Siam Officially Renamed Thailand

Richard Cavendish explains how the proposal to change the name of Siam to Thailand was eventually accepted on May 11th, 1949.

On July 20th, 1948, the Siamese constituent assembly voted to change the name of Siam to Thailand, the change to come into effect the following year. Muang Thai or Thailand means ‘land of the free’ and the name had been changed before, in 1939 under the fascist military dictatorship of Field Marshal Luang Phibunsongkhram, but the anti-Axis powers refused to recognise the new name after Siam allied herself with the Japanese and in 1942 declared war on the United States and the United Kingdom.

Phibun and his nationalist supporters in Siam took the Japanese side, partly because it initially looked like the winning one, partly because they hoped to recover long-lost territory in Laos, Cambodia and Burma, and partly because of their profound hostility to the Chinese in Thailand. They had already restricted Chinese immigration, closed hundreds of Chinese schools and shut down Chinese newspapers. In any case, when the Japanese late in 1941 demanded free passage across Thailand to invade Malaya and attack Singapore, the Thais were in no position to resist.

As the war went on, however, and it became clear that the country had picked the losing side, the resources of Thai diplomacy were skilfully marshalled to make the country’s peace with the Allies while taking care not to offend the Japanese unduly. Phibun’s regime ended in 1944. After the war the United States decided that the Thai regime had acted under duress and no objection was raised to the change of name. Phibun returned to power in 1948 and his hostility to Communist China now put him in an altogether better light with the Western powers. He lasted until 1957, when his military cronies decided they had had quite enough of him and sent him packing. He retired to Japan and lived in Tokyo until his death in 1964.

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