Chapter IV. Lessons for and from Thailand

The facade of the building of the Thailand–Burma Railway Centre. The Thailand–Burma Railway Centre is involved in researching the subject of former PoWs in Southeast Asia (predominantly those who constructed the Thai–Burma railway). (Credit: Thailand–Burma Railway Centre)

1. Background and context

Basic facts about the modern history of Thailand and the main cases of mass violence

Thailand is the only country in Southeast Asia that was never colonised. The nation abolished its absolute monarchy in 1932. Since then, ‘the country has had twenty charters and constitutions, twelve coups d’état, and thirty-four years of military rule’.[1]
These events have positioned the military as an integral part of Thailand’s political establishment. Most cases of violence are connected to the authorities’ opposition to public protests for democracy and human rights. The protests and their legacies are contested in Thai public discourse. These include:

  • The student protests of 1973 demanded that the military government step down and that a new constitution be introduced. The government ordered the army to open fire on protestors. In total, seventy-seven protestors died and eighty were injured. In 1974, a new constitution was enforced and the military regime was overthrown.
  • The Thammasat University massacre of 6 October, 1976 took place following a mass protest, which opposed the return from exile of the former military dictator, Thanom Kittikachorn. The protesting students were attacked and massacred by a rightwing mob. At least forty-six students lost their lives, and many were injured or arrested. Nobody was held accountable nor punished for the violence.
  • Bloody May 1992—another example of a violent crackdown on prodemocracy mass protests.
  • The Deep South conflict—Thailand is predominantly a Buddhist country. It also serves as a point of reference for Buddhists beyond its borders. Nevertheless, Thailand’s population is diverse, and includes various indigenous and ethnic groups, such as the Hmong, Karen, Muslim Malays and others. The Muslim population has lived in the south of the country (known as the Deep South)—which borders Malaysia in Pattani, Yala and Narathiwat provinces—for a very long time. The protracted conflict in the Deep South is a highly sensitive and emotive one. It comprises many components, including ethnic and religious differences, and political conflict between Malay Muslims—who want to maintain their own identity on similar terms as the Thai Buddhist identity—and Thai Buddhist rule. The region has experienced tensions, violence and insurgency against the state. The Tak Bai Incident occurred on 25 October, 2004 in Narathiwat. Around 1,500 Muslims protested against the detention of their peers. The protest turned violent when the crowd threw rocks at the police, who responded with gunfire. Eighty-five Muslims and Buddhists died of suffocation and crush injuries while being transported to a military base. Once again, nobody was held accountable for the aggression.
1. The State of Conflict and Violence in Asia, Assessed on 3 January, 2022,

Massacre of 6 October, 1976 Memorial at Thammasat University, Bangkok.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Questions for Critical Thinking:

  • How can past experience of military rule impact the development of Thailand in the context of interethnic peace?
  • Is accountability for past human rights abuses necessary for national reconciliation?

Historiography: the main themes, the main elements of memorialisation

A number of nongovernmental projects that memorialise contested events, such as the 6 October Museum Project: Documentation, Archives exist in Thailand. The project started in 2019 and includes an exhibition at Thammasat University. Through photographs and sound clips, the exhibition tells the story of 6 October, 1976 from the perspective of individual victims of state violence—primarily students who witnessed the events. It is also a safe space for reflection and discussion of critical subjects from Thailand’s present and past. The exhibition incorporates numerous panel discussions, film screenings, performances and concerts by Rap Against Dictatorship and the Commoner Band.

  • Read more about the 6 October Museum Project and exhibition
  • and see more images: Thammasat University massacre remembered.
  • Watch Patporn (Aor) Phoothong’s presentation of the 6 October Museum Project during a symposium organised by the NEVER AGAIN Association on 26 November, 2021 (in Thai language). Patporn Phoothong is a researcher who focuses on museums and archives of past political violence and ongoing violent conflicts, and is one of the project leaders.

One initiative is attempting to create a Deep South Museum and Archives to establish a sociopolitical public space in which the conflict, and particularly the Tak Bai Incident, are represented. The initiative also promotes democratisation, inclusion and polyphony for local communities affected by the conflict in southern Thailand.

A guided tour of the 6 October, 1976 exhibition. It is a safe space for reflection and discussion of critical subjects from Thailand’s present and past.(Credit: Archive of 6 October Museum Project)

‘Red Gate’. Two victims were found hanged on the gate on 24 September, 1976, after they had spread posters protesting the return of Thanom Kittikachorn. (Credit: Archive of 6 October Museum Project)

Victims’ possessions. (Credit: Archive of 6 October Museum Project)

The exhibition uses augmented technology to present the events. (Credit: Archive of 6 October Museum Project)

Question for Critical Thinking:

  • How can the commemoration of past human rights abuses contribute to contemporary democratic culture?

The role of Thailand in the Second World War, memorialisation of the Second World War: Does it exist? In what forms?

