Many of us imagine the land of Siam as an exotic, almost fairytale-like land of mystery. The modern version of that image is fueled by Rogers and Hammerstein’s musical “The King and I” and its film version. The American version of Siam only reenforces the fantasy that has lasted half of a millenium.
The mere mention of Siam in literature or conversation conjures up visions of a mystical, Far Eastern paradise ruled by great benevolent kings and queens, who lived in gilded palaces. The land is dotted with quaint, picturesque villages. All of this vision includes those mysterious, pointy-topped Buddhist stupas. The vision is one of a monarchial utopia. It is this vision that continues to be fostered by the tourism industry.
The reality of the Kingdom of Siam was quite different but not quite dystopian. A more conventional type of empire and nation building took place over several centuries. The emergence of the Kingdom involved five dynasties with 33 kings and the eruption of some 70 wars. One of those took place in the fourteenth century as efforts were made to finally conquer the neighboring Khmers. Angkor Wat (today a World Heritage Park) was sacked in 1431.
In the sixteenth century, the Portuguese arrived in Siam in 1551 and the Spaniards in 1598 in order to colonize the area and place the people under Christiandom. The first Europeans are likely responsible for naming the area “Syam” The Dutch arrived in 1602 and the British in 1612 with more pragmatic, commercial aims. Thus began a long, drawn-out period of unrest and warfare between Southeast Asian neighbors, China, and European powers. The Kingdom and country of Siam continued in this manner until the twentieth century.
A major change came with the Siamese Revolution of 1932. A group of military officers and civil servants raided the Bangkok government while King Rama VIII was away at his summer palace. The Revolution of 1932 transformed the government of Siam from an absolute to a constitutional monarchy.
As is the case with most new governing systems, Siamese politics became unstable. The revolutionary regime split into factions that followed different civilian and military leaders. The new ruling elites feared communism and counter-revolution and soon the military powers won. Taking the prime minister’s post was Plaek Phibun Songkhram (Phibun). One of his goals was to institute an ultra-nationalist/fascist policy of unifying the Thai-speaking Tai people into the Kingdom of Siam.
Phibun’s euphemistically named “nationalist” movement believed in the ideas of “racial purity”. As history has noted, fascist or nationalist, conservative movements had mushroomed during the 1930s across the World, so Phibun’s aims were not unusual for the times.
With this idea of nationalism and “purity” in mind, Phibun issued his first official edict on June 24, 1939. The Kingdom of Siam was to be renamed as Thailand, the land of the Thai peoples. Phibun said, “The name Siam does not correspond to our race.” Some of his policies were apparently aimed at racial minorities. He took particular advantage of the deep-rooted popular suspicion of minority Chinese immigrants.
The Empire of Japan had been at the doorstep of Indochina waiting to capture the Malayan frontier. Just a few hours after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Imperial Japanese army, on December 8, 1941, demanded the right to move their forces across Thailand to the Malayan territory.
The Japanese forces battled the Thai army for some eight hours until Phibun ordered an armistice. The Japanese were granted free access across Thailand. Then, Thailand and Japan inked a secret protocol and alliance on December 21, 1941. In return for Thai cooperation, the Japanese pledged to help them regain the land that was taken by the British and French during the European Colonial period.
Meantime, a parallel, anti-Japanese, underground resistance movement, the Seri Thai, actively worked as a foil to the Imperial Japanese forces and collaborators. As a side note, The Sera Thai were able to offer covert help to the 260,000 Asian workers and Allied prisoners of war who toiled on the infamous Thailand-Burma Death Railway. Think of the “Bridge on the River Kwai”.
At the conclusion of World War Two, Thailand and the United States became allies, in part, due to the efforts of the Sera Thai to help the Allied forces. The Allies also determined that the Siamese-Thai regime had acted under duress.
However, the issue of the name of Siam was still a problem. The anti-Axis underground and Allies had refused to recognise the name that Phibun had mandated during the nation’s alliance with the Japanese Empire.
The final step, in officially changing the name of the Kingdom of Siam, was made on July 20, 1948. The Siamese Constituent Assembly voted to change the name of Siam to Thailand. That change was to become effective the next year while the nation, as a whole, was to make adjustments for the transition.