In May 2014, a video clip of an illegal Myanmarese immigrant singing the Thai national anthem with native-like proficiency at the order of the Thai police went viral, becoming an ironic spectacle for Thai citizens, who often assume only they can accurately sing the song. From this presumption, officers have used the singing of the anthem as a test to determine whether a suspected immigrant is a Thai native, but now the Myanmarese man’s performance has complicated things. As the officer who arrested him remarked: “It will now be difficult to do an arrest because the man can sing the anthem so accurately. A crack down will be harder nowadays.” 1 The officer’s comment and Thai citizens’ fascination with the singer point to the larger significance of the anthem as a signifier of identity, commonality—and exclusivity. How did Thais come to develop these perceptions, and what larger political functions does the song play in Thai political history? This essay offers a condensed history of the Thai national anthem to illustrate that the hymn is not merely a patriotic, ceremonial song; it exemplifies a multivalent rhetoric to propel the political interest and power of the elites, while simultaneously inciting patriotism, nationalism, and sovereignty.
The importance of political songs for strengthening cohesion and identity has been well noted in studies of political rhetoric. Music and rituals, rhetorician Xing Lu posited, “serve primary functions with regard to persuasion, reinforcement, and/or ideological expression….They often convey powerful rhetorical messages, address rhetorical exigencies, express ideological agendas, arouse emotions, and stimulate actions.” 2 A nationally performed ritualistic hymn, the Thai anthem provides a pervasive means for building and exhibiting nationalistic sentiments to enable and celebrate intra and inter-national patriotism, unity, and valor. 3 An anthem thus represents a form of epideictic communication: ceremonial discourses aiming to cohere, praise, and rally the audience. Such a text is always ideological: It is a representation of an imaginary relationship between citizens and their country, enabled through ritualistic performances that incite sentiments to forge a sense of commonality and belonging among disparate citizens.
The contemporary origin of the Thai national anthem can be traced to 1932, when the People’s Party seized power from King Rama VII (1893-1941) to end absolute monarchy and establish constitutional monarchy. This new governance system, achieved through a coup d’etat, subverted traditional hierarchical structure and power in Thai society, which had revolved around the absolute monarch. Before the coup, Siam (what the country was then called) used the royal anthem as its national anthem. 4 Composed in the reign of King Rama V (1853-1910) by Prince Naris (1863-1947), the hymn venerated the supremacy of the crown. Its lyrics, written in a royal dialect or language reserved for addressing royals, depicted the monarch as a superlative figure worthy of utmost reverence. It attributed national success to his karmic greatness, and it concluded with a wish for his prosperity. Altogether, the anthem promoted supplication, loyalty, and veneration of the king, who was believed to be a reincarnation of the supreme god or devaraja. The anthem reflected and disseminated devaraja beliefs, propelling royal prominence in the age of absolute monarchy.
Upon assuming power in 1932, the new government ordered the composing of a new national anthem. The new lyrics, written by Kun Vichitmatra, accentuated patriotism and bravery, instead of monarchial supremacy:
Siam is a golden land owned by the Thais, who have ruled the kingdom
since ancient times. Thais have joined together to protect their freedom.
Whenever the enemy threatens, Thais will join arms to chase them away,
\giving up our blood to maintain the kingdom. Siam is built upon the flesh and
blood of Thais. Independence is what we revere. We will unite our body
and heart to seize power to protect our rights to freedom. Anyone who
invades us shall not be let go. We will eradicate them with our blood.
To the glory and triumph of the nation. 5
Evidently, the nation became the main focus of the new anthem. 6 The lyrics made no mention of the monarchy. The song actually resembled a nationalistic rally, a patriotic cry. It specifically called for patriotism and promoted self-sacrifice and independence as the core values and pride of Thai citizenship. In doing so, the anthem encouraged a new national consciousness based on valor and freedom, making it drastically different from the previous version. What’s more, the new lyrics were written in the common dialect, signifying that this anthem was a hymn of the people, for the people. By accentuating patriotism through vernacular language, the anthem shifted the focus away from the monarchy, creating a break from old aristocratic values that had dominated Thai lives for centuries. Perhaps this shift was not unexpected. Given the nascence of the new government, it needed to secure its status by promoting a different consciousness more congruent with its regime. The new anthem provided a timely means toward these ends. As such, it can be seen as propaganda for helping the government sustain its position during its nascent days.
