Ignorance, hypocrisy and Chula's Hitler billboard
Higher education and Hitler are incongruous, but together they made international headlines this weekend after a display of Adolf Hitler on a congratulatory banner for Chulalongkorn University graduates.
An image of Adolf Hitler in a superhero billboard at Chulalongkorn University has triggered an outcry, resulting in an apology from the university. This picture has been widely circulated on Facebook.
The banner was met with global public outrage over historical insensitivity to the Holocaust.
Chulalongkorn University, in a statement of apology to the Simon Wiesenthal Centre _ an international Jewish human rights group _ admitted the incident was a result of historical ignorance.
But a deeper reading may also decipher a sense of hypocrisy that pervades Thai culture and is clearly reflected this time in Thai academe.
To recap, the problematic mural, presenting the idea of "conceptual paradox to superheroes", juxtaposed Adolf Hitler with Captain America, a patriotic cartoon figure who fought the Nazis in World War II, alongside other fictitious superheroes such as Superman, Batman, Iron Man and the Incredible Hulk.
Placed in front of the Faculty of Fine Arts, the billboard is among the many that are customarily set up as photo backdrops for new graduates at the university.
This explains why we saw pictures of graduates in their graduation gowns striking various poses mimicking the characters in the billboard.
One picture showed a young female graduate performing a "Seig Heil" Nazi salute just below the painted character of Hitler.
Her intention, like that of the billboard's creator, was probably innocuous, but the consequences have been enormous and spread swiftly across the world, with the help of social media.
Usually, such billboards would be put up in the days before commencement and are usually the work of current students presented as gifts for graduates.
The projects are extra-curricular and do not fall under the supervision of the university's faculty members. But since this billboard was prominently located in an area very close to the university auditorium where the convocation took place, it is perplexing that faculty members who should have known better had walked past it without feeling that something was terribly wrong.
As a faculty member at Chulalongkorn University (but residing on a different side of campus), the first thing that struck me was: Could the students really not know about Hitler and what he did?
I remember being a young graduate at this university. I studied world civilisation as a required course and could well recount historical caveats of the West from the French Revolution to the Holocaust.
So I asked a student to do some quick research into the different curricula of undergraduate programmes at this university. The result confirmed that only the Faculty of Liberal Arts requires students to take a world civilisation course. The other schools do not, although some may have world history topics integrated into some of their courses.
Yet apart from formal education, Thais are invariably exposed to stories about the Holocaust in popular culture. This painful history has been published, broadcast, and reproduced multiple times in several fashions through the mass media. My 10-year-old son read a Thai translation of Anne Frank's Diary and abhorred Hitler.
Upon seeing news about the billboard, he said: "How could Hitler be superhero? He is an evil man."
But the wisdom of this 10-year-old is probably different from the stereotypical perception of Hitler in Thai society.
To most Thais, Hitler is remembered less as a "genocidal hate monger" but more as a "dictatorial leader" who led Germany and the Axis powers to World War II.
Indeed, genocide is a complicated issue and requires multi-faceted understanding of conflicting relations among ethnicities, race, political and religious groups in a different social setting. It may be safe to say that an average Thai is as oblivious about the "killing fields" in neighbouring Cambodia as he or she would be to the Holocaust.
Ignorance aside, Thai history is also a predominantly class-based endeavour. The pages of history are filled with stories of valour and achievements of ancient leaders, most of whom are monarchs. Similar to the October 1976 and 1979 incidents, the Killing Fields and the Holocaust are histories of commoners. That may give a partial explanation as to why Thais may not relate very well to the deep losses of the Cambodians and the Jews in those two tragedies.
Another bewildering notion that came out of this incident is the fact that some people defended the Hitler painting on the grounds of freedom of expression and said the criticisms are overreactions. They say this whole thing has been blown out of proportion.
Hitler's crimes were crimes against humanity.
Giving him a space in such an auspicious occasion would rightly be construed as condoning genocide and being indifferent to the pain and suffering still experienced by the Jews alive today.
Every society has a special space usually reserved as an exception from the free speech rule. This space could be a space of holiness, sensitivity, or pain.
Hitler and the Holocaust constitute a space for the unspeakable pain felt by the Jewish community and this space is present the world over, as well as for those whose ancestors perpetrated the genocide under Hitler. Suffice to say that in many European countries, there are laws against Holocaust denial, and in Germany, Nazi references are illegal and deemed as hate speech.
In Thailand, the monarchy is a revered institution and is beyond criticism, according to the lese majeste law. When foreigners are found defaming this respected institution, they are prosecuted and often jailed. When the international community criticises the lese majeste law as draconian and as a threat to free speech, loyalists defend it on the grounds of cultural relativism.
Unfortunately, we cannot have it both ways. Respect is a two-way-street. If we want our values to be taken seriously by the international community, Thai society _ beginning with the academe _ has to set itself straight and strive to be more socially literate about the world and our history.
Pirongrong Ramasoota teaches and researches media, communication, and society at the Faculty of Communication Arts, Chulalongkorn University.