Written by Mike Ives
A Thai singer prompted a social media outcry over the weekend by wearing a swastika T-shirt to a performance, a reflection of what critics say is a lack of sensitivity in Asia to the horrors of Nazi behaviour.
The 19-year-old singer, Pichayapa “Namsai” Natha, quickly apologized in an Instagram post. And an Israeli diplomat said in a Twitter thread on Sunday — International Holocaust Remembrance Day — that the episode had arisen from a “lack of knowledge and lack of awareness.”
But the episode wasn’t the first of its kind in Asia, a region where awareness of the Holocaust is patchy, Nazi swastikas resemble an ancient religious symbol, and some people see Adolf Hitler as a model of authoritarian strength.
And it is not likely to be the last.
Simon K. Li, the executive director of the Hong Kong Holocaust and Tolerance Center, which he described as the only organization focused on Holocaust education in East Asia, attributed controversies over Nazi iconography to a combustible mix of ignorance and possibly prejudice.
“From time to time we hear, ‘Could it be pure ignorance? Could it be cultural insensitivity or any possibility of an apparent anti-Semitic act?’” he said. “Sometimes it could be a combination of the three.”
The US Holocaust Memorial Museum notes that the word “swastika” comes from the Sanskrit term “svastika,” which means good fortune or well-being.
Historians have traced it to ancient India and Central Asia, and it was used into the early 20th century as a benign symbol — on a pendant made by Coca-Cola, for example, and a shoulder patch for American soldiers after World War I.
And although Nazi imagery has been widely shunned in the West since World War II, it still pops up with disturbing regularity in Asia.
In 2006, a restaurateur in a suburb of Mumbai, India, named a cafe “Hitler’s Cross” and put a swastika in its logo. In 2014, a controversy erupted over a Nazi-themed cafe in Indonesia, as well as an Italian restaurant in Taiwan that had named a pasta dish with German sausage “Long Live the Nazis.”
Also that year, the South Korean pop band Pritz danced in outfits that resembled Nazi uniforms.
And in 2016, a high school parade in Taiwan featured students dressed as Nazi soldiers. That echoed an earlier Nazi-themed school parade in Thailand, and foreshadowed a controversy in Taiwan last year over a swastika that hung outside a hair salon.
Typically, such controversies over Nazi or Hitlerian iconography in Asia are followed by humble apologies, but also a recognition that local awareness of Nazis and the Holocaust is inadequate.
After the Nazi-themed school parade in Taiwan, for example, a local Jewish center expressed regret about the use of Nazi imagery and logos. But the center’s chairman also said the act was “not meant to be an act of anti-Semitism” and that Holocaust education in Taiwan was “extremely limited.”
Li, a historian who specializes in Holocaust pedagogy, said that some school curriculums across Asia touched on 20th century atrocities, including the Japanese army’s notorious 1937 massacre in the Chinese city of Nanking (now known as Nanjing) and the treatment of the tens of thousands of “comfort women” who were detained and raped by Japanese soldiers before and during World War II.
But there is little education in the region about genocides generally and the Holocaust in particular, Li added, partly because many teachers are unsure how to tell students about the scale of the horrors.
“Unfortunately, when it comes to genocide education, it’s like a blank page in the region,” he said.
Li said that he had also noticed a disturbing trend in which people see the Nazis as the epitome of strong, nationalistic leaders, and that the relative anonymity of social media helped fuel pro-Nazi hate speech online.
On Sunday, an Israeli diplomat in Thailand tweeted that the singer from the band embroiled in the country’s latest Nazi-related controversy, BNK48, had apologized personally to the Israeli ambassador, Meir Shlomo, and spoken with him about “the importance of history in general, and the awareness to the Holocaust and anti-Semitism in particular.”
Thai society is apparently attracted to Naziism and swastikas, but with “next to no knowledge or interest in their history,” said David Streckfuss, a Thailand-based scholar and author of the book “Truth on Trial in Thailand: Defamation, Treason and Lèse-Majesté.”
He added that the Thai government of the 1930s had a deep fascination with Hitlerian architecture and ideology, and that recent military-run governments in the country, including the current one, occasionally showed a “passing and peculiar fascination” with Hitler and other strongmen.
Streckfuss pointed to a 2014 government propaganda video that included an animated sketch of a child painting a portrait of Hitler. YouTube pulled the video amid a public outcry, and Israeli’s then-ambassador to Thailand, Simon Roded, called it a “trivialization and misuse of Nazi symbols.”
“If we learn anything from this incident,” Roded said at the time, “it is that Holocaust education, especially its global messages of tolerance, should be introduced into the Thai curriculum.”
Asia isn’t the only place where ignorance of the Holocaust is widespread. A recent poll of more than 2,000 British adults found that 45 percent of respondents did not know how many people were killed in the Holocaust, and that one in 20 did not believe it ever took place.