However, the new anthem would not be in use for long. In 1933, the Ministry of Education objected to “inappropriate” words in its lyrics: “We will unite our body and heart to seize power to protect our rights to freedom.” 7 The Ministry cautioned that the phrase “to seize power” could incite disorderly conduct among school children, complaining: “The song contains an unpleasant phrase that might arouse undesirable sentiments….Those who don’t fully grasp the true meanings [of the phrase] can wrongly interpret the point of the song. The act of seizing power should not be discussed lightly or done at all….It is necessary to avoid inciting that idea in people’s heart.” 8 As a result of this complaint, the government struck out the “problematic phrase” from the anthem, and the revised lyrics now read: “We will unite our body and heart to protect Siam and its independence.” 9 Moreover, within the same year, the government held a contest for revising the anthem’s lyrics, and ultimately, the authority decided not to abolish what Kun Vichitmatra composed but elected to add additional verses by Chan Khamwilai to lengthen the song. Chan’s lyrics, like Kun Vichitmatra’s, accentuated patriotism, stressing the importance of liberty, valor, and cohesion. The revised song was formally adopted in 1934.
The revision of the lyrics points to an irony and hidden political agenda of the time. If we look closely at the content of the revised anthem, we shall see that on the one hand, it incited bravery and self-sacrifice by encouraging fierceness and even mortal annihilation: “Whenever the enemy threatens, Thais will join arms to chase them away, giving up our blood to sustain the kingdom. Siam is built upon the flesh and blood of Thai citizens….Anyone who invades us shall not be let go. We will eradicate them with our blood.” 10 The anthem had an aggressive tone. Words contributing to this tone—“eradicate,” “chase,” “shall not be let go,” “triumph”—appeared throughout, and combat and bloody sacrifice constituted the central imagery of the song. Interestingly, however, the Ministry of Education did not raise qualms about them. Somehow they were not seen to incite “unruly,” “disorderly” behaviors. Yet, the phrase “to seize power,” which is not as aggressive or violent at the denotative level, was. How should we interpret this irony?
To understand the irony, we must place the “inappropriate words” within its historical context. The problem with the phrase “to seize power” was not denotative but rather, connotative. According to Kun Vichitmatra, in the 1930s, the phrase alluded to the tyrannous act of the government: its seizing of power from King Rama VII. 11 Traditionally, the Thai culture branded anyone who disobeyed the monarchy as a tyrant or kabot. The phrase “to seize power” thus called attention to the coup’s deviant act and status, hindering its ethos and more significantly, legitimacy to rule. There had been insurgencies to topple the coup, but they were unsuccessful. Given these exigencies, the “problematic phrase” needed to be replaced with a more positive one, and the verb “protect” made for a clever choice. A strategic diction, protect connotes the preciousness, importance, and fragility of the nation, hereby motivating patriotic sentiments and bonds. The recognition that diction has the power to alter consciousness is well understood in rhetoric and argumentation studies. Rhetorician Kenneth Burke posited that the language we use is always a “terministic screen”: It filters and, in the process, shapes our understanding and sense of reality of a subject; the diction we employ directs our attention to certain aspects of a message, while deflecting it from others, or as Burke wrote: “Any given terminology is a reflection of reality, by its very nature as a terminology it must be a selection of reality; and to this extent it must function also as a deflection of reality.” 12 Heeding Burke’s point, the revision of the anthem represented a strategic deflective and cautionary strategy by the government to maintain itself. Otherwise put, the revision of the worrisome lexicon promoted a re-vision: The new verb assuaged citizens’ perception to motivate them to be more accepting of the new governing authority. Thus, the new Thai national anthem also promoted docility in citizens, curtailing their resistance against the new authority of the time. 13
But this newly revised anthem, too, would not be in use that long. It got abolished in 1939, after Plaek Phibunsongkram assumed premiership. Phibun changed the name of the nation from Siam to Thailand, so the anthem had to be revised once again to keep current with the name change. The government held a national contest for the new lyrics, and the one written by Luang Saranubhrabhun on behalf of the Thai Army received the winning prize:
The Thai nation unifies all Thai blood and flesh.
Every inch of Thailand is a civil state belonging to the Thais.
