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 his blog, where he 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.
She says 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.
Nonetheless, the 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 the world."
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.
In India, 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.
In 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 happening."
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 abroad.
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.
American historian 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 sometimes."
Myanmar's government-issued history textbooks contribute to this strong leader perception because they do not describe Nazi atrocities, according to Metro.
"They talk 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."
That 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.
To 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.
No Holocaust 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.
"If it's 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 journalist.
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