Thailand (known as Siam until 1939) was a neutral state until it was invaded by the Japanese military on 8 December, 1941. After a short conflict, it formed an alliance with Japan and became its puppet state. On 25 January, 1942, Thailand declared war on the Allies.

Although the Second World War is present in Thai history books and several monuments commemorate it, it is effectively downplayed in public discourse. Historical memory and many aspects of Thailand’s participation in the war are silenced, unknown to the public and not commonly debated. These include Thailand’s participation in the war on the side of Japan and the bombing of Bangkok by the Allies. The official discourse justifies Thailand’s participation in the war on the side of the Japanese for pragmatic reasons.

Kanchanaburi, a town in the west of Thailand on the border with Myanmar, was the site of notable events during the Second World War and is sometimes cited in the context of Holocaust education and historical memory in Thailand and Southeast Asia. Among its heritage sites is the ‘River Kwai bridge’, the 1944 Japanese memorial and the Allied War Cemetery. It also contains several museums that memorialise and present aspects of the Second World War. Two of them deserve special attention: the Hell Fire Pass Memorial Museum and the Thai–Burma Railway Centre.

The Hell Fire Pass Memorial Museum was established as a memorial to the Australian and Allied Prisoners of War (PoWs) who were forced by the Japanese military to build 415 kilometres of the Thai–Burma railway. The railway was the main transportation route for supplying the Japanese during the war. The memorial has been sponsored and supported by the Australian government.

A monument erected to commemorate the Thai military youth in their struggle against Japanese invaders of Thailand in December 1941, near Chumphon city.
(Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

The Thailand–Burma Railway Centre is involved in researching the subject, and has compiled and expanded the personal data of 106,000 former PoWs in Southeast Asia (predominantly those who constructed the Thai–Burma railway). It opened in 2003 as a privately operated museum, and information and research facility. All exhibition captions and information at the museum is presented in the English and Thai languages. The museum allows free entry to children who attend Thai state schools. It is located 200 metres from the site of the railway and 100 meters from the adjoining cemetery. The exhibition focuses on victims and their perspectives. It shows the severity of their working conditions (diseases, starvation, poor sanitation and accommodation, overwork and exhaustion) and the brutality they suffered. The exhibition also demonstrates that this history was well documented. Those working at the museum often have family connections to its history. The Australian, Dutch and British governments support the museum’s activities. More than 13,000 British, Dutch, Australian and American PoWs perished there between mid-1942 and August 1945. The Asian slave laborers from Burma, Java and Malaya, however, constitute the largest group of victims: around 240,000 people and 100,000 deaths, according to the centre. Little is known nor written about this aspect at the exhibition and beyond.

Read a brief history of the Thai–Burma railway and the Thailand–Burma Railway Centre:

The facade of the building of the Thailand–Burma Railway Centre.
(Credit: Thailand–Burma Railway Centre)

Associate Professor at Chulalongkorn University Verita Sriratana analyses the third museum located in Kanchanaburi: the World War II Art Gallery and War Museum, established in 1995 by jewelry entrepreneur, Aran Chansiri. Sriratana is rather critical of the institution, and writes about attempts to ‘museumise’ and enshrine the image of Hitler.[2] The museum is located near the ‘River Kwai bridge’ that overlooks the Kwai Yai river. Sriratana asserts that the bridge was an outcome of the Thai government’s effort in 1960 to promote and cater a sanitised version of Second World War history to tourists familiar with the famous 1957 film, Bridge on the River Kwai. Apart from this attempt to erase the Thai government’s close collaboration with Japan during the conflict and the existence of Asian slave workers from history, the Thai government also renamed Kanchanaburi’s rivers in 1960 to fit the popular image presented by the film[3].

Fabrication of war history in Thailand does not end with the attempts of the Thai authorities to rename bridges and rivers. The World War II Art Gallery and War Museum is an extension of the oldest museum in Kanchanaburi, problematically named the ‘JEATH War Museum’, a historically misleading acronym (which intentionally rhymes with the word, ‘death’) for Japan, England, America, Australia, Thailand and Holland, built in 1977 by the chief abbot of Wat Chaichumpol[4], a Buddhist temple. In the JEATH section, visitors can walk through an imitation of the huts where, it was envisioned, Thailand–Burma railway PoWs were held. Among the eclectic hoard of objects on display—including stamps, coins, musical instruments and stuffed animals—scattered in a group of exhibition houses near the shrine that commemorates the Burmese–Siamese wars, are Buddhist-temple-style decorative stucco figures of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin. The biography, of Stalin, presented in both Thai and English, fails to mention the Gulag; Hitler’s fails to mention the Holocaust. As a seeming afterthought, news article clippings about Auschwitz concentration camp are pasted near Hitler’s stucco figure in the Thai language.

