Fashion craze with murderous past
The words 'cute' and 'cuddly' would rarely be used to describe fearsome Nazi leader Adolf Hitler - but that's exactly how he is shown on designer T-shirts that are all the craze in Thailand.
The German dictator during the second world war, with his trademark toothbrush moustache, appears as Ronald McDonald, looking stern but clownish as he sports the fast-food mascot's cherry-red hairdo. On another shirt, Hitler is in a panda costume with the armband of his Nazi party.
A different shirt shows him as a pink preschool Teletubby character with an antenna in the shape of a pink swastika, the Nazi symbol. With doe eyes and jug ears, Hitler pouts as he extends his arm in a Nazi salute.
The shirts on sale across Bangkok have become a popular fashion choice among the youth who often don't know the painful history behind the leader. Hitler's regime was responsible for the deaths of millions of people, especially the Jews, during the war.
Some six million Jewish people, including 1.5 million children, were systematically murdered by Hitler's regime between 1939 and 1945.
This is why foreigners that know this dark past frown upon the recent craze for 'Nazi chic', where Nazi symbols are used for clothes and fashion accessories.
'You don't want to see memories of the Nazi period trivialised in this manner. It hurts the feelings of every civilised person,' says Itzhak Shoham, Israel's ambassador to Bangkok.
However, the designer of the Hitler T-shirts, who goes by the nickname 'Hut', insists his merchandise isn't meant to be offensive. 'It's not that I like Hitler,' he says. 'But he looks funny and the shirts are very popular with young people.'
Hut, who graduated from a local university's arts programme, does brisk business selling shirts with Hitler caricatures on the front. His small clothing store, Seven Star, is located at Terminal 21, a new luxury mall in central Bangkok.
Outside Hut's shop is a large dummy of Hitler as Ronald McDonald. Its motorised left arm goes up and down in an endless Nazi salute and shoppers - including soap opera stars and other celebrities - love posing for pictures with the statue.
Not everyone is amused, though. 'Foreigners get upset [when they see the T-shirts I designed on sale]. They come to my shop and complain,' Hut says.
Yet his clothing label was named one of Thailand's top five
T-shirt brands last year in a poll by a youth streetwear magazine.
This doesn't surprise Harry Soicher, a geography teacher at a private high school in Bangkok, who says many young people 'lack exposure to history and social studies'.
He says: 'Young Thais are attracted by the pageantry of Nazi symbols and uniforms.' In a special lecture, Soicher's students were shocked to learn that Nazis weren't just soldiers in elegant black uniforms, but were part of a brutal campaign to wipe out so-called 'inferior races'.
Pitawat Chaiyot, a 21-year-old university student, admits: 'Hitler looks cool because he seems like an interesting character. [But] actually, we don't know much about him. We only learn Thai history in school.'
While Nazi regalia are illegal in Europe, some parts of Asia haven't quite caught up. Several years ago, 7-Eleven stores in Taiwan sold dolls and key chains with Hitler's likeness. A Hong Kong clothing store once decorated a shop with Nazi flags and banners. In South Korea and Japan, Nazi-style clothing is often a part of cosplay.
Last September in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai, a group of students marched in for sport day in home-made Nazi uniforms, swastika armbands and toy guns. The parade was led by a teenage girl wearing a fake Hitler moustache and dressed in a replica uniform of a brutal Nazi military squad. The incident caused international anger and the school had to apologise.
Yet Soicher explains that many Asian nations, though occupied by Germany's ally, Japan, during the war, had no direct experience or awareness of Nazi crimes. 'If you don't live in Thailand, you may find it hard to believe that [people who like Nazi chic] mean no harm,' he says.
Yet Asians should understand how Hitler's ideas work against them. 'If the Nazis had won the war, Hitler's racist [ideas] would have eventually targeted all races ... including Asians,' Abraham Cooper, from rights group Simon Wiesenthal Centre, points out.
Both Cooper and Soicher agree that teachers should devote more time to world history so that the youth - born in a much later time than Hitler - will be more careful about making a fashion statement.