Stay ignorant or learn some history

A couple of weeks ago, Pichayapa "Namsai" Natha, a member of BNK48, became a hot topic on social media when she wore a T-shirt bearing the Nazi swastika during a concert rehearsal. Following the ensuing uproar, the singer publicly apologised in tears, admitting she'd made a mistake, and had been ignorant of what the image symbolised.

Sadly, this was far from the first time something like this has happened in Thailand.

In 2011, students at Sacred Heart College Chiang Mai dressed up as Nazi SS guards with swastika armbands for their school sports day. A banner hanging in the school had images of people doing the Nazi salute. Beside the banner were Nazi flags.

Two years later, students at Chulalongkorn University painted a picture of Adolf Hitler alongside comic book superheroes such as Batman, Captain America and the Hulk on a banner congratulating graduates. In both cases, school representatives had to publicly apologise, saying the students were unaware of what the images represented.

In 2016, it happened again. This time, at Silpakorn University's freshmen welcoming party, a student wore a Nazi SS uniform and posed doing the Sieg Heil salute for a photo, which was subsequently shared on social media. The president of Silpakorn University officially apologised to the Embassy of Israel in Bangkok. He also deserves credit for going further than most, by collaborating with the embassy to arrange an exhibition about the Holocaust at the university.

Last October, images of a hotel in Nonthaburi with differently themed rooms were published in the UK newspaper the Daily Star and other local media. One room, which had a communist themed, bizarrely included images of the swastika and Hitler (who, as Nazi leader, was virulently anti-communist). Following an outcry, Nazi symbols were removed.

When Thai people misuse Nazi symbols, commentators are quick to point out that Thais lack awareness and knowledge of the Holocaust, which resulted in the death of 6 million Jews. But how can it be that people here are so ignorant of one of history's worst atrocities?

One of the main culprits is the way history is taught in this country. While World War II is covered in our history textbooks, details about the Nazis and the genocide they perpetrated are glossed over. The textbook History for Mathayom 3 by Aksornjaroentat Publishing, says only that "Nazi Germany threatened peace and lead to wars". it explains that Hitler was a political leader who took power in 1933 and engaged in German territorial expansion throughout Europe between 1936 and 1945, which led to conflicts with other countries that eventually developed into war.

So we can't only blame the students for their ignorance here. Their textbooks give them little help. More damning, perhaps, is the fact that many Thai teachers are also ignorant of the Holocaust.

And yet, the Office of the Basic Education Commission rejects any criticism their history textbooks. Nijsuda Apinantaporn, director of Bureau of Academic Affairs and Educational Standards, under the Office of the Basic Education Commission, has said that they won't change the contents of their history textbooks. She said students learn about world history, but probably don't remember it. She suggested that BNK48's crew and managers should have prevented the singer from going onstage with a swastika on her T-shirt. She also said stores shouldn't sell clothing bearing Nazi symbols.

Another explanation for the recurring portrayal of Hitler in a positive light is an apparent confusion with legendary comic actor Charlie Chaplin. Both famously wore a toothbrush moustache, and in the classic film The Great Dictator, Chaplin portrayed a character that was clearly modelled on Hitler. Thai movies and TV shows featuring the Nazi leader tend to portray him in a comical fashion.

But this is no excuse for "educated people" in Thailand repeatedly putting their foot in it. It's a sad reflection of how little Thais know about history. It's a subject that people here just don't take seriously enough.

Of course, social media is a powerful tool for spreading news and information. Pichayapa's public shaming quickly went viral. Perhaps controversies such as this can help the public to recognise the importance of being informed.

In the wake of the BNK48 controversy, the Israel embassy in Thailand invited the band members and their manager to "UN International Holocaust Remembrance Day" to help raise awareness in Thailand of the Holocaust. But it's not enough for popular celebrities like the BNK48 to encourage people to learn about history. Everyone should play a part too, be they schools, teachers, parents or even the authorities.

To end on a positive note, it's perhaps not a bad thing that a famous singer was embarrassed so publicly over their ignorance of Nazism. At least from now on, surely no one will be stupid enough to wear a swastika T-shirt and think it's merely fashion.

Suwitcha Chaiyong is a feature writer for the Life section of the Bangkok Post.


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