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Obituary for Dr. Nidhi Eoseewong: Revisiting Our Interview on His Views of Thai Core Identity

Updated: Sep 6, 2023

The obituary's tradition spans back to ancient times, evolving from public announcements of notable deaths to today's detailed accounts in digital media, each capturing socio-cultural transformations across the ages. While early obituaries celebrated royalty, modern versions embrace individuals from all walks of life, emphasizing both achievements and adversities. Guided by the deep dives of publications like The Economist, today's narratives strike a balance between admiration and critical insight. In our digitized era, obituaries act as historical markers, reflections of societal values, and poignant human tales. As we turn our focus to the life of Nidhi Eoseewong, we not only honor his role in history but also draw attention to our past engagement with him. Complementing this tribute, we will revisit our previous interview exploring his insights into the Thai core identity: The Nation, The Religion, and The Monarchy. This conversation, published a decade ago in 2013 in our book "Redefined Thailand," offers a deeper understanding of his profound influence on Thai thought.





In a modest classroom at Chiang Mai University, a young scholar enraptured his audience with narratives seamlessly interwoven with historical facts, urging a reevaluation of Thai history. This was Nidhi Eoseewong, an intellectual whose impact transcended the confines of his lecture hall and even his homeland.


Born to an ethnic Chinese family in the historically vibrant city of Chiang Mai in 1940, Dr. Nidhi's scholarly pursuits led him from Assumption College Sriracha to the esteemed corridors of Chulalongkorn University. However, it was at the University of Michigan, nestled among the Great Lakes, that he secured his doctorate. In this distant land, the emerging historian sharpened his skills, eventually bringing his expanded insights back to Thailand's heartland.


Chiang Mai University became his academic sanctuary. Here, Dr. Nidhi was not just a professor but an institution in himself. His wisdom wasn’t limited to campus boundaries. Midnight University, a digital platform, was yet another podium for his erudition. Here, he debunked myths, steered debates, and nurtured a new era of intellectuals.


To many, the nuances of identity and culture might appear consistent throughout Southeast Asia. But Dr. Nidhi delved deeper. In our interview on Thai identity, he painted a vivid portrait of a nation molded by its past, governance, and citizenry. With a voice both firm and soothing, he narrated stories of kings and commoners, of age-old customs and modernity, and of discord and unity.


Yet, it was not merely his vast expertise that distinguished him, but his humility and elegance. In the academic sphere, where egos often loom large, Dr. Nidhi stood out as a rare breed. He listened as intently as he articulated, perpetually eager to learn even as he imparted wisdom.


The news of his demise on August 7th, 2023, due to lung cancer, resonated deeply within the scholarly community, prompting a moment of introspection. With Dr. Nidhi's passing, Thailand mourned a treasured son, and the global academic landscape grieved the loss of an unparalleled historian.


His writings will be cited, his discourses revisited, and his legacy revered. Yet, for those privileged to have been his students or engaged in dialogue with him, the recollection of a warm-hearted academic with bright eyes and a fervor for history will eternally resonate.



 

Dynamics of Thai Identity: Nation, Religion, King - Insights from Nidhi Eoseewong


Professor Nidhi Eoseewong is renowned as one of the most significant scholars and thought leaders in Thai society. He excels in explaining complex phenomena in a simple language for society to understand. He possesses a profound and tactful perspective, which he conveys through articles in various magazines and academic works in history, such as "Pen and Sail: Literature and History in Early Bangkok" or "The Cult of the Ceremony of His Highness King Rama V," that have gained widespread acceptance.



The origins of this interview can be seen from this link. Some academic work refers to this interview such as this one.



Recognizing his expertise, the Redefine Thailand project seized the opportunity to conduct an interview with Prof. Nidhi. He is well-versed in history, society, and Thai politics, making him apt to elucidate the evolving and changing dynamics of Thai identity. Amidst this evolution, some influential forces in society endeavor to resist change. In this interview, Nidhi delves into topics such as the nation, religion, and, of course, the monarchy. The discussion revolves around Thailand's essence and its forthcoming trajectory.


SIU: In today's context, there's a notable clash between globalization and Thainess. This conflict appears to be intensifying over time. This prompts us to question the situation and seek insight from experts. We're curious about the ongoing developments and occurrences. How would you gauge the extent of the impact, sir?


