Siao. The word "Siam" was used by Sir James Lancaster in his voyage to the Far East in 1592. Other names of Sayam were Siyam, Ansean and Asian.

At least one or more than one time, Malayu was Siam's protege state in 15th century. It was in 1510 during the reign of King Borom Trilokanart, the first Europeans to set foot in the country, the Portuguese traders had conflict with the native people of Malaka which was the autonomous but protege state of the Kingdom of Siam. The Portuguese sought help from the Siamese king. The names of "Siam" and "Siamese" were recorded in the history books in Portugal. The Portuguese did not learn the two names from the Arab or Persian.

The following century saw the Dutch and the British break Portugal's stranglehold on trade with Siam, but despite European attempts to colonies the country, Siam remained the only country in Southeast Asia able avoid this fate.

As far as the Europeans were concerned, Siam was the most consequential kingdom in the region, and the excellence of its court under King Narai became legendary.

The first Europeans to set foot in the country, the Portuguese in the 16th century, referred to it as Siam, a transliteration of the Chinese Sien and the Khorm Sayam.

The French, helped by a Greek, Constantine Phaulkon, who had attained a position of power in the Siamese court, launched a bid for dominance in Siam that provoked an antiforeign backlash. The Greek was executed and Siam closed its doors to all foreigners for more than a century.

In 1767 the Burmese, after many attempts, laid waste to Ayutthaya, but in less than a decade Siamese forces led by General Taaksin drove the Burmese out of the country. This brave leader established his capital city at Thon Buri on the banks of the Chao Praya River. His successor, General Chakri, ruled from 1782-1809 and took the name King Rama 1. The new monarch immediately moved his capital across the Chao Phraya to Rattanakosin, today's Bangkok, and established the Chakri dynasty that has ruled the country ever since.

In the 19th century Siam signed commercial treaties with Great Britain in 1826, and the United States in 1833. The independence, however, when Great Britain extended its sway to Malaya and Burma, and France carved out an empire in Indochina.

By opening their posts to European trade, by bringing in Western advisers, by strengthening the central administration, and by playing off the British against the French, the Siamese managed to stay free. Even so, the establishment of Siam's boundaries meant the surrender of its claims to Laos in 1893, and parts of Cambodia in 1907 and of its sovereignty over Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, and Terengganu in 1909 on the Malay Peninsula.

The westernization of Siam began to take place on absolute monarchy and was mainly due to King Mongkut (reigned 1851-68) or Rama IV, and his son King Chulalongkorn (reigned 1868-1910) or Rama V. Both monarchs brought Siam into line with western nations with the introduction of formal education, railroads, hospitals, public water and electricity supplies, a comprehensive road network, and much more. Siam's absolute monarchy came to an end in 1932 after a bloodless coup forced the then ruler, King Prachadipok, Rama VII, to grant a constitution.

The coup leaders, western educated Pibulsong-gram and Pridi Panomyong, dominated Siamese politics in the following years. The country held its first general elections in 1934, and the king abdicated the following year. A council of regency then chose Prince Ananda as the country's new Monarch-King Rama VIII, and he reigned from 1935 until his mysterious death by shooting in 1946.

Field Marshall Pibulsonggram became the country's Prime Minister in 1938. The following year, on June the 24th (1939), he changed the country's name from siam to Thailand. The parliament later endorsed the Prime Minister's order on August the 26, 1939. Thai is said to translate as "free", making Thailand the land of the free.

An odd choice of name from a man who, after siding with Japan, declared war on the United States and Britain!

The Concise Oxford Dictionary has the following meanings for Thai:

As a noun:

  • A native or national of Thailand in SE Asia.
  • A member of the largest ethnic group in Thailand (The Tai, remember ?)
  • A person of Thai descent.
  • The language of Thailand.

As an adjective

  • Of or relating to Thailand or its people or lan guage.

Some people today point to the fact that Thailand is the only Southeast Asian country with "land" in its name; that it is more western like Scotland, England or Ireland. This is little more than semantics.

Six years and two months after Pibulsonggram created the name Thailand, he was jailed as a war criminal, and on 17th September 1945 M.R. Seni Pramoj became premier. One of Seni first official acts was to change Thailand back to Siam. The fourth General Election was held. The result was that the Democratic Party won over whelmingly. Mr. Kuang Apaiwong, the Democratic Party's leader, became Prime Minister. Later he was replaced by Mr. Pridi Panomyong on 28 March 1946. During that year Thailand signed a comprehensive agreement with Great Britain. However, inflation, government corruption and the mysterious death of King Ananda all contributed to the overthrow in 1947 of Pridi's government by a now freed Pibulsonggram. The ink on government stationery bearing the name Siam had barely time to dry before the order came down for a return to the status quo. During that year, again Mr. Kuang Apaiwong was appointed Prime Minister who managed to win the following year (1948) election. However, he was forced to resign on 8 April 1948. He was replaced by Field Marshall Pibulsonggram. Being a nationalist or reconstructionist, the new Prime Ministry changed the country's name of Siam back to Thailand on Visakha Puja Day, 11 May 1949. Imagine the utter chaos this name changing would have created in both the public and private sectors, not to mention the country's image overseas. Perhaps they should have opted for Thai-Siam in the first instance.

There are those who hold that Thailand is too western, including as it does the second syllable land. Then there are others who claim that Siam is merely a transliteration of Sayam in Khorm, or Sien in Chinese.

To get an authentic, native name for the country we might have to consider those who inhabited southern Thailand thousands of years ago, certainly before the Tai migrated from China. I am referring to the Mani, a Negrito people thought to have been the original, prehistoric inhabitants of this country. The Mani, the name in Mon-Khmer means human being, settled the hilly interior of Trang, Patthaloong and Satoon provinces, and are still there today. They have been called "forest people" by their neighbors, and Goy in a text written by King Rama V entitled "Mani of the Jungle". The Negritoes are an aboriginal people of generally short stature, dark complexion and tight, curly hair. The Mani are nomadic jungle dwellers who set up villages of simple huts and live off whatever the jungle offers.

They have their own language, and probably would not recognize the country's national flag if they found one. Yet these people were here long before the Tai or the Siamese and it would therefore be their inalienable right to choose a name for the country of their birth.

Maniland ? No, that sounds like the capital of the Philippines with a "d" added. Mani-siam-Thai ? Hardly.

If that sounds facetious let me tell you that there are people in the country today suggesting not only a return to the name Siam, but an amalgamation of Thai and Siam as a name for the Kingdom of Thailand.

1 Muang Siam 2 Muang Thai Siam 3 Thai-Siam

Apart from these permutations, a recent pole suggesting a return to Siam attracted voters representing less than 0.0001% of the population.

Other than having more pressing priorities, can you picture the upheaval a name change would create?

Siam International Airways / Royal Siam Police / Royal Siam Air Force / Royal Siam Government / Amazing Siam!

I rest my case.


Home | Site Map | Sponsors | Feedback | Hot Links | Travel Help | Search

Copyright © 1995-2014 Welcome to Chiangmai and Chiangrai magazine All rights reserved.
Web site design and hosting by Infothai CM Co. Ltd.