The Origin of the Name Thailand

Cultural Insights – The Origin of the Name Thailand

Some of you will know that before ‘Thailand’ the South-East Asia Kingdom was known as ‘Siam’. However, the historical background of the change of names goes deeper than what we may assume and is at times even a little confusing. That is why today we will give you a brief and concise history of how ‘Thailand’ came to be.

Although the Thai people always referred to their country as ‘Mueang Thai’ or ‘Prathet Thai’ (Land of the Thai), the outside world knew it only as Siam for many centuries. This was the name that the Portuguese gave this region in the 16th century during their era as an empire.  The first time the Kingdom was officially regarded as Siam was when King Mongkut in the mid-19th century signed his documents with ‘King of the Siamese. To this day is difficult to pinpoint the exact origin of the word “siam”. Most people say it comes from the Sanskrit word “śyāma” meaning “dark”, but, again, there is no absolute certainty about this claim. 

The change to ‘Thailand’ came in 1939 after the fascist leader Luang Phibunsongkhram (short: Phibun) and his radical People’s Party succeeded in a bloodless coup years before. He wanted the country to step away from the traditional ideology of a monarchy and instead embrace the modernity of a nationalist society.  This was heavily inspired by the nationalism spread throughout Europe like in Germany and Italy. The dictator Phibun had two big goals in mind; one was to limit the immigration of Chinese people into Thailand, which had the effect that many Chinese schools, businesses, and newspapers were shut down. His philosophy or slogan was “Thailand for the Thai” and he enforced these words mercilessly. The other goal was to regain control over Laos, Cambodia, and Burma. These were former Thai territories that, one after another, had been lost over the years. In order to achieve his goals, Phibun sided with Japan during the Second World War. He assumed that he was joining forces with the winning force. As we all know now, this was not the case. When the war was over it was only thanks to great diplomacy that Thailand didn’t face any major consequences for their association with Japan. But in the face of his defeat, Phibun had to resign in 1944 and one year later, Siam was once again the official name. 

However, yet another military coup – this time with the strong support of the United States – would bring Phibun back in 1947 and with him ‘Thailand’. 20th July 1948 is the historical date when the Siamese constituent assembly, once and for all, voted for and solidified the name we now know to this day. 

There are some people today, who want to bring back ‘Siam’ because it promises more inclusiveness in terms of ethnicity and religion. But as we mentioned in the beginning, throughout most of history Thai people always saw themselves as Thai – whether that means as ‘free’ (the literal translation of Thai) or as a distinct people.