Siam or Thailand? The Pattani Malay Case

Via New Mandala, I came across this interesting video, a statement by the Barisan Revolusi Nasional (National Revolutionary Movement) that claims to represent the Pattani Malay nation of southern Thailand.

The language is a fairly formal version of Bahasa Melayu, the national language of Malaysia.* I was interested to hear the speaker refer to not Thai colonialism, but rather “Siamese colonialism” [= kolonisasi oleh Siam]. Elsewhere we hear Thailand as negara Siam, and several other such constructions.

I wonder if this use of Siam instead of Thailand is politically meaningful. In Malay, as in English and in Thai itself, the word Siam is not proper. Instead, one would say negara Thai [= State of Thailand] or kerajaan Thai [= Kingdom of Thailand]—or, as the Bahasa Melayu wikipedia page does it, just Thailand. The word Siam was used by the Thai monarchy prior to 1949, but it is an exonym. According to Preecha Juntanamalaga’s very interesting article “Thai or Siam?” published in the journal Names: A Journal of Onomastics**,

Clearly, then, Siam is a loanword into Thai, where it is treated as a”foreign” element following Pali-Sanskrit word order in compounds. Thai, on the other hand, is an original word and used according to the normal syntax of the language.

For centuries, the distinction between the two terms was clear.

The Thai people continued to refer to themselves as Thai and to their realm as Mu’ang Thai, Krong Thai, and Krong Sri Ayudhya. Foreign traders, on the other hand, consistently referred to the realm as Siam or a variant.

Only in the 1800s did the kingdom come to refer to itself as Siam. Specifically, under the modernizing King Mongkut:

the King required new standards and forms of dress for those in his presence; similarly, the “civilized nation” required a “proper” name.

Put otherwise, the idea is that Mongkut wished to portray himself as equal to the European powers of the time. Doing so could have been facilitated by adopting the name that the European powers themselves used to describe his realm.

The article also discusses when and why the switch from Siam to Thailand took place. That discussion touches on domestic political conflict after the fall of the absolute monarchy in 1932, as well as the WWII alliance with Japan and its subsequent disavowal. There is also a section on why some scholars today prefer Siam, with some considering Thailand a “mongrelization.” The politics of language indeed!

So to return to the Pattani Malay conflict, what’s going on with naming Thailand “Siam?” My guess is that it recalls the colonial empire that called itself Siam, the successor of which BRN believes still is colonizing Pattani. It could also be that they consider this term to be an insult. It could also be that they reject the idea that they live in a country called Thailand, because reject the assumption that they are Thai.

Perhaps a scholar of Thailand could enlighten me in further.


* It is very clearly not the local Pattani variant of Malay. I can only barely understand that dialect, and my understanding is imperfect even under the best circumstances.
** Yes, such a journal exists.

Posted in Asia, Language, Malaysia
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