Will Thailand change its name back to Siam?

By Reinhard Hohler l Northern Thai News
The dialogue on changing Thailand’s name back to Siam was initiated last week when Dr. Charnvit Kasetsiri, a respected historian from Thammasat University in Bangkok, introduced the idea at a conference in Bangkok. During the Royal Golden Jubilee-PhD Scholarship International Seminar Series LII held at Rangsit University on August 31, 2007, some 150 speakers, scholars and visitors mingled to hear speeches on interdisciplinary research in the age of globalization.

Dr. Charnvit Kasetsiri, a respected historian from Thammasat University in Bangkok, introduced the debate on changing the name of the country from Thailand back to “Siam” by showing a newly released video and presenting the possibility of a name change in one of the next constitutions to come.

The Siam to Thailand name change happened under the first Major General and later Field Marshal Luang Phibun Songkhram government on June 24, 1939 during World War II. After Rama VII had abdicated of the throne in 1935 in the wake of the coup d’etat of 1932, the old monarchy of “Sayam” (Siam) was now shifting to a kind of official nationalism, linked with military dictatorship and racism along the lines of Nazi Germany. At that time, the new “Thailand” included the French Indo-Chinese provinces of Battambang and Siem Reap in Cambodia (Phibun Songkhram Province) and also Champasak and Sayabouli in Laos (Lan Chang Province). From the British, Kengtung in the Burmese Shan States (Saharath Thai Doem) was taken as well as the four Malay States of Kedah, Perlis, Kelantan, and Terangganu (Si Rath Malay).

Siam was never colonized, but has already become a modern nation-state under King Chulalongkorn or Rama V (1868-1910), but it was under King Vajiravudh (1910-1925) that nationalism arose. Phibun Songkhram built on that fact and even had a monument for Rama VI erected in front of Lumbini Park and opposite the Dusit Thani Hotel in Bangkok. The theory that Nan-Chao in Central Yunnan was a Thai kingdom gained ground and with the name “Thailand” a new society of a more modern, indigenous, horizontal and national society took shape which stood in stark contrast to the old-fashioned, foreign, hierarchical, and monarchical one.

Now 68 years have passed since the name change and King Bhumiphol Adulyadej has been able to bring back the prestige and “feeling” of the monarchy. In 2006, the king’s 60th anniversary of the accession to the throne was celebrated in pomp as king of Thailand, not Siam.

In the meantime, the fictitious fact of the Nan Chao-Thai kingdom was discarded and the prehistory of Usakhane (Southeast Asia) illuminated accordingly. According to Jit Phumisak and others the name “sam” (sayam) is an old Thai-Lao (Malay) word meaning “earth with water” (black) and was used well before the kingdoms of Sukhothai, Ayutthaya or Rattanakosin. It is pronounced differently as siem by the Khmer, sem by the Mon, or sian by the Chinese. As it is more of a place name than an ethnicity, the name “Siam” fits better than “Thailand” to the post-modern phenomenon of multicultural countries.

Though many feel that a name change for Thailand is an uphill climb, it has not dissuaded those dedicated to return to Siam. As part of their efforts, an online petition to re-name Thailand to Siam has been launched. It can be found at: www.petitiononline.com/ . So far, the petition has collected 1235 signatures.

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