Probably the first thing anyone experiences about Thailand is the famous “sawasdee krup!” greeting, followed by the “wai”. It is the probably the first (and sometimes only) Thai word learned by many (along with “khop khun krup”), and to many people these two things represent the ancient ways of a society that stretches back in time.
How wrong they would be.
Much of what we think is “Thainess” is rather recent, and the story begins, like in much of Thai history, with a military coup.
In 1932, after hundreds of years of absolute monarchy, a People’s Party movement took over the country and wrote the country’s first constitution and held its first elections. Eventually, a 42 year old Lieutenant Colonel known to Thais today as Phibun was able to consolidate all power and became a virtual dictator.
Phibun wanted to transform Siam from a multi ethnic society in which ethnic Tais, Chinese, Muslims, and Indians co-existed, equal but separate, into one uniform society.
One of the first things Phibun did after consolidating power was create a “Bureau of Mind Culture”. From 1939-1942 the Bureau issued a series of state decrees called “Cultural Mandates” to show Thai people how to behave. (I am not making this stuff up).
Mandate #1 was to change the name of the country from Siam to Thailand. (There are people today who refuse to call the neighboring country “Myanmar” because they claim that was a name forced on “Burma” by an unelected military government, yet they call Thailand “Thailand” although the country got its name the same way.)
This caused companies with “Siam” in their name to change it—Siam Commercial Bank was renamed Thai Commercial Bank and Siam Cement was called Thai Cement. These two companies did not revert to their original English names until after the dictator was deposed.
Mandate 4 required among other things that all Thais stop whatever they were doing twice a day and stand at attention during the playing of the national anthem. This law is still on the books today and it is fun to watch the unsuspecting tourist riding the BTS at 6pm wondering why everything stopped. (By the way, the Thai National Anthem was composed in 1932 and its lyrics changed after a competition in 1939 when the name of the country changed. The music was taken from the Polish National Anthem. Also, this is not the music that is played when you stand before a movie begins—that music is the Royal Anthem.)
Mandate 5 was about requiring all Thais to eat Thai food. The ubiquitous noodle carts one sees on the streets today were first introduced during this time to encourage people to eat noodles instead of rice which was considered “Chinese”.
All Thais were required to eat with a knife and fork, rather than with their hands. And they must eat sitting on a chair at a table, not on the floor.
All Thais were forbidden to spit or chew betel nut.
Now anyone who has been to Myanmar knows that all Myanmar people wear a national dress (men, for example wear a sarong like lower garment called a Longyi.) Has anyone ever wondered why Thais wear western clothing?
Mandate 10 defined how people should dress. All women were strongly encouraged to wear western clothing, specifically ¾ length skirts, blouses, bobby socks and gloves. All men were strongly encouraged to wear western clothing and both sexes, and this was the big thing at the time, were required, by national decree, to wear shoes.
Additional, all men and women were required to wear hats. During WW2 slogans such as “wear a hat for your country” and “Hats will lead Thailand to Greatness” were commonly heard.
The wearing of sarongs, shorts in public, and only underwear were punishable offenses. More damaging was the decree that women working in the fields were no longer allowed to be topless.
Mandate 11 was about daily life. Let’s look at this mandate verbatim:
1. "Thai people should divide their time into three portions. One for work, one for personal activities, and one for rest and sleeping. This should be orderly and follow a schedule until it becomes habitual."
2. "Thai people should carry out their normal personal activities as follows:
1. "Eat meals at set times, no more than four daily;
2. "Sleep approximately 6-8 hours."
3. "Thai people should faithfully perform work duties without discouragement or shirking. The midday rest and lunch period should be no longer than one hour. At the end of the working day, exercise by playing sports for at least one hour, or other activities such as gardening, caring for pets, or planting trees. Then, after showering, eat dinner.
4. "Thai people should use their free time at night to complete necessary work, converse with family and friends, seek knowledge by listening to radio news or reading, or other entertainment or arts, as opportunity permits."
5. "Thai people should use days off to benefit their bodies and minds by participating in religious activities, listening to sermons, making merit, seeking knowledge, traveling, playing sports, or resting."
There was a ban on bathing on public roads, and sitting on pavements.
And for those who wish to know why Thais today are so docile when walking down the street, Phibun passed a law forbidding them to “aggressively push into queues.”
Phibun then decreed that everyone take a Thai name. Surnames had been introduced a few years earlier but now it was a requirement that all ethnic groups take Thai names. Most Chinese took their Chinese name (Chan, Shin, Wang etc) and added Thai/Pali/Sanskrit word roots to make a Thai name. By law every name had to be unique and registered with the police (still true today) so they kept adding syllables until the name was different from all others. This is why many Thai names today are 4 and 5 syllables long. Even today it is usually possible to determine if a Thai person’s family originally came from China by looking at the first syllable of their last name (Shinawatara, for example).
As an aside, as most Isaan people came from the area we now call Laos they were not Chinese which might explain why Isaan people usually have short last names.
Now Phibun wasn’t doing this alone. He had his very own Minister of Propaganda, a man the Thais refer to as Wichit (original name Kim Liang). Wichit was in fact the Chairman of the Committee that proposed changing the name of the country in 1939. Wichit, after studying the world’s civilizations, came to the inescapable conclusion that the Thai culture was one of the greatest in the world.
In 1941 Phibun passed a law declaring January 1 to be the start of the New Year, rather than April 13.
My favorite law was one that required husbands to kiss their wives in the morning when leaving for work, and again when coming home. The punishment for failing to do so was imprisonment.
Here’s where we come to the important stuff. Phibun decreed, again under pain of punishment, that all Thais must say “thank you” and must also say “Krup” or “Ka” (depending on sex) after everything they said. Listen today to a cultured Thai women who is listening to someone else speak, and you will hear her say “ka” every few seconds.
He also decreed that people excuse themselves and so required Thais to say “excuse me (“Kho Thot”).
But the amazing thing is that the words “Thank you” and “excuse me” did not exist at the time so they had to be invented. Phibun turned to a linguistic scholar named Phraya Upakit Silapasan who invented these words.
The concept of the “wai” has been around for thousands of years, but Phibun’s laws required Thais to always greet each other with a wai, as they still do today. But the wai had to be accompanied by a greeting, and the common Thai greeting at the time was “have you eaten yet?” (still used in rural areas today). This would not do so Phibun turned again to Silapasan, who turned to the Sanskrit word “svasti” meaning “well being” and so the word “sawasdee” was thus invented in the mid 1930’s. (Previously a similar word had been used in written form only in important documents).
The word svasti is the same root that the word “swastika” comes from.