- - Tuesday, October 4, 2011

BANGKOK — A Catholic preparatory school in northern Thailand has apologized for allowing its students to march in Nazi uniforms and carry flags bearing swastikas during a “fancy-dress sports day” parade late last month.

The public parade at the Sacred Heart College in the city of Chiang Mai featured teenage girls in SS uniforms and wearing Hitler moustaches as they marched with their arms stretched out in “sieg heil” salutes. Some students had swastikas painted on their cheeks and carried toy rifles.

The Sept. 23 event prompted widespread criticism from foreign diplomats and condemnation by Jewish groups, including the U.S.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center. But it also has sparked debate among Thais about their culture, education system and understanding of the Holocaust.

A Thai government official last week said school officials had apologized for the parade, which they said had been organized by students who did not intend to offend anyone, Agence-France Presse reported.

“The school officially explained that it was an internal sports day, and students who were in the red team wanted to give a surprise by using swastikas as the background, since it’s the color red,” said Charnwit Tupsuphan, secretary of the Private Education Commission.

“Both students and the school expressed their regret and apologized,” he added. “I’ve instructed all schools to be more careful about this kind of issue and to use it as a lesson.”

Education and culture have come to the fore in public commentary about the faux-Nazi parade.

Meechai Burapa, who frequently comments on current affairs, said in a recent open letter in a Thai newspaper that he never learned about the Holocaust when he was a student.

“As a youngster, I saw the Nazis and the SS guards in movies, and I thought their uniforms looked cool,” he said. “I was a victim of ignorance.”

Today, Nazi imagery frequently appears in Thailand on T-shirts, decals and motorcycle helmets, and Adolf Hitler is mostly regarded only as a militaristic dictator, not a genocidal fascist.

What’s more, Thais generally see swastikas as Hindu symbols that often adorn Brahman, Hindu, Buddhist and animist shrines and religious items, including statues of the Buddha.

In addition, this Buddhist-majority Southeast Asian country has a poor education system that does not teach students how to speak English and provides little understanding of the Western world.

“Our phony Nazis, who wouldn’t know ‘Mein Kampf’ from Hello Kitty … broke the European taboo with their performance,” cultural commentator Kong Rithdee said in a newspaper column Saturday.

“Perhaps someone made them read the uncorrected history books because technically, and this is a fact, we were on the Fuhrer’s side when WWII started - the Allies bombed us, remember?” Mr. Kong said.

During World War II, Thai Prime Minister Phibun Songkhram sided with Japan and declared war on the Allied powers. After the war, he - and Thailand - became U.S. allies in the Korean War.

But the effects of Mr. Phibun’s fervently nationalistic agenda (“Thailand for Thais”) can still be seen and felt today.

Prachatai.com, a Thai news website, published a satirical article Friday about a Thai teacher’s struggle to explain why the Nazi parade was wrong to a female Sacred Heart student.

“But sir, if the Nazis wanted racial purity, a sort of Germany for the Germans, isn’t that the same as Thailand for the Thais? I mean, our civics classes are full of ideas about being truly Thai,” the student tells her teacher.

“And this [Nazi expansionist idea of a ‘Greater Germany’]. Isn’t this like these maps of Thailand in all our history books showing the bits of [Laos] and [Malaysia] and Cambodia and so on that should be Thailand?” the student says.

Sanitsuda Ekachai, assistant editor of the English-language Bangkok Post, wrote last week: “For people who have grown up in a country where toddlers are ordered to turn left and right like soldiers since kindergarten, while the male high school students are forced to cut their hair like the Marines - and where a coup d’etat is a common occurrence - many have simply come to accept militarism as part of life.”

Thailand has had 18 successful or attempted coups since the 1930s, the most recent in 2006.

Meanwhile, the Catholic school’s students’ attention to detail in their outfits - which included purchased hats, scarves and other regalia - prompted some critics to suggest that parents and teachers knew about and funded the parade.

“From the visual evidence, it is clear that this Nazi celebration could not have taken place without the knowledge and cooperation of the school administration,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at a Jewish human rights group that offered to provide educational materials about “Nazi mass murder.”