What's in a name?
Historian Charnvit Kasetsiri explains why he believes changing the country's name back to Siam will promote unity and reconciliation.
By: Surasak Tumcharoen
Published: 17/05/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: News
Prominent historian Charnvit Kasetsiri recently lodged a petition with Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and the reconciliation and political reform committee calling for the country's name to be changed from Thailand back to Siam.
NATIONAL SYMBOL: The original flag of Siam, featuring a white elephant.
The former rector of Thammasat University and founder of its Southeast Asia Studies Project said the charter should be amended from the "Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand" to read either the "Constitution of the Kingdom of Siam" or the "Constitution of Siam", in order to promote "unity", "harmony" and "reconciliation".
The academic said renaming the country would be the first step to reconciling political and social ills in a country of 60 million people which included more than 50 ethnic groups.
Thailand as a nation, according to the historian, had gradually adopted "ultra-nationalism" in past decades which might be replicated in the present day and beyond. Political turmoil might prevail and wreak havoc on the country where people were not only divided by opposing political views, but by ethnic discrimination.
Renaming the country Siam could pave a stepping stone for the long-awaited solutions to the country's deeply rooted problems, said the academic.
SEAFARERS’ GUIDE: An old map showing the country known as Siam.
Q: Everybody knows this country had been called Siam since the Ayutthaya era. Why was it renamed as Thailand 70 years ago?
A: That was in 1939, the year that World War Two started. The world had cringed at the rise of Adolf Hitler's nazism in Germany and fascism in Italy and Japan. In this country, the military-led government of then-premier Field Marshal Phibulsongkhram (Por) had been considerably influenced by ultra-nationalism which only imitated the powerful nazism and fascism overseas. Siam was renamed as Thailand on the spur of the moment when Field Marshal Por's government was evidently taking sides with the Axis forces during the early years of World War Two.
The ultra-nationalism in Europe and Japan apparently prompted Field Marshal Por's government to take for granted that this country needed some kind of military authoritarianism in times of war. Luang Vichit Vathakarn, then head of the Fine Arts Department, coined the new name for the country on the basis of ethnicity, undoubtedly because the Thai race was the ruling class of a mixed-up society.
The petition is primarily aimed to promote harmony and reconciliation in the country where more than 50 ethnic groups with their distinctive languages reside, including Thai, Yuan, Lao, Lue, Malayu, Mon, Khmer, Teochiu, Cantonese, Hokkien, Hainan, Hakka, Cham, Sakai, Tamil, Pathan, Persian, Arab, Phuan, Tai Yai, Phu Tai, Yong, Hmong, Karen, Museur and farang, etc.
TIME FOR A CHANGE: Historian Charnvit Kasetsiri.
Not until Siam was renamed as Thailand had some people in this country looked down upon others with racial or ethnic biases. In the old Siam, the people had co-existed and spontaneously welcomed diversities which had prevailed in all parts of the country. Many Bangkokians, who may regard themselves as mainstream descents of the Thai race, had a penchant for ridiculing those of Lao origins living in the Isan (northeastern) region.
Ethnically speaking, Muslim villagers living in the southernmost region of the country are not Thais, but of Malay descent. Nevertheless, they were compelled to call themselves Thai purely for territorial integrity reasons.
Q: What was wrong with the name Siam, after all?
A: The government at that time believed Siam was a place where inhabitants were a mixed-up bunch of different ethnic groups who might not have been governed very easily in times of war. They feared the country might have disintegrated.
Ethnically speaking, nothing was wrong with "Siam", but the word did not tell who was the ruler over here. That is nonsense. By the way, the word "Thai" denotes the race, not the country.
Q: Why should Siam be considered a better name than Thailand?
A: "Siam" derives from the archaic word "sam", which means arable land. In Khmer and Mon, that is "siem", as in Siem Reap. In Burmese, that is "shan", as in Shan State, and in Japanese, that is "shamuro".
Astrologically speaking, the initial "s" as in Siam, is considered more auspicious for the country than the initial "th", as in Thailand, which sounds like "Taiwan" to Westerners.
Q: In business, the word Siam is not considered very fortunate. Most businessmen would pick "Thai" instead of "Siam" if they decided to add either word to their corporate names.
A: That is not quite correct. What about Siam Paragon, Siam Square, Siam Commercial Bank and Siam Cement? All those firms were known to be very prosperous, though people superstitiously circumvented this by saying "Thai Phanich" to refer to the bank or "Poon Yai" to refer to the cement firm in Thai.
Q: How could the renaming of the country possibly help address today's polarized politics in which, for instance, people are divided into "yellow" and "red"?
A: Political problems can by no means be resolved just by renaming the country. But such things could be a stepping stone toward political reconciliation. It could pave way for peaceful co-existence and wholehearted recognition of social diversities among all people of this country.
Q: Would the people eventually accept such changes to the country's name?
A: Some people would never care and ask "what difference does it make? A country is a country, no matter what name". They would not be able to tell Siam from Thailand, given 70 years of having been accustomed to the latter name.
It might take a long time for them to learn and understand history as well as to go for the first, easy step toward national harmony and reconciliation.