Photographs of Buddhist-temple-style decorative stucco figures of Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin with news article clippings and biographies at the World War II Art Gallery and War Museum, Kanchanaburi.
(Credit: Verita Sriratana)

As the JEATH acronym testifies, the museum propagates and artificially reconstructs the myth of the Thailand–Burma railway claiming only PoWs from Allied countries as victims. Thailand’s glorification of the Japanese army is also implied in the inclusion of the letter, J for Japan. Such a narrative masks the truth that Asian labourers, coerced as well as recruited with the promise of higher wages, also suffered and died during the construction of the railway.

2. Symposium presentation, 23-26 November 2021.
3. Braithwaite, R.W. and Neil Leiper. ‘Contests on the River Kwai: How a Wartime Tragedy Became a Recreational, Commercial and Nationalistic Plaything’. Current Issues in Tourism. Vol. 13. No. 4 (July 2010) Taylor & Francis, p.323.
4. Lenon, John. ‘Kanchanaburi and the Thai-Burma Railway: Disputed Narratives in the Interpretation of War’. International Journal of Tourism Cities. International Tourism Studies Association. Vol. 4. No. 1 (2018): p.147.eo.

The Seri Thai resistance movement, or the Free Thai Movement, was a Thai underground resistance group that fought against Japanese forces during the Second World War. The Seri Thai resistance movement is commemorated in cooperation with the US Embassy in Thailand, and is considered a unifying aspect between Thailand and the US.
The website of the US embassy states:

‘Thai students studying in the United States at such prestigious universities as Cornell, Caltech, and MIT volunteered to receive military training and return home to Thailand to fight for its freedom. These were the first members of what would become the Seri Thai force. The Seri Thai volunteers played an invaluable role in preparing the ground for the restoration of Thailand’s sovereignty’ [5].

5. ‘Commemoration of Seri Thai Movement’, Assessed on January, 2022,

Questions for Critical Thinking:

  • What are the main challenges in commemorating Thailand’s complex role during the Second World War?
  • Does the silencing of the Asian labour slaves in the construction of the Thailand–Burma railway constitute distortion, or even denial, of violence? How can they be integrated into the narrative? Can they be represented?

Aspects of social diversity: the main minorities in the country, cases of persecution after 1945

Various minority and indigenous communities exist in Thailand: 13 million Thai Isan/Thai Lao, 9.5 million of Chinese descent (approximately 14% of the population), 1.5 million Malay Muslims, 1.4 million Khmer, 923,257 members of highland indigenous groups and 10,000 members of indigenous sea nomad groups.
Read more about minorities in Thailand:

Patani Artspace was established by Arjan Jehabdulloh Jehorhoh, who wanted to create opportunities for young artists of minority backgrounds or members of underprivileged groups in the southern provinces of Thailand. Here, art is a medium for dialogue, mediation and the memorialisation of past violence. Follow Patani Artspace on Facebook: and watch Arjan Jehabdulloh Jehorhoh’s presentation at a symposium organised by the NEVER AGAIN Association on 26 November, 2021 (in Thai language).

Jews have never been a prominent group in Thailand, aside from a scattering of immigrants and Jewish tourists from Israel, the United States, Australia and elsewhere. Today, the Jewish community is represented by the Jewish Association of Thailand. Several hundred Jews live in the country—mostly in Bangkok. Historically, Jewish merchants lived in the Siamese Kingdom of Ayutthaya. At the end of the eighteenth century and after the First World War, more Jews arrived in the country from Eastern Europe and Russia. In the 1930s, some Jews escaping persecution in Nazi Germany found their sanctuary in Thailand.

After the Second World War, some American Jews, as well as those from Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan settled in the country. They were involved in various enterprises, contributed to the Thai economy and considered Thailand a tolerant nation.

During the Second World War, the Jews were considered enemies and were suspected by the Japanese of supporting the Allies (this was also the case among Burmese Jews). Some Jewish soldiers were held in the Japanese PoW camp in Kanchanaburi—a subject that is worthy of further research.

Read more about the Jewish community in Thailand:

Question for Critical Thinking:

  • How can Thailand’s cultural diversity help in understanding and commemorating the Holocaust and other atrocities?

2. Existing types of Holocaust and genocide denial and distortion

Knowledge and interest in Jewish history and culture, and the European Holocaust is limited in Thailand. Holocaust knowledge is typically derived from popular culture, including movies such as Schindler’s List and Life is Beautiful. Anne Frank’s Diary has been translated into the Thai language. Standard history textbooks contain basic information about the Holocaust.
The embassies of Central and Eastern European countries have become a key source of information about the Holocaust and the Second World War through their organising of exhibitions and lectures; however, the embassies often present interpretations of facts that suit their national (or nationalistic) narratives. Such events typically focus on positive aspects, such as the ‘Righteous among the Nations’, but avoid discussing the complexity of the Holocaust—including the diverse roles of their own populations.

Various types of Holocaust distortion can be observed in public discourse: Holocaust trivialisation, normalisation of Nazism and Hitler, fascination (‘Nazi chic’), and various conspiracy theories about Jews.

The trend of Nazi chic has become a mainstay in the extracurricular activities of Thai schools and universities: Nazi symbols can be seen during school