It has been able to maintain its sovereignty,
Because Thais have always loved unity.
Thais love peace, but they are not cowards in combats.
No one shall trample upon their independence.
All Thais will sacrifice every drop of their blood,
For the nation’s victory, prosperity, and glory.
Evidently, the new anthem, which is in use today, accentuates unity, sovereignty, and valor as its key themes. Specifically, national survival and independence are attributed to unity, making it significant to examine. Unity was an important political issue during Phibun’s era. The prime minister launched many campaigns to cohere diverse ethnic populations in Thailand into one identity as Thai. He declared in a mandate to the nation: “The division of Thai citizens into different groups and ethnicities such as Northern Thai, Eastern Thai, Southern Thai, Thai Muslim, etc. is not desirable for the Thai nation. We all ought to be unified and inseparable.” 14 Phibun also added that unity was essential to national prosperity, but as a new national agenda and mandate, it was not without concerns. It hindered difference and diversity, and what’s more, Phibun vigorously prosecuted his dissenters to the point that he had been called a dictator. Explained historian Thamsook Numnonda: “Phibun adopted a leadership theory not far different form those of Hitler and Mussolini, with himself as the sole architect and instigator. Under him there was strict obedience to ‘the Leader’s’ dictates….Phibun’s leadership theory has been responsible for a widespread existence of uncritical and submissive political culture.” 15
To promote uniformed compliance toward his directives, Phibun ordered newspapers to publish many “unifying” slogans on its front page: “Become unified by believing and listening to your beloved government”; “believe in the leader and the nation will escape calamity”; “repeat and believe what the leader said.” 16 These slogans and many more similar ones that aimed to strengthen cohesion motivated uncritical acceptance of authority, bolstering the prime minister’s power. Given what we know about Phibun’s leadership, unity should be seen as a political ideology that propagated problematic compliance and political control in the 1930s. It ultimately promoted docility among citizens and not to mention, the loss of diversity—under the disguise of patriotism. Cautioned Pavin Chachavalpongpun: “Unity is indeed a top-down concept, defined and driven by the leaders…to signal the quality of oneness, sameness, and agreement….It can serve to maintain the political status quo, to alienate all other alternatives in politics, and even to delay development toward democracy.” 17 Those who object to unity by thinking differently or refusing to comply are believed to “disunify” the nation, making them “un-Thai.” Unity, hence, represents an “elastic” strategy for curtailing resistance and maintaining a political regime. 18 Nonetheless, this critique is not to suggest that unity has no value or should be resisted. Rather, it is the uncritical acceptance and promotion of unity as a political ideology in service of “patriotism” propagated through the anthem and other media that we must question.
In sum, in the 1930s, Thailand went through three major national anthems: the first appeared in 1932, second in 1934 and last in 1939. 19 From this history, it is evident that the national anthem, a song seen as timeless and independent of political fractions, had always been historically entrenched in the maintenance of political power and interests of the authority. Rather than merely being a song of the people for the people, anthems maintained elites’ position and privilege; hence, they could be revised over and over again when they became incompatible with the prevailing political interest of the time. Each revision altered the historical narrative and focus, creating a different impression about nationalism. The idea of nation and nationalism, critical theorist Homi Bhabha argued, arises from narration. 20 The narratives we construct in our culture through songs, stories, and history create “an imagined community” to which we identify and for which we fight. They cohere a sense of “nationness” to constitute our identity, values, pride, and exclusivity. Yet, as this essay demonstrated, the narrative told in each version of the Thai anthem was never identical or disinterested. Depending upon what was accentuated, an altered understanding of national values, identity, and nationness could emerge. Thai national anthems, then, are flexible, multivalent rhetorical discourses: They represent a political-ideological propaganda, a pledge of allegiance, a patriotic sentiment, a unification of bonds, a rally for valor, an assertion of prideful identity—and a selective historiography, all at once. Given what we now understand about the history of the Thai national anthems, going forward, we must not see these hymns as an ordinary, ceremonial nationalistic performance. They are a rhetoric embedded in power relations, subjectivities, and institutions—all within the name of patriotism.