Nidhi: While I'm not entirely certain about the extent to which globalization plays a role, I believe it's intertwined with changes in the economy that Thai society has undergone over the past three to four decades. This transformation has reshaped the societal landscape, departing from the traditional norms. It could be said that globalization is a catalyst for this change. I don't take a stance either for or against this shift. However, it's undeniable that these changes serve as the primary impetus.

The notion of Thai identity, once shared closely among a cohesive group, has significantly diverged.


People now identify themselves based on various groups, leading to contrasting perceptions of identity. As a result, this divergence encompasses every aspect, including religion, monarchy, law, democracy, rural populations, education, and more. The consequence is the existence of myriad viewpoints.




SIU: Does the definition of Thainess undergo constant transformation?


Nidhi: Continuous change is inherent in any society. However, the transformation may sometimes be anecdotal, without affecting the core structure. Allow me to elaborate by referring to the example of "luk thung" music (folk music). In the past, Bangkok residents didn't regard "luk thung" music with much appreciation. Yet, as societal demographics shifted, more individuals from different provinces moved to Bangkok for work. Consequently, "luk thung" gained prominence and became representative of Thai cultural traits. Nevertheless, this evolution didn't fundamentally alter the notion of being Thai.


Comparatively, there are instances when people proclaim, "I'm not a farmer." They no longer cultivate rice for sustenance; instead, they grow it for sale and to support their livelihoods. Their aspirations extend to providing better education for their children and enhancing agricultural efficiency. This divergence from the traditional farmer's ethos influences the core structure of Thai identity. Over the past century, the conception of Thai identity, hinging on self-sustaining farmers, has undergone profound shifts. Farmers are no longer self-reliant, and the integration of "luk thung" into national art doesn't reverse this change. The diversity of opinions regarding Thai identity highlights how the core structure has transformed.






SIU: Can we infer that the current debates surrounding democracy, such as those between the yellow shirts and red shirts, are representative of the ideological diversity stemming from the evolving Thai identity?


Nidhi: Determining whether globalization is the primary driver of these dynamics is complex. However, the crucial aspect is acknowledging the significance of the rule of law in Thailand and combatting corruption. The majority would likely agree on these principles. Nevertheless, when it comes to upholding equal rights for all, conflicts arise. The crux lies here: if equality is acknowledged as a fundamental premise, the discourse shifts to the means of eradicating corruption. Disagreements occur when equality isn't universally embraced. It's pivotal to emphasize that democracy necessitates upright politicians, but the method of ensuring their integrity differs, sparking contention.


SIU: Building upon our earlier discussion, is inequality intrinsic to Thai society's framework?


Nidhi: Indeed, hierarchy, rather than class, is the cornerstone of Thai society. Hierarchy bears immense significance. The recent identity shifts challenge this hierarchy, illustrating how the conventional social structure is crumbling. Society now perceives the old hierarchy as obsolete, leading to a new equilibrium. The catalyst behind this transformation is social development, coupled with economic changes that have normalized market engagement. Inequality becomes evident when comparing the economic opportunities and aspirations of contemporary farmers to those of their ancestors. This shift impacts the bedrock of Thai identity, precipitating changes in how we define ourselves.


SIU: Why has the social structure broken down?


Nidhi: This breakdown can be attributed to the unequivocal reality of social development. The situation is as straightforward as the way the majority of individuals in Thailand approach it. Each person is engaged in the market, ceaselessly contributing by producing goods or services for others. The market itself revolves around the principle of equality. Consequently, individuals find themselves confronted with the stark realization of their economic disparity. The question arises: "On what grounds do you continue to exist if not on a premise of parity?" The remnants of the antiquated hierarchy are the sole justification, yet this archaic framework is no longer sustainable.


SIU: So, won't the conservative establishment accept this, will they?

Nidhi: Of course not. This is precisely why we observe disputes and conflicts everywhere.


SIU: Is there a way to have a dialogue on what happened, considering social development or any relevant factors? It perpetuates the old order; perhaps it needs to be changed. Alternatively, it might simply be the norm, and we must contend with it.


