Opinion: Ignorance of Nazis, History a Bug or Feature of Thai Education?

At left, invading German soldiers raise the Reichskriegsflagge on April 27, 1941, at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. At right, Pichayapa “Namsai” Natha of BNK48 wears the same flag on stage in Bangkok in January 2019 in an image from True ID.
At left, invading German soldiers raise the Reichskriegsflagge on April 27, 1941, at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece. At right, Pichayapa “Namsai” Natha of BNK48 wears the same flag on stage in Bangkok in January 2019 in an image from True ID.

Re•tention: Pravit Rojanaphruk

Why do some young Thais commit the blunder of wearing clothes with Nazi symbols?

Is it a failure of the Thai education system? Is it the sheer insensitivity or ignorance of some youths? Or is it a little more complex than that?

The latest episode in Thais fronting Nazi imagery occurred last week on Friday when Pichayapa “Namsai” Natha, a member of the popular girl band BNK48, wore on stage a jersey not just emblazoned with a Nazi swastika, but actually a full reproduction of the flag personally designed by Adolf Hitler for use by his military to terrorize Europe.

It caused a stir and invited condemnations from the German and Israeli missions after Khaosod English’s report spread online.

After crying and apologizing, Pichayapa, 19, insisted she had no clue what she was wearing.

I think she was telling the truth. Many Thais are so ignorant that some controversial symbols such as the Nazi swastika are treated as “cool” if not “cute.” Without any historical context, the Nazi symbol is just a design motif, particularly to the young so far removed from the history of World War II and the Holocaust.

After all, this is a postmodern country where Argentine Marxist guerilla leader Ernesto Che Guevara is slapped onto stickers and T-shirts by lorry drivers and lame Thai youth who don’t know or care about the evil of American Imperialism or Marxism. The same can be said about Mao Zedong’s porcelain dolls put into service as a “cool” touch of Sino chic, irrespective of whether the person knows that under Mao, up to 45 million people were worked, starved or beaten to death during his “Great Leap Forward” between 1958 and 1962.

Nevermind. To these Thais, pictures and small porcelain statues of Chairman Mao are cute and exotic and the perfect decor for a dash of Chineseness.

Less lethal, sure, than the reverse and bizarre postmodern disconnect that sees Hello Kitty stickers adorning real handguns used in the street.

Thai education and Thai attitudes toward it have something to do with the phenomena as well.

The darker aspects of world history are not something Thai schools pay much attention to, much as they tune out the dark side of Thai history. Think about how little many young Thais know about the Oct. 6, 1976, massacre in which rightwing ultra-royalist mobs killed more than 40 protesters, mostly students, next door to the Grand Palace.

Also, to many Thais, there exists an ethos that is basically counter to a liberal humanist education. To many Thais these days, education is a means to an ends, and those ends are well-paid jobs. These people are only interested in education if it means more money or prestige and not becoming a well-rounded person.

History, especially world history, is thus a truly niche area in Thai education, enabling an environment of postmodern ignorance to thrive.

Those condemning the failures of Thai education in communicating the horrors of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany may want to pause and reconsider.

I fear that in fact it may be the “triumph” of Thai education that, by ensuring ignorance about the dark side of politics global or domestic, makes it easier for the minority ruling class to keep its grip on power and advantage.

It’s much easier to rule when many more Thais aspire to simply become as rich as quickly as possible, ignorant and apolitical. It’s also easier for the ruling class to continue to rule when an MBA is exponentially more valued than a degree in world history.

Many young Thais do not want to be involved in politics or devote themselves to making society better. Get rich quick and don’t waste time with anything else is a prevalent attitude reflected in the sheer number of get-rich-quick books and schemes on everything from leveraging the stock market to mimicking the seven-or-whatever habits of highly effective corporate types in the .01 percent.

In the end, ignorance about history may in fact be the greatest triumph of the Thai education’s will.