Chanon Adsanatham, PhD
Assistant Professor, Language, Writing, Rhetoric
Department of English, University of Maryland (USA)
NOTE FROM THE KRSEA EDITOR—
At the instruction of the author, this article was edited 14 August 2015 and small amendments were made to the original text from 01 August 2015. The author’s notes on the amendments are as follows:
1) Correct the erroneous year in paragraph 6 and add a few details (3 sentences) about the lengthened anthem in 1933 to offer richer historical information.
2) Provide four additional footnotes to clarify references and theoretical assumptions to substantiate sources and arguments. (Aj Somsak’s article is referenced and recommended as a reference.)
3) Clarify that I interpreted the phrase “to seize power” based on Kun Vichit by adding a small introductory clause (4 words) in paragraph 8.
4) Remove a few time frames discussed in the original article because they require further elaborations beyond the scope of the piece.
Kyoto Review of Southeast Asia. (Issue 17), YAV, August 2015
People standing at a market in Chaing Mai, Northern Thailand, when the Thai National Anthem is played:
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- “A Myanmarese Signing the Thai Anthem.” YouTube video, 1.22. Posted by Eddy Gym, Feb 7, 2012, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AtetiA_E6ww. ↩
- Lu, Xing. 2004. Rhetoric of the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Columbia, S.C.: University of South Carolina Press, 118. ↩
- Cerulo, Karen A. 1993. “Symbols and the World System: National Anthems and Flags.” Sociological Forum. 8.2. ↩
- Supot Manalapanacharoen. 2002. “National Anthems of Thailand and Their Problems.” Journal of European Studies 10.2. There were different versions of the royal anthem in Thai history. Somsak Jeamteerasakul did not classify them as a national anthem; however, Supot did. Further, Kun Vichitmatra initially refused to compose a new national anthem, when an officer asked him to do so in the 1930s. He reasoned that the nation already had one: the royal anthem. ↩
- Office of the Permanent Secretary Office of the Prime Minister. 2012. A Manual of Thai Flags. Bangkok, Aroon Printing, 28. ↩
- Before Kun Vichitmatra composed his lyrics, there was an unofficial anthem known as “Plaeng Chat Mahachai” circulating at this time. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Reports from Parliamentary Meeting: First Session. 1933. Bangkok, 503. ↩
- Office of the Permanent Secretary, A Manual, 28. At one point in the revision, Kun Vichitmatra proposed four replacement verses. ↩
- Office of the Permanent Secretary, A Manual, 28. ↩
- In his memoir, Khun Vichitmatra related that governmental officials raised a concern over the words “seize power” because they echoed the coup. Khun Vichit later clarified that he meant the phrase to mean the importance of grabbing on to power so that liberty would not be diminished. Somsak Jeamteerasakul posited another interpretation: the Ministry’s objection over the diction stemmed from the head of that agency’s ambivalence and concern over the inner struggle among coup officials in the 1930s. There were fragmentations that led People’s Party officials to seize power from one another; hence, the Minister’s disapproval of the phrase rose from intra-party politics of the time. Evidently, several interpretations of the phrase are plausible. ↩
- Burke, Kenneth. 2001. “From Language as Symbolic Action,” The Rhetorical Tradition, ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 1341. ↩
- My argument here reflects my theoretical assumption gleaned from postmodern rhetoric: No discourse is disinterested; it is always ideological and embedded in power relations. See James Berlin, Kenneth Burke, Helene Cixous, and Michel Foucault. My discipline, rhetorical studies, is interested in examining the strategic usage and effects of discourse on culture. ↩
- The Cultural Mandates. 1940. Railway Printing. ↩
- Thamsook Numnonda. 1978. “Pibulsongkram’s Thai Nation-Building Programme during the Japanese Military Presence, 1941-1945.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 236-237. ↩
- Uthaiwan Julchareon. 1997. “A Study of Field Marshall Phibunsongkhram’s Slogan According to the Policy of National Unity During 1942-1944.” Master’s thesis, Mahidol University, Thailand. ↩
- Pavin Chachavalpongpun. 2010. “‘Unity’ as a Discourse in Thailand’s Polarized Politics.” Southeast Asian Affairs, 333. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- The history I am relating here is a condensed one. There are more historical details. For a lengthier study see: Somsak Jeamteerasakul. 2004. “The Development of the Contemporary Thai National Anthem.” Thammasat Journal. 27.1. ↩
- Bhabha, Homi K. 1990. Nation and narration. London: Routledge. ↩