Over 1,000 years ago, the ancestors of modern Thai people came from the north in China and settled the region we currently know as Thailand. The people in this land have traditionally referred to their country as Mueang Thai, meaning “Land of the Thai.” Outsiders, however, have long had another name for the region – Siam. What is Siam, you ask?
What is Siam?
The direct origins of the word “Siam” are a bit unclear. It is thought that perhaps “Siam” comes from the Sanskrit word śyāma, which means “dark.” Siam has long been used as an exonym for the region of modern-day Thailand. An exonym is an external or outsider name for a geographical place (for example, in English, we say “Germany”, which is an exonym because people in that country would say “Deutschland”).
One of the oldest known mentions of Siam came from a 12th-century inscription at the Khmer temple complex of Angkor Wat in Cambodia, which refers to syam people. However, the Portuguese are widely credited with popularizing the term in the West. They began referring to the region as Siam starting in the 16th century.
Beginning in the 1780s, the Chakri dynasty would come to rule a large portion of Southeast Asia. In the 19th century, one of the Chakri kings, King Mongkut, began signing documents with “Mongkut King of the Siamese.” This gave Siam “official” status. By the end of the century, all official English language treaties and correspondences used the Kingdom of Siam.
Why Did Siam Change its Name to Thailand?
In the 20th century, a new generation of leaders sought to move Thai society away from its royalist heritage. They wanted to establish a government and parliament more similar to western democracies. A radical People’s Party was formed in 1927, and a bloodless revolution would end centuries of absolute monarchy in 1932. One of the revolutionary leaders, Luang Phibunsongkhram (Phibun), would assume power in Siam.
Phibun admired the race-based nationalism that was prevalent throughout Europe in the 1930s. In his efforts to promote his nationalist goals and to help modernize his country, Phibun changed the name of Siam to Prathet Thai (Thailand) in 1939. The name change was simply one step in a larger aim to pressure citizens to embrace the “national” culture being formulated by the military regime.
Phibun would take even more drastic measures to establish his “Thailand for the Thai” philosophy. He put strict limits on the number of Chinese immigrants allowed in the country. Phibun offered government backing to Thai businesses, all the while limiting the amount of Chinese taught in schools. Phibun even went so far as to request citizens to wear western-style clothes. All part of his plan to establish a new, modern Thai identity.
When the Second World War began, Thailand allied with Japan, which ultimately would lead to Phibun’s resignation in 1944. Thailand would change its name back to Siam in 1945. However, a military coup in 1947 would bring Phibun back to power. He would change the name once again to Thailand, and this time, he had the backing of the United States, who were worried about communist North Vietnam, and wanted allies in the region.
In 1957, Phibun was ousted from power by a newer, younger generation of rivals, but the name Thailand continues to be used to this day. Most people in the country, including the ruling factions, continue to support the current name. However, there are some that would rather see the name Siam restored, arguing the latter comes with a greater sense of ethnic and religious inclusiveness.