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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 Marshal Plaek Pibul Songkram, 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.

Source of peoples who have migrated into and settled in Thailand.

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 present-day 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 became a flood as thousands of Tai fled southern China.

At this time the Khmer empire was firmly established in the Chao Praya valley and on the great plain of Koraj. The Tai captured the Khmer town of Sukhothai and established a new Tai nation with Sukhothai as its capital. During this time, 1260-1350, King Ramkamhaeng borrowed from the Khmers of Cambodia the alphabet that Thais still use to this day. The word Siam in Khmer can be found in inscriptions describing the Tai of the 11th century as Sayam. There's a gallery on Angkor Wat in Cambodia depicting Tai, or Sayam as mercenaries fighting for the Khmer during the following century.

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

Ancient people who lived in the area of present-day Laos named the central region of the Golden Peninsula as Sum (means water) meanwhile Mon and Malay named Sen and Siem respectively.

The word Siam is believed to have either Chinese or Khmer 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, while those living in that area were known as Chao Sayam-(Siamese people).

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 Khmer Sayam.

The following century saw the Dutch and the British break Portugal's stranglehold on trade with Siam, but despite European attempts to colonize 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 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 anti-foreign 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 Taksin 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 of the kingdom was threatened, 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 under an 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 Rama VII to grant a constitution.

The coup leaders, western educated Pibul Songkram 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 Marshal Plaek Pibul Songkram became the country's Prime Minister in 1938. The following year, on June the 24th, he changed the country's name from Siam to Thailand.

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 Southeast 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 language.

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 Pibul Songkram created the name Thailand, he was jailed as a war criminal, and in September 1945 his former colleague in Paris, Pridi Panomyong became premier. One of Pridi's first official acts was to change Thailand back to Siam.

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 Pibul.

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.

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. Siam is a noun meanwhile Thai could be both adjective and noun.

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 Khmer, 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, Patthalung and Satun 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.

It is sad to say that Pibul Songkram had a double character. Under his sole leadership, citizens were brainwashed to follow his fascism and nationalism __ must actively salute the national flag, sing the national anthem, attend staged shows of ancient history, but beetle nut chewing was not allowed, etc. Meanwhile, people were forced to accept western culture __ husband and wife must kiss each other in public, and men and women must wear hats.

The word of Thailand gives ownership to only various Thais who have Tai roots (Thai Kaamtee, Thai Yai, Thai Koraj, Thai Lue, Thai Khern, Thai Yuan, Thai Lao, Thai Daam, Thai Khao, Thai Daeng, Thai Nua, Thai Puan, Pu Thai, etc.) meanwhile alienating other ethnic groups as "the outsiders" : Mon, Khmer, Zong, Kui, Chaam, Zo, Lawa, Khmu, Mla-Bri, Hilltribes, Samre, Viet, Malay, Java, Sakai, Moken, Tamil, Bharat, Persian, Arab, Chinese, etc were treated like second class citizens. Let's be serious about our true identity and nationhood. It would better not to retain the path of prejudice and heartlessness any longer, but create harmony within our society. It is true the word of Sayam or Siam was not the real name in the language that belonged to ethnic groups mentioned above, but at least it represented people during ten ancient centuries and the whole region of various kingdoms of Pan-Pan (Poon-Pin of Surat), Ligor (Nakorn Srithamaraj), Langka Suka (Pattani to Trang), Suvarnabhumi (Southern Central,) Funan, Dvaravati, Srivijaya, Lawoh, etc.

Even former British Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill, refused to use the name Thailand during and after his administration. 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:

  • Muang Siam (Siam City)
  • Pradesh Siam (Sayam Country)
  • Muang Thai Siam (Thai Sayam City)
  • Pradesh Thai Siam (Thai Sayam Country)
  • Thai-Siam. (Thai Siam Nation)

Apart from these permutations, a recent poll suggesting a return to Siam attracted voters representing less than 0.0001% of the population. Never mind !!

Other than having more pressing priorities, can you picture the upheaval a name change would create? Why not ?

  • Thai Siam International Airways
  • State Railway of Thai Siam
  • Royal Thai Siam Army
  • Royal Thai Siam Police
  • Royal Thai Siam Air Force
  • Royal Thai Siam Government

Amazing Kingdom of Thai Siam ! I rest my case.


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