Images of Hitler, swastikas and other Nazi regalia are fairly commonplace on T-shirts and memorabilia in Thailand, a phenomenon blamed on a lack of awareness about modern world history.
The latest faux pas was committed by Pichayapa ‘Namsai’ Natha, one of the singers of BNK48, when she wore a red-and-black top with a swastika during the group’s televised rehearsal on Friday.
The deputy chief of mission of the Israeli Embassy in Bangkok took to Twitter to express “shock and dismay” at the outfit, noting that Jan 27 is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“Presenting Nazi symbols by the band’s singer hurt the feelings of millions around the world, whose relatives were murdered by the Nazis,” said Smadar Shapira.
Following the uproar, Namsai apologised onstage during a concert on Saturday night.
“I want this to be an example for everyone, please forgive me,” the 19-year-old singer said, bursting into tears.
In an extended apology posted on her official Facebook page, she later wrote: “Please give me advice so that I can grow up to be a good adult in the future”.
“I cannot fix the mistake but I promise I will not let it happen again,” she wrote in Thai.
On Sunday afternoon, the singer and the manager of BNK48, both dressed in sombre grey and white clothing, met with Israeli ambassador Meir Shlomo to apologise for the incident.
Diplomat Shapira tweeted photographs of the meeting, adding that the group “discussed the importance of… awareness of the Holocaust and Antisemitism".
The band agreed to participate in an educational workshop on the Holocaust, she said, adding that the ambassador was “pleased” and understands that Namsai’s act came from a “lack of knowledge and lack of awareness”.
The incident raises questions around the true morality of the use of the swastika symbol, particularly in Buddhist and Hindu cultures.
As a symbol of Asian origin that dates back thousands of years from India and Northern Iran (‘Iran’ being an old variation of ‘Aryan’), it was negatively appropriated in relatively recent times by Germany’s Nazi movement.
The word ‘swastika’ is derived from ‘svasti’, meaning ‘well-being’ in the ancient language of Sankrit, which is the same word used to greet people in Thai – ‘sawasdee’.
Up until the 20th century, the symbol evolved as a highly auspicious talisman, evoking thoughts of reverence, good fortune, and well being. In the Buddhist tradition of India, it is referred to as ‘The Seal on Buddha’s Heart'. In Japanese and Chinese Buddhism, a swastika often appears on the chest of past and modern images of Gautama Buddha.
The question remains, therefore, whether it is justifiably expected that people abjure an ancient religious and cultural symbol due to its recent appropriation for destructive means.
The question of education can also be asked of those who have not been educated about the origins and meaning of a symbol used in the religions of c. 1.6 billion people (Hindus and Buddhists).
Fans of BNK48, a domestic offshoot of Japanese girl group AKB48, came to Namsai’s defence.
“I’m over 40 and I don't know anything about this topic. When I saw the shirt, I didn't think it would be a problem,” said fan Prasit Rudeekriengkrai.
Others blamed Thailand’s education system, which does not focus much on world history.
“What do you expect? When we were in school, they teach only about Thailand and Myanmar wars,” Samruay Kraspra said.