Southeast Asia has a peculiar fascination with Hitler and Nazi imagery. Across Southeast Asia it is not uncommon to come across youths sporting t-shirts emblazoned with swastikas, a fashion often termed 'Nazi chic'. For those raised on European history, it is a befuddling experience.
In both east and west, there has long been a push to reclaim the swastika from its Nazi symbolism back to its original eastern roots in Hinduism and Buddhism, in which the symbol signifies peace and luck. As those in the reclaim campaign often note, much of the world loved the swastika before the Nazis altered its meaning. The reclaim campaign has also been promoted in Europe and North America — in 2013 tattoo parlours in 40 countries took part offering free swastika tattoos.
Yet in Southeast Asia, the sporting of Nazi symbolism is more about a show of strength or an attempt to affiliate oneself with a fringe group, and less about reclaiming the swastika. Moreover, youth across Southeast Asian are largely ignorant of the history of the symbol. In many ways, 'Nazi chic' is Southeast Asia's hipster movement.
Youths sporting Nazi t-shirts, swastika tattoos and Nazi paraphernalia are common in Yangon. Indeed, much of it dovetails with the popular punk music scene that long bubbled under the surface in pre-transition Myanmar and which has has since found new followers as it becomes more mainstream. Popular bands are often found sporting such paraphernalia and playing on its tough (or cool) imagery. One of Myanmar's most famous bands, Iron Cross, is named after the Nazi medal and sports the Nazi Reichsadler (imperial eagle) as its emblem.
Indonesia's music scene also has a penchant for Nazi chic. Ahmad Dhani donned a Nazi uniform for his modified version of Queen's We Will Rock You, which was used in the presidential campaign of Prabowo Subianto.
Yet nowhere has this fascination with Nazi paraphernalia been so pronounced as in Thailand. In recent years, Bangkok has found itself in hot water (and the target of public ridicule — see the video above) over the bizarre use of the swastika and Hitler imagery.
In 2013, at one of Thailand's most famous universities, Chulalongkorn, a superheroes mural painted by students included a saluting Hitler. Also in 2013 a Nazi fried chicken shop, with Hitler dressed as KFC's Colonel Sanders (bowtie and all) drew protests, and not just from the owner of the trademark. In 2011, a Catholic school allowed its students to sport Nazi uniforms for a parade, and in 2009, the Tussaud's Wax Museum advertised its exhibition with a billboard poster of a saluting Hitler with the slogan, in Thai, 'Hitler is not dead'. Most recently, in a film commissioned by the Thai junta, an animation shows a child painting a scene of Hitler while another child applauds the artwork.
The love affair with Nazi imagery seems to be gathering strength among Southeast Asia's youth. Outside the region, this will feed comparisons between, say, Nazi Germany and Myanmar's persecution of the Rohingya. Some commentators argue that this stubborn love affair has taken on new significance under Thailand's repressive military-led government. Since seizing power last year, the junta has used all means to win over Thai youth and when it has failed it has detained activists for what it has termed 'attitude adjustment'.
But these are facile conflations. Instead, at least for now, the fascination with Nazi imagery is born largely from ignorance of European history among Southeast Asian youth.