11 July 2024

Prof Nidhi Eoseewong: The pioneer who cut new paths through Thai history

Professor Nidhi Eoseewong, a renowned historian who became an opinion leader and political commentator, died of lung cancer on August 7 at the age of 83.

A long-time history lecturer at Chiang Mai University until his retirement in 2000, Nidhi was once described as “one of the greatest historians that Thailand has ever produced … [and] also a leading figure in the Thai intellectual circle”.

So said the award citation when Nidhi received the Fukuoka Academic Prize from the Japanese city of Fukuoka in 1999 at the age of 59.

“It is no exaggeration to say that a significant portion of Thailand’s history from the Ayudhya Dynasty onward has been wholly rewritten by him. In addition to his academic activities as a historian, he continues to write witty and sensational columns on the culture, politics, and society of present-day Thailand, and thus has a strong social influence,” the citation continued.

The award was established by the Fukuoka City International Foundation to honor the outstanding work of individuals or organizations in preserving or creating Asian culture.

Apart from the Fukuoka Prize, Nidhi was also honored with the Sriburapha Award – which recognizes excellence in journalism, writing, and arts – as well as the Outstanding Research Award from the National Research Council of Thailand.

Challenging the mainstream

Nidhi’s works often disputed mainstream Thai history backed by the establishment. However, Thanet Aphornsuvan, a history professor and former dean of Thammasat University’s Faculty of Liberal Arts, dismisses the view that Nidhi’s books were based on radical or Marxist theories.

“If you look at his works, leftist or Marxist theories are almost non-existent. His history books were not based on Marxist theorists. His works focused on beliefs, religions, ideologies and politics – and not just the economic realm in particular,” Thanet said at an event held in memory of Nidhi on August 13.

Born on May 23, 1940, to a Chinese-Thai family in Bangkok, Nidhi obtained his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in history from Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Arts.

In 1966, he began teaching history at the Faculty of Humanities in Chiang Mai University. Later, he studied at the University of Michigan in the US and obtained a doctorate in history in 1976.

Nidhi resumed his teaching job at Chiang Mai University after his return from the US, serving as the head of its History Department and later as chairman of its post-graduate curriculum board.

He became a visiting professor at Kyoto University’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies between 1982-1983.

Upon his return to Thailand, Nidhi resumed his job leading the post-graduate curriculum board at Chiang Mai University’s History Department.

In 1985, he became a professor of history at the university. The title was given to him as a promotion, skipping the posts of assistant and associate professor.

Nidhi was granted an honorary doctoral degree in history by Burapha University in 1998. He also received an honorary doctorate in political science from Thammasat University in 2012.

A prolific academic

In 1998, two years before his retirement, he co-founded Midnight University with other academics and scholars. The website hosted online bulletin boards and public discussion groups on current affairs and offered a large database of academic articles on various topics. Nidhi was a major contributor to the popular website.

After his retirement in 2000, Nidhi continued his academic work and wrote political commentaries for newspapers and magazines.

But the main body of his work was the volumes of Thai history he had been energetically producing since the 1980s. These works vigorously challenged traditional views and images of Thai history centered on royal dynasties, and the conventional historical narratives based on Western academic methodologies.

His own method of historical study was characterized by meticulous critical reading and interpretation of various artefacts, including official documents, records kept in temples, and journals and commentaries written by visitors from the West. Nidhi was also blessed with a rich conceptual and imaginative faculty, which enabled him to capture the broader picture evoked by historical documents.

Later in life, Nidhi turned his focus from history to the present day, using his extensive knowledge to write commentaries for newspapers and magazines on current developments in culture, politics, society, and economics.

By Thai PBS World’s Political Desk