This article is a guest piece, courtesy of Zachary Harden. Scroll down to the bottom of the page to learn more about the author.
Thailand; when you think of anything relating to the country, it is usually its spicy food, beautiful Buddhist temples and that it is one of the few Asian countries that did not suffer under the pressure of an European colonial power. This “Land of Smiles” has a long and complex history; so does the story of their national flag. We will discuss the history of the very simple, yet very symbolic, national flag and what steps it took to become an ever-present symbol in the Kingdom.
A Brief History
Formerly known as Siam, Thailand is a kingdom in Southeast Asia that is bordered by modern-day Laos, Myanmar, Cambodia and Malaysia. For much of its history, Thailand was a group of separate cities that did not unite until the early Sukhothai Kingdom and then experienced the golden age during the Ayutthaya Period. Once Burma (now Myanmar) invaded Ayutthaya, the kingdom fell briefly before the Thonburi Kingdom rose up from the ashes and eventually bringing forth the Rattanakosin Kingdom after the king of Thonburi, Taksin the Great, was executed following a coup. In 1932, the absolute monarchy in the kingdom ended and paved way for a constitutional monarchy that continues to this day (with a brief occupation by Japan during WWII). In all of this time, there was contact with European powers (most notably the Portuguese). There were also contacts between the French and British, yet in a stroke of luck, they were not occupied by any European power and was used as a neutral site so French Indochina and British colonies in Malay and Burma would not face each other in battle. With this important distinction, we now come to the history of the flag.
In the Ayutthaya Kingdom it is rumored that a plain red flag was used, though there is no historical evidence that indeed this flag was used. A common story is that this plain red flag was used to show to French vessels that the ship was indeed boarded by seamen (not pirates) and also the Portuguese. Even after the adoption of official flags, this plain red flag was used by civilian ships until approximately 1855. The first official flag was adopted by King Rama I the Great around 1790, who stated the plain red flag must be charged with a white chakra. As for why the chakra (a circular-like weapon with serrated blades used by the Hindu god Vishnu), that is not historically certain or proven. However, the leading theory is that as the head of the Chakri Dynasty (still ruling to this day in Thailand), he wanted to include the chakra as a symbol of the dynasty.
The second national flag, adopted by King Rama II around 1820, added a white elephant inside a chakra. The white elephant, considered a royally auspicious symbol in Thailand and other parts of Asia, is a feature that is going to be present in future national flags and still used to this day in the naval ensign. Eventually the elephant got the full spotlight, as a red flag with the white elephant was adopted as the national flag in 1840. Various flags with the elephant, including those with ceremonial dressings (caparisoned) were introduced in 1893 and continued until heavy use by the state until the early 1900’s.
A Simple Flag
For the modern national flag, it took a new king and an art problem to think a new design would be best suited for his people. According to research by the Thai National Flag Museum in Bangkok, King Rama VI was upset at seeing how there were variations in how the elephant was designed. To create a solution for his people, he decided in November of 1916 to have a design that is symmetrical and could easily be replicated. This pattern takes the red and white from the previous patterns, yet turned it into five stripes of red/white/red/white and red; the other design feature is the central blue stripe is double the size of the other stripes (1:1:2:1:1:), a pattern that continues to today. It is of note that the widely distributed theory of the design change being due to the fact the flag was flown upside down before King Rama VI has since been disproven by the Museum.
It was not until September 28th, 1917 that King Rama VI added blue to the double center stripe to form the national flag that is used today. Officially, there is no standard meaning for the three colors used on the national flag. One rumored suggestion was that blue was added to match those of the major Allied Powers that participated (along with Thailand), in World War I. Another theory is that the auspicious color for King Rama VI was blue, as he was born on a Saturday (will be explained later). Either way, the main explanation for the colors boils down to red for the nation and the blood spilled to defend her, white for the Buddhist virtues of the country and the blue for the monarchy that is at the core of the Thai people’s wellbeing and prosperity.
When it comes to flag usage in modern-day Thailand, the question is not if but how many can you count. It is very common for the national flag to be used daily in civilian life; you can see it on clothing, as decorations in temples and flown on every conceivable building and surfaces from the biggest cities to the smallest villages and boats. Daily, the flag ceremonies across the country at 08:00 and 18:00 have people stop and watch the flag either be raised or lowered to the tune of “Phleng Chat Thai” (National Anthem). The other key factor is that the national flag, known locally as the Thong Trairong, is never alone.
The two main flags that would accompany the national flag would be those of Buddhism or of the monarchy. The Thai Buddhist flag (Thong Dhammacak) is an orange flag with a red Buddhist wheel in the center. While the five stripped International Buddhist flag can be seen and bought in Thailand, this flag would be seen most often at temples, schools and homes. The monarchy flags (Thong Pracham Phra-ong) are mono-colored and charged in the center a chypher or symbol that was designed for that monarch. While the use of these flags is still fairly new in the terms of history (first evidence of these kinds of flags being used was in the 1980’s), they have come into great use in the later years of the reign of King Rama IX and continued to this day.
The flag colors are based on the day of the week the royal was born; for example both King Rama XI and King Rama X were born on a Monday and the associated lucky color is a golden/yellow. Similar flags you would see around the country would be of blue to honor Queen Sirikit of the Ninth Reign and purple to honor Princess Sirindhorn. It is not uncommon to see multiple royal flags flown at the same time nor uncommon for flags of royals who have passed, including the recently cremated King Rama XI, to be used by the people as a sign of devotion.
In conclusion, the Thai national flag is a simple, yet very complex, going full circle from a single colored flag to what we have today. Also, despite the political landscape, the organic use of the national flag is very easy to spot and could only be rivalled by the United States.
About the guest author ...
This guest article was kindly written for Vexillology News by Zachary Harden, an American-based vexillologist and is currently the Flags of the World editor for several Asian countries, including Thailand. He also serves as a deputy director of the Thai National Flag Museum that is based in Bangkok, Thailand.