Nidhi: When it comes to initiating discussions, I have two questions I'd like to ask. Firstly, who converses with whom? Well, I doubt that anyone can truly represent everyone. Secondly, I believe inevitability comes into play here. Whether the conversation involves two parties, three parties, or five parties depends on the circumstances. The idea isn't to select a representative from each of the five parties to participate in discussions, but to let those five parties learn to adapt themselves. I'm curious about the conditions under which this could happen.


In my opinion, the condition should be one of democracy, where the acceptance of people's equality becomes crucial. It's important to acknowledge that the chances of selecting wrong representatives persist, regardless of whether they come from rural or urban areas. Let's not forget the McCarthy Era (witch-hunting era) in the early 1950s, when accusations of communism were used by Joseph McCarthy to target his political opponents. Even in America, a democracy, incorrect choices were made, underscoring that the possibility of making mistakes is inherent. It's necessary to consider when and where we can learn from these erroneous decisions, not just our adversaries; we, too, gain insights.


SIU: The discourse encompasses issues of identity and bargaining power. We would appreciate it if you could elaborate on this point, particularly in relation to Thailand's central identity centered in Bangkok, juxtaposed with the discourse on decentralization and local identity.


Nidhi: To encapsulate, identity isn't an innate attribute; rather, it's a human-made construct. If we possess enough influence, we can not only establish an identity for ourselves but also shape identities for others. Why? Because identity is a component of the capital or power that will be negotiated in the marketplace, as well as in the realm of power.


Consequently, in today's global landscape, accepting the equality of individuals entails admitting that people fashion their own identities. Even if this notion is not accepted, identity inevitably develops. Consider the example I mentioned earlier about hill tribe people. Once, it was urban-dwellers who formulated the identity of these tribes, those with political and economic supremacy who labeled them as wasteful, engaged in deforestation, opium cultivation, and more. Consequently, it was asserted that they descended from the forests. During that period in Thailand, one could observe soldiers forcibly relocating hill tribes to lower elevations, unsure of how to integrate them due to the disparity between their cultural norms and those of the lowlands.


Yet, presently, hill tribes are endeavoring to redefine their identities. By admitting their past roles as forest destroyers and drug dealers, they are in the process of forging new identities. Some factions perceive them as contributors to the nation's diversity, while others attribute a more positive significance, framing them as guardians of the country's watershed forests. Whether these claims hold truth is another matter; nonetheless, if society begins to recognize Karen people, for instance, as protectors of the nation's forested watersheds, it logically bestows them with increased bargaining power within Thai society. Identity, therefore, is a societal construction. The question remains: Who should craft identities, and for whom? Is it society or the individuals themselves?


In Thailand, we've long been shaping our own identity. In the past, we identified ourselves as Buddhists, among other things. However, as society undergoes the transformations we witness today, the description of who we are, which was formulated since the reign of King Rama V, no longer suffices. The notion that individuals consider themselves exclusively Thai, as established since the time of King Rama V, has evolved.


SIU: Is the matter of identity being redefined, or is it simply undergoing its customary evolution?


Nidhi: Yes, I believe that within contemporary society, there exists a process of negotiation. During this negotiation, diverse groups of people concurrently establish their own identities. Are you familiar with the term "slum people"? They are often described as the city's cleaners, engaged in various activities like laundry. Numerous things evolve in this manner.


SIU: Or take, for instance, the Isaan (Northeast) individuals who work as motorcycle taxi drivers, being interpreted as serving as bridges between dispersed communities within Bangkok.


Nidhi: Certainly. This constitutes a form of bargaining, a way for the slum residents to negotiate and prevent their eviction. Thus, the process of shaping an identity in modern societies can be regarded as a facet of the negotiation over bargaining power and interests among diverse groups. The aspect we should emphasize isn't the necessity of creating identities for others or establishing a singular identity. Rather, the focal concern lies in ensuring that the negotiation process remains peaceful and non-violent. I believe this is a critical point of concern within Thai society.


SIU: Which involves utilizing reasons?


Nidihi: In other words, you can employ logic, employ drama, employ movies—essentially any method—though it becomes intricate. Human negotiations aren't confined to sitting at tables and engaging in formal discussions. The spectrum of approaches is far broader.


SIU: And should it be a public discussion?

