Thailand’s top educational institution, Chulalongkorn University, is taking some heat for photos showing graduating students standing in front of a mural that contains an image of Adolf Hitler. Bizarrely, a female student is shown posing for pictures while giving the Sieg Heil salute of the Third Reich. As reported in Chiang Mai City News, among other places, the offending mural was up for two days before being taken down following complaints.
The mural in question had the word “Congratulations” written in big letters above a collection of images of various superheroes such as Batman, Superman, the Hulk, and Captain America. For some reason Adolf Hitler was painted among this collection of do-gooders.
This is also certainly not the first time that young Thai people have been found using Hitler’s likeness or Nazi imagery in an offensive and ignorant manner. A few years back, students at one high school in Chiang Mai chose to wear realistic Nazi costumes to march in their sports day parade. It’s also common to see T-shirts being sold that portray Hitler in a comical manner by mashing up his likeness with that of Ronald McDonald or a Teletubby.
When the story broke, many Thai people didn’t understand what the big deal was. Shared pictures and stories such as this on Facebook receive many comments from Thai people downplaying the significance of using Hitler’s image this way. To them, he is just a character. And this is where the real problem lies.
The Thai education system is so far below international standards that even most Thai university graduates have no idea why the rest of the world thinks Hitler was such a bad guy. For the most part, they’ve never even heard about the Holocaust.
Could this just be Western people projecting a European-centric view upon an Asian country? Should we expect Thailand to emphasize the European theater of WWII in their own history classes as much it is emphasized in our own? After all they didn’t have to fight against Nazi Germany like we did. Well, they didn’t, but not because of the physical distance between the two countries. Many people don’t know this, but Thailand actually sided with the Axis powers during the war. (They thought Japan was going to win, and they wanted to be on the right side…oops)
The fascination of Thais with Hitler seems strange to most of us, but their general ignorance of history is not limited to Europe or World War II. If you ask Thai people about Pol Pot, the Khmer Rouge, or the Killing Fields most will have no idea what you’re talking about despite the fact that the Cambodian Genocide, which took the lives of 2 million people, took place in their next door neighbor just 30 odd years ago.
It seems the main point of history class in Thai schools is not to educate, but to build patriotism. This is not a problem limited only to Thailand. Japan, for one, still has some serious issues with the slant given in history classes. And China, too, seems to work very hard to convince all of its citizens that every inch of the current People’s Republic has been, and always will be, an integral part of China. But if we use the conquests of ancient empires to claim current sovereignty, then shouldn’t most of China actually belong to Mongolia (Hello, Kublai Khan anyone?). Funny how the PRC uses their Mongol-ruled Yuan dynasty to justify their current hold on Tibet as part of “China” since ancient times. And for that matter, most of Thailand should belong to Cambodia since the Khmer Empire based in Angkor once extended over most of mainland Southeast Asia. Is there even any spot of land on this earth that wasn’t once owned by somebody else?
Well, I guess the point is history is written by the victor, and nations are imaginary constructs that exist only because we all agree to believe in them. People of all countries should try to learn more about the history of other lands in order to widen their perspective. And national education systems, for their part, need to evolve and take up a responsibility to serve the needs of young minds. Thailand specifically, though, really needs to get on the ball and start teaching its high school students a little bit about what happened during World War II.