YANGON - Visitors to Myanmar
these days often encounter young men in T-shirts
emblazoned with a red swastika in a circle and the
word "Nazi" written above. World War II-style
motorcycle helmets decorated with the fascist
emblem are also en vogue on the streets of Yangon.
Myanmar's most popular rock band, which
has thousands of fans on Facebook and has toured
the United States, is named "The Iron Cross," in
reference to a German military medal that was
bestowed by Adolf Hitler. The band's logo is a
Nazi eagle holding an iron cross instead of a
swastika in its claws.
The popularity of
Nazi symbolism among Myanmar youth has raised
questions among activists, academics and travelers
and is seemingly at odds with Myanmar's hopeful
transition from military to democratic rule. "I
suspect (and hope) they are popular out of
ignorance rather than
ideology," writes traveler Micah Rubin on her
blog, where she posted a photo of a teenager
wearing a shirt with a big swastika on the front.
"I imagine that people wearing these
T-shirts might see them as just cool things to
wear," says Sydney University anthropologist Jane
Ferguson, who has done extensive research in
Myanmar. "Something that's foreign and exotic
might just look cool without going into the deep
history. They might recognize the swastika as part
of Nazi regalia, but associate it with the
Sanskrit symbol of auspiciousness."
Ferguson compares the popularity of Nazi
shirts in Myanmar to Westerners placing Buddha
statues inside bars and night clubs, without
realizing that this is offensive to Buddhists, or
tattooing Chinese characters on themselves without
understanding what they mean.
that people in Myanmar wear other shirts with
ridiculous messages because they don't know what
the English language slogans mean. "When something
isn't intended as an offense, it shouldn't be
taken as such," she says.
pro-Nazi T-shirts and other wears are beginning to
cause an international stir. Rabbi Abraham Cooper,
a member of the California-based Simon Wiesenthal
Center that fights anti-Semitism around the world,
says his group is concerned about the seeming
proliferation of Nazi symbolism in Myanmar.
"Our first assumption is that it's based
on a lack of knowledge, not on any insidious
hatred," he said. "But we don't want to see the
symbols of the genocide that was perpetuated
against the Jewish people become fads anywhere in
Cooper says the Wiesenthal
Center is worried that Nazi symbols are becoming
increasingly popular throughout Asia, including in
countries where Jewish people have never
historically faced persecution.
Hitler's autobiographical book Mein Kampf,
which among other things proclaims the supremacy
of the German race, is regularly sold at bookshops
next to the biography of Apple founder Steve Jobs
and the country's graduate students are snapping
it off the shelves, Cooper says.
Thailand, which was an ally of Germany and Japan
during World War II, school children in the
northern city of Chiang Mai dressed up as Hitler
and in Nazi SS guard uniforms for a school parade
in 2011. A local band named "Slur" produced a song
and video called "Hitler," in which dancers put on
Hitler mustaches and incorporated the Nazi salute
into their dance routine.
In Korea, Nazi
symbols have even been used to promote cosmetics,
Cooper said. "I wish I could tell you it's the
first time we've seen this phenomenon pop up in
Asia, but it seems to come up too often," Cooper
says. "It's difficult to put a finger on why it's
Cooper is particularly alarmed
because Asia is a part of the world where most
people never meet a Jewish person in their lives.
This, he says, could make Asians more vulnerable
to accepting anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. His
group also doesn't want to see Asia, a garment
manufacturing giant, export such clothing items
that have appeared on the streets of Yangon
Seig Heil history While
many Myanmar youth might not be familiar with the
history of Nazism during WWII, many do have a
perspective on the Nazis. In certain circles
Hitler is seen by some Asians as a strong leader
who fought against colonial powers, including
England and France, that ruled and oppressed their
nations before achieving independence.
Rosalie Metro, who wrote her doctorate thesis on
how history is taught in Myanmar, says that
popular opinion of Hitler in Myanmar is generally
positive. "I asked a few taxi drivers about
history, and they said, 'Yes, Hitler is a good,
strong leader,'" Metro said. "People say that
history textbooks contribute to this strong leader
perception because they do not describe Nazi
atrocities, according to Metro.
about the Treaty of Versailles after World War I,
and that the situation was very bad in Germany,
that Hitler was a strong leader, and that many
Germans felt that the Jews, who controlled the
economy, were responsible for their troubles,"
Metro, who can read Burmese, said in summarizing
Myanmar history textbooks. "That's strange because
it doesn't say, 'And they were wrong.' And it
doesn't mention the Holocaust."
portrayal is in stark contrast to how schoolbooks
refer to the British and the Japanese, who are
described broadly as enemies of the Myanmar people
who "sucked the lifeblood out of Burma," she said,
referring to the country's former name.
combat the growing popularity of Nazi symbols in
some Asian countries, the Wiesenthal Center has
organized Holocaust exhibitions throughout the
region. The exhibits, which include photographs
illustrating the murders of approximately six
million Jewish people, are meant as a historical
introduction for those who have no knowledge of
what happened in Europe during the 1940s.
The center's first exhibit in Mumbai
opened in the fall, while a Holocaust display in
Bangkok - which was put together as a response to
the Chiang Mai's school children's Nazi parade -
will open on February 4.
exhibition has ever been organized in Myanmar but
Cooper said he would be interested in bring one to
the country. The rabbi also plans to look into the
origin of the Nazi shirts appearing on the streets of Yangon.
a company that makes its living by exporting
(these shirts) overseas, this kind of behavior
will cost them a lot business wise," he said.
"We'll see if we can put an end to it."
Julie Masis is a Cambodia-based
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