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Siam or Thai, Shan or Tai

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On 24 June 1939, Luang Pibulsongkhram, then leader of Siam, declared the change of his country’s name to Thailand.

Since then, the kingdom has been in endless debates whether it should return to Siam which “does not signify any ethnicity” or simply continue using Thailand which represents the majority ethnic group.

Those who are for Siam, including one of the country’s most respected intellectuals, Sulak Sivaraksa, view “the name Thailand signifies the wrong kind of nationalism,” while undermining “the status of Siamese of Malay, Chinese, Lao, or Cambodian descent, for instance.” They demand the return to the older name Siam, which presumably does not represent any ethnic group in the kingdom.

Both sides however, to my knowledge, have ever asked other branches of the Tai family like Shans, for instance, and their neighbors what they think about it. Had they made inquiries, I’m sure these people will gladly share everything they know about it.

For the Shans and the non-Shans of Burma the answer is simple: Shan is the name given to those people who call themselves Tai, the ethnic and linguistic cousins of the Thais.

What’s more, Shan is a corruption of “Si-em,” the Khmer word for all peoples of the Tai family. The word later corrupted into “Sayam” by the Thais, “Siam” by the British and “Shan” by the Burmese.

According to an ancient story of the Wa, one of the peoples of the Khmer family, these was a giant watermelon after the creation of the world. When it ripened three brothers emerged, Wa, Chinese and Shan, the first human beings.

The Wa has a saying:
“Ai Wa (#1 is Wa)
Yi Haw (#2 is Chinese)
Sarm Si-em (#3 is Shan/Siam/Sayam/Tai)

“A thousand miles on an elephant through the Shan States,” a book published in 1890 about a fact-finding trip made by Holt S. Hallett in 1876 through today’s Thailand and Burma’s Shan State has simply called both the Shan States.

Burmese naturally transliterate “Siam” as “Shan”, says its preface. Even today when people from Burma’s Myawaddy are crossing the Moei into Thailand’s Maesod, they still say they are bound for Shan Pyi (Land of the Shan or Siam) never Thailand, a fact which has never failed to catch the unsuspecting Shans like the author offguard.

Renowned scholar the late Jitr Bhumisak, I believe, wrote once about Siam being synonymous with Thai and Shan with Tai.

That’s why in Burma, there are on-and-off attempts led by the Burmese junta to rename Shan State as Kambawza, a corruption of the Pali word Kamboja, citing the word Shan only represents Tais. The Shans, in response, have vehemently objected to it because, among other things, it could be confused with Cambodia, also a corruption of Kamboja.

For another, the Burmese junta is itself still insisting on using the word Myanmar to represent all the ethnic groups in Burma, including the majority Burmans (also known as Burmese, Myanmar and Bamar from where the English word Burma is derived).

Currently, some have suggested that a historical and geographical name like Mao would be better. But it has yet to gain any momentum.

It appears therefore that for Thailand and Shan State (as well as Burma) to adopt historical and geographical names like America, Australia, Britain and China, more in-depth research should be the order of the day.

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