Nidhi: In a public context, the goal is to prevent excessive disrespect or verbal abuse. It's unrealistic to expect a complete absence of violations. Consider a poet: they craft their identity through their words. In poetry, the impact of language is potent, leaving a lasting impression. Balance might not be uniform, but a degree of inequality is customary. For example, a millionaire might orchestrate a lavish watch event, discussing Patek watches—the earliest models making up 15% of those in Thailand. Such displays elicit a sense of pride among Thai people.


This phenomenon also constitutes a form of bargaining power, exemplified by the opulent lifestyle of the wealthiest individuals. You know what? Identity isn't inherently tangible; it's a product of creativity. From this perspective, I'm comfortable. I'm willing to accept this form of inequality. It's an inequality that operates in this manner, as long as it refrains from employing force to discourage or coerce others.


SIU: Now, let's delve into the Thai identity intertwined with Buddhism. You mentioned that in current times, this connection might not be as prevalent. Subsequently, we shifted our focus to the Muslims in the southern region, who refer to Thailand (formerly Siam) to distinguish their identity from that of the Thai people, who predominantly follow Buddhism. To what extent does this context still hold? Despite this, we observe that a significant number of individuals—by no means a minor fraction—continue to associate the Thai state with Buddhism. Is this a common occurrence in daily life?


Nidhi: I'm inclined to disagree. I believe Thai people have made a conscious effort to differentiate the two. This separation has likely been nurtured since the era of King Rama V and onwards. They've maintained this distinction.


SIU: So, can we consider Thailand a secular state?


Nidhi: It can be considered a secular state in certain aspects, while in other aspects, it may not be. You could argue that Thailand isn't entirely secular. However, from the perspective of Thai citizenship, it's acceptable even if you aren't Buddhist. Right? On the other hand, in the case of the Malays, they can't separate the two. You might be aware that in Malaysia today, if you're facing issues with being a full-fledged citizen, as a Bhumiputra, are you also a Muslim? Renouncing Islam is not permissible. There was a case about a year ago involving a woman who sought to convert to Christianity but failed to resolve it in court.


SIU: Does Malaysia operate with two distinct court systems: one for religious matters and another for state affairs?


Nidhi: Yes, that's correct. Even the state courts. Changing religion is prohibited. If you switch your faith, you forfeit your Malay identity. Without Malay identity, you cease to be Chinese or an Indian; so, what then remains? You're no longer recognized as a citizen of the country. This has led the Malay people in the southern region to feel that being Malay necessitates being Muslim. Despite disliking the term "Thai Muslim" used by the government in the past, their opposition wasn't a statement of non-citizenship; rather, it reflected their lack of affinity with Buddhism.


SIU: However, did the separatists or those asserting their distinct identity have to resort to violence?


Nidhi: They've also declared—based on my understanding today—that they emphasize a stringent Muslim identity. This constitutes a newfound identity. Similar to the Thai people, Malays were once enthusiasts of folklore. They had numerous rituals which the uztas (Islamic scholars) advised against, yet these practices persisted in private settings.


SIU: So, were these cultural practices prevalent in the past?


Nidhi: However, they began asserting the need to adhere strictly to being true Muslims, which might imply engaging in warfare against infidels or those who impose hegemony suppressing their freedom.

SIU: Was it considered justified to engage in a fight (Jihad)?


Nidhi: I sense that their emphasis lies more on being Muslims than on identifying as Malays.

SIU: If we consider the concept of pluralism, how much could it potentially address this issue?

Nidhi: Yes, but if you excessively advocate for pluralism, it might also lead to another problem. This starts with you mentioning the notion of a Secular State, as you did earlier. Uttering such words to Malay Muslims is deemed unacceptable. How can a Christian, for instance, detach themselves from God? This isn't an uncultured notion. Gandhi also expressed that separating moral principles from politics is detrimental.


SIU: Buddhadasa Bhikkhu echoed this sentiment.

Nidhi: It's not an archaic idea; it's a quandary surrounding the notion of a Secular State, whether to adopt it or not.


SIU: We attempt to connect with the concept of the Secular State whether the Thai approach intertwined with Buddhism. From our understanding, everything seems to revolve around the monarchy. According to our studies, the first individual who articulated this notion clearly was Prince Dhani. As of now, we believe there might be a need to reconsider the definition of this matter. (For further reading, refer to the document: "The Old Siamese Conception of the Monarchy" by Prince Dhani Nivat, in Thai or in English)


Nidihi: Prince Dhani conveyed that prior to a certain period, the monarchy didn't wield a substantial political influence, similar to how it did in later years. To simplify, his statements were made around 1947; however, it's uncertain whether this occurred before or slightly after the 1947 coup. He proposed placing the monarchy at the heart of political authority and then transitioning from political power to the nucleus of cultural influence. From my standpoint, if you inquire whether this motto is antiquated, tracing back to the Ayutthaya period, the answer is no—it emerged after 1947.


SIU: This is something that has recently been formulated, isn't it?


Nidhi: After the years 1947 and 1957, following Sarit Thanarat's assumption of power, endeavors were made to disseminate these ideas through education and literature. Eventually, these efforts led to the perception that this constitutes "Thainess" among the Thai populace. However, as I mentioned earlier, Thailand has undergone significant transformations over the past 20-30 years. It's worth questioning whether all Thai people continue to embrace this concept as they did during Sarit's lifetime. My assumption is that they do not.


SIU: The 2006 coup elicited considerable controversy. What's your perspective on it? What unfolded, and why did the reaction manifest as it did? Could you elaborate on the motive behind the efforts to safeguard Thailand's traditional identity?


Nidhi: Certainly, this stems from Mr. Thaksin (Shinawatra), regardless of whether his impact was positive or negative—after all, he's a politician. He possessed a profound understanding of the shifts transpiring within society, enabling him to leverage these changes for his own benefit and that of his associates. In contrast, politicians from the same generation, like Mr. Chuan Leekpai, exhibited a limited awareness of the evolving societal landscape. However, Thaksin possessed a keen realization of these changes.


SIU: Is this development ultimately beneficial or detrimental to society? Or is it simply following its natural course of evolution?


Nidhi: No, society has indeed undergone change. If you admire Thaksin, you might argue that he utilizes his awareness of societal shifts to institute positive changes. Conversely, if you hold a negative view of Thaksin, you could contend that he adeptly capitalizes on these societal changes to generate personal gain. In doing so, he devises innovative approaches, departing from traditional methods of profiting. He stands as a political catalyst, a distinction that both Thaksin himself and his associates have greatly benefited from. I'm refraining from making a judgment regarding whether Mr. Thaksin's impact is positive or negative. My assertion is limited to the fact that Thaksin is among the initial Thai politicians to recognize society's evolving nature. Subsequently, he has harnessed this realization to implement changes, the ramifications of which can be debated as either advantageous or detrimental.


SIU: Could it be that Thaksin instigated these changes prematurely? In other words, could it be that while Thaksin acknowledged these transformations and understood how to capitalize on them, his implementation of public policies advanced faster than the older elite could adapt?


Nidhi: I'm unable to provide a definitive response. Perhaps it's more fitting to ask: When is the right time? It's as if we possess divine knowledge to foresee the optimal timing. Whether it's Thaksin or any other figure, the process of enacting change or adapting to it while accommodating success or failure is intricate and not solely contingent on timing. The efficacy is also influenced by the methodology employed. Consequently, the factors underpinning the success or failure of each individual endeavor are intricately entwined and extend beyond just timing considerations.


SIU: Does this imply that Thaksin's emergence caused the issues we've discussed, or was the 1932 Siamese Revolution an inevitable outcome, destined to happen sooner or later, irrespective of any particular individual or group? In 1932, there's mention of King Prajadhipok providing Phraya Kalayanamaitri (Francis B. Sayre, a Harvard Law School professor and son-in-law of Woodrow Wilson, the President of the United States) with a drafted constitution ready for announcement, but the "People Party" (Khana Ratsadorn) intervened prematurely.


Nidhi: However, such a constitution can't truly be deemed democratic. The King appoints the prime minister, and once this is done, the selection isn't based on democratic principles. How can such a framework be labeled a constitution? Yet, setting that aside, this quandary is intricate. It raises the question of whether historical changes stem from individual agency or from the logical progression within history itself.


SIU: Does change arise from subjectivity or from contextual factors?


Nidhi: Certainly, arriving at a definitive stance, completely favoring one side over the other, proves exceedingly challenging. However, we must contemplate whether Thailand will remain as it has been indefinitely. If we were to eliminate Thaksin from the equation, could society persist without undergoing any political alterations? The answer is negative. Over time, society has continued to transform, reaching a point where certain changes are intolerable. The majority of present-day individuals aligned with the red shirts or opposing the coup, for instance, likely didn't prioritize issues like a 30-baht (universal healthcare) policy 30 or 40 years ago. Nevertheless, their priorities have shifted. They've actively engaged in the political landscape due to an increased necessity for their political voices to be heard. Unlike the past, when staying apolitical was acceptable, the contemporary context demands a more active political role. Consequently, one must consider whether, even in the absence of Thaksin, these individuals would indefinitely remain detached from politics. My inclination is towards a negative answer.


SIU: ​You used to contribute articles to Matichon (a prominent newspaper in Thailand), addressing the elite and emphasizing the need for them to embrace change. Despite these shifts, they still retain an advantageous position. You mentioned your intention to continue this discussion in subsequent parts, although up until now, that continuation hasn't transpired (he penned it later after this interview: SIU). Nevertheless, we're quite intrigued by that article. Could you shed light on what prompted you to write it all of a sudden? (The mentioned article is "Talking with the fellow elites," "พูดจาประสาเอลีต (ด้วยกัน)")


Nidhi: Regarding the elite, it's a highly diverse group. To illustrate, I referred to the Sangha (Buddhist monk) community as a relatively safe example. How significant is the current influence of the Thai Sangha in regulating the behavior of the Thai populace? My assessment is that it's nearly negligible. Very few individuals seem to care, right? Simultaneously, in terms of cultural impact, their influence remains substantial. Those within the media industry understand well that when interacting with monks, they must exercise respect, given the uncertainty about public perceptions. Hence, a pertinent question emerges: Although monks may wield limited contemporary influence, their cultural sway is considerable. Moreover, if they adapt and harness this cultural power, they could comfortably contend with Christian preachers, Islamic ustazes, and even communists. I believe so. Nevertheless, Thai people continue to regard them with respect.


SIU: We ought to be considerate. Is it about respect?


Nidhi: However, if no action is taken, how will people eventually perceive monks? I suspect it could deteriorate even further. This underscores the advantage of the Thai elite—securing cultural power over an extensive duration. This power remains intact, surpassing that held by various other groups. So, why not leverage this opportunity to effectuate adjustments? Rather than chasing immediate gains, it's wise to consider a slightly longer-term perspective. Perhaps it's not a minor change, but considering the benefits you've already enjoyed, why not be open to adjustments? Established long ago, possibly hundreds of years prior, it might be agreeable to initiate certain changes. For instance, could true democracy be achieved? Allow the people to make decisions for themselves. Employ their cultural influence to sway opinions, they already triumphed.


SIU: Is this essentially an edge?

Nidhi: Indeed, it's a significant one, to the extent that adapting would be quite feasible if you decide to make adjustments. Furthermore, you can still retain the same benefits as before.

SIU: Could this reluctance to fully embrace democracy stem from apprehensions about an uncertain future? Does it reflect a sense of unease regarding the potential influx of competitors and unfamiliarity?

Nidhi: Considering the prevailing uncertainties today, do you believe they're substantial? It appears so, and these uncertainties could potentially lead to disruptive changes. However, self-adjustment might counterbalance this uncertainty, rendering the situation akin to the past. At the very least, it allows for some semblance of control. Presently, control seems elusive. Consider, for instance, whether Thai monks could modify their approach. Take, for example, the scenario where the proceeds from every temple are channeled to the central Sangha organization, which then redistributes them among the clergy. Thai monks play a substantial role in Thailand's revenue generation. In the context of the Thai Sangha Organization, how much of this revenue is allocated for societal support? Regrettably, it pales in comparison to Catholic churches or the Islamic ustaz schools in the southern region—it's not even remotely comparable.

Additionally, let's not overlook the significance of donations in Buddhism or any religion. In scholarly terms, this signifies the "accumulation of wealth," wherein society allocates its residual finances for distribution to those in need. This property is entrusted to be redistributed where necessary. Thai temples have historically fulfilled this role. Even today, Thai temples construct commercial structures for the Thai-Chinese community to lease, consequently bolstering the temple's finances. This isn't about anyone else, is it? Truthfully, temples possess considerable potential to enhance their own state because of their vast following. Consider whether they possess the ability to adjust and are willing to potentially relinquish some funds. Could this result in substantial losses? On the contrary, I believe it might lead to even greater gains, potentially doubling their impact once they've adjusted.


SIU: Do you believe that the culture of philanthropy in Thailand is still relatively weak?


Nidhi: I don't believe so. Thailand has sustained itself due to the presence of accumulation and redistribution mechanisms, facilitated primarily through a significant religious institution. In the realm of modern education, who plays a substantial role alongside the government?

SIU: Could it be monks?


Nidhi: In the current context, ordination is predominantly pursued by those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds in order to pursue their studies. After completing their education, they rejoin society and seek employment. The choice is theirs, isn't it? This is of utmost significance because without financial means, it's challenging for the underprivileged to access education. Ordination offers a route—food, accommodation, and other essentials are provided by temples, free of charge. This allows them to dedicate their time to learning. What's more, they receive pocket money. Hence, religious institutions, second only to the government, are key patrons of new educational pursuits. Therefore, asserting that the Thai populace lacks awareness of the concept of American public charity would be inaccurate. This practice has been embedded in Thai society since antiquity.


SIU: Is this the reason for the challenges faced by developer monks?

Nidhi: Why do you ask?

SIU: Similarly, in the past, the northern region featured Kruba Sriwichai, who was often addressed as "Ton Boon" or "Saint," an honorific title particularly prevalent in the Lanna area. This title conveys a priest endowed with certain supernatural abilities. Was he ever subject to suspicion or questioning?


Nidhi: No, he faced suspicion not due to an idea akin to mine, but rather because of actions stemming from the central authority. One could assert that in Thailand, prior to King Rama 5's reign, power was dispersed and factions competed, each asserting dominance without annihilation. King Rama 5 sought to centralize authority, thereby expanding his power, a pursuit that inadvertently led to the dismantling of other power structures to some extent.


SIU: That was during the early period of Thai (Siamese) modernization?


Nidhi: Exactly. It transpired in the early stages. Not only monks, but also religions experienced a similar situation. Religions held substantial power, whether it be within individual temples or localities. Each office wielded considerable influence.


SIU: Did each realm (Mandala) possess its own power?


Nidhi: They introduced the initial Sangha Act, which curtailed the power held by figures like Kruba Si Wichai within the old system. Back then, it wasn't limited to the two sects prevalent today (the Mahānikāya and Dhammayut nikāya). The Center for the Propagation of Religion and International Religion in Thailand is situated at the Achan (the Elders) school. In Northern Thailand, this is referred to as "Hua Wat" (literally "head of the temple"). Under this, around 8-10 other temples fall, essentially subordinate to the Hua Wat. This structure signifies a single preceptor. Temples send young men from their villages to ordain at this central temple. All monks who complete their training here are considered disciples of the same master due to its position as the main temple. This fosters a network of discipleship relations, through which he exercises influence. Acting as a teacher, he provides care to all dependent temples, as he is regarded as everyone's teacher. He holds authority over this network. However, at one point, King Rama 5 instructed this master to step down, subsequently transferring power to the government.


SIU: So, they must come under the central authority?

Nidhi: It's vanished, understood? Hence, all subordinate powers that previously existed in Thailand have been entirely eradicated.


SIU: Do you have any last thoughts on identity in relation to the current state of Thai culture, which is once again undergoing change?


Nidhi: As I mentioned earlier, my perspective remains consistent. I believe the concern for individuals of older generations, like myself, lies in advocating for peaceful negotiation. It's important to understand that no one, regardless of their affiliation—whether they're red, yellow, or associated with the monarchy or academic institutions—can expect to possess the unilateral power to shape their desired societal identity any longer. Such a prospect has become unattainable. Consequently, a negotiation process is inevitable. The nature of this process can vary, but the core request is this: that it unfolds peacefully. Our plea is to ensure that all parties are included and have the opportunity to engage in negotiations.


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