Thailand, most commonly known as a tropical resort destination, is famously unique for its name. Used in popular cuisine titles, traditional references, and religious practices, “Thainess” is embraced by people worldwide.
However, Thailand was not always the country’s name. The country was once recognized as’ Siam’ or ‘Syam,’ a Sanskrit word adopted from the early rule. But when and why did Siam change its name to Thailand?
The name Siam was adopted by the Portuguese in the 16th century. After the formation of a radical People’s Party in 1927 with western-style democracy, modernizer and nationalist, Phibun, changed the country’s name to Thailand in 1939. The aim was to modernize and also emphasize unique Thai identity.
People are often curious about where the name ‘Thailand ‘derived from and what pursued Phibun as the primary leader to initiate a significant transformation during a struggling rule.
This has a lot to do with cultural change and Thailand’s history in challenging western influence and playing a role in uniting religious and cultural norms within their society.
A Summary of Siam: Thailand History Timeline
People who spoke many different Thai languages settled in what is known to us, Thailand, around 1000 years back. Siam, also known as Syam, was a Sanskrit word adopted from the Portuguese, becoming accepted as a geographical term. The word Siam itself comes from the word Syama, which means dark or brown, regarding the skin color of the native people in the country (1).
During the rule of the Chakri Dynasty in the 1780s, they ruled the entirety of Siam. The dynasty expanded to some parts of Laos, Malaya, and Cambodia. However, it was not until the 19th century, and early 20th centuries the Chakri Dynasty was forced to surrender their territories to the French (2).
In 1927, the radical People’s Party was formed from where the army officer called Phibun, in the full name, Luang Phibunsongkhram, led the coup. In 1932, he fought against the Chakri king to set up a government that took on a western-style approach, with a parliament in hand. Although that monarchy survived, Phibun took charge as dictator in 1938 (2).
The history of Thailand’s foreign name reflected the ongoing debate of the rule that was to come. Thai people traditionally referred to their country as ‘mueang Thai,’ meaning ‘land of the Thai.’ However, the word ‘sayam’ is likely invented by Indian traders. In various English language dictionaries and treaties, the country was referred to as the ‘Kingdom of Siam,’ were British visitors labeled inhabitants as ‘Siamese.’ However, they wanted to be known as ‘Thai’ (3).
When & Why Did Siam Become Thailand
After Phibun entered Siam, he hoped to change the country’s name to determine that Thai people should emphasize the importance of their unique identity (2). On 24 June 1939, the government issued an official proclamation changing the kingdom’s foreign name to ‘Thailand’ (3).
It was reasoned that the name should correspond to the racial identity of its people and that the directive would take part in more extensive campaigns to pressure minorities to embrace a ‘national’ culture (3).
How Thailand Got Its Name and What Thailand Means
The name Thailand is broken down into two constituent parts to understand the meaning in depth. ‘Land’ is easy to understand, whereas ‘Thai’ takes on a unique interpretation. Not only does it mean free, but Tai is also an ethnic group in the country, taking on the purpose of a double meaning: ‘Land of the Free’ and ‘Land of the Thai People’ (1).
‘Land of the Free’ is a source of Thai pride; Thailand retained independence while western influence and power stole land from its neighbors in Southeast Asia (1). Moreover, while the west calls the country Thailand, the meaning is different in the local context.
The prefix prathet is used, which means nation. Before adding the Thai name for the country, prathet is used to differentiate the country from the people. Prathet Thai is quite formal, which is why most people say mueang Thai, although the term mueang means city (1).
For this reason, the word khon is used before the name of the country and the word paasaa is used before the name of the language. Interestingly enough, when describing a Thai persons’ nationality, you would say khon Thai.
On the other hand, when explaining how a person speaks their language, you say paasaa Thai (1).
Siam vs Thailand: The Aftermath of the Name Change
At the time of the name change, transformation pressured Thai-Chinese relations. The slogan ‘Thailand for the Thai’ was considered anti-Chinese. Moreover, Phibun cut down immigration from China, set up Thai businesses, and limited Chinese studies in educational institutions. While implementing a western calendar, new flag, and a brand new national anthem, Phibun also demanded that Thai people wear western-style clothing (2).
After Thailand allied with Japan during the Second World War, Phibun was forced to resign. Although he returned to power in 1948, Phibun was ousted nine years later. However, the influence of western morals and Thai identity stays behind even after Phibun’s period of rule. He launched a modernization campaign and promoted Thai culture, language, and education across the region. As a matter of fact, Phibun’s changes are still widely debated on and discussed. He serves as one of the most important people to have created change in Thailand.
Thailand, also once known as Siam, was an island full of rich culture and tradition. However, with significant influence from the west and Phibun’s need for rich nationality and unique identity, the country’s name’s change renounced its growth potential. The military government justified the name change to represent the country’s majority and move on from the past name that carried on for 800 years.
The country’s name still carries some controversy today. Even then, Thailand enjoyed support from rulers who noted cultural uniformity and the need for one national structure. However, others still hope to restore the name ‘Siam’ with the sense that political and religious pluralism still deems the right to exist; people of different beliefs, backgrounds, and lifestyles should be able to coexist together in the same society.
1. Hulme, Kyle. Land Of The Free: How Thailand Got Its Name. The Culture Trip. [Online] March 19, 2018. theculturetrip.com/asia/thailand/articles/land-of-the-free-how-thailand-got-its-name/.
2. Cavendish, Richard. Siam Becomes Thailand. History Today. [Online] June 6, 2014. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/siam-becomes-thailand/.
3. Strate, Shane. Siam Or Thailand? End of Empire. [Online] [Cited: December 30, 2021.] https://www.endofempire.asia/0907-3-siam-or-thailand-3/.