By James Hookway
Questions are growing in Thailand about how school students in Chiang Mai were able to adopt a Nazi theme for their school sports-day on Friday, wearing outfits modeled on those of SS guards and waving huge swastika banners.
Children at the Sacred Heart preparatory school traditionally choose their own theme for their annual sports day, school officials have said. The idea is that it’s a surprise for both teachers and parents.
Last week’s event was a shocker, though. Photographs taken at the event show streams of children dressed up in Nazi regalia marching into the school displaying one-armed salutes. At least one girl sported a toothbrush mustache.
News of the sports day quickly spread, and a Jewish human-rights organization has asked Christian leaders in Thailand to condemn the parade. The Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles said in a statement that one youngster even dressed as Adolf Hitler before the march wound its way around the school, bewildering local expatriates, many of them European retirees.
Local honorary consuls from a number of countries visited the school on Monday to ask why the parade was allowed to take place and came back with the answer that the students didn’t realize it would upset anybody. The local private education authority also received the same response from the Roman Catholic school.
“It happened because the students were unaware and I have asked the school to make sure they are more careful in the future,” Chanwit Tuphsuphan, secretary-general of the Office of the Private Education Commission, was reported as saying in the Bangkok Post.
A person reached at the preparatory school said no one was available to discuss the matter.
One theory for the kids’ behavior is that they didn’t necessarily understand the consequences of their actions and merely considered dressing up as super-villains – even Nazis – to be fun. A similar incident occurred at a school in Bangkok four years ago and involved 200 students. And in 2005 Britain’s Prince Harry – then 20 years old – was pictured on the front of The Sun newspaper wearing a swastika armband to a friend’s fancy dress party.
The Swastika, in addition, is an ancient Indo-European symbol depicted in spiritual imagery for thousands of years, and is perceived as symbol of good luck among Buddhists, possibly softening the impact of the Nazi version among locals.
Many residents have ventured that the really didn’t understand the significance of the parade, as their teachers suggest. If that’s the case, though, it could suggest Thailand has more problems with its education system than it realized, even though the school involved is a privately-run, Christian institution.
Foreign investors have consistently pointed to poor education levels as a potential deterrent to plowing further money into the country, especially now that minimum wages are set to rise to 300 baht or around $10 a day – nearly doubling in some areas and not far behind Malaysia, where education levels are much higher and many ordinary people speak English comfortably.
The World Economic Forum recently published its annual competitiveness survey, and the quality of secondary and tertiary education in Thailand was ranked 77th out of 142 countries surveyed, compared with Singapore’s number 2 ranking, 14 for Malaysia and 61 for the Philippines.
Both the main political parties here recognized the problem during a recent national election campaign. The Puea Thai, or For Thais, Party eventually won after pledging, among other things, a tablet computer for every child. Concerned parents may hope they’ll google Nazism – and understand its consequences– the next time they are asked to come up with a theme for a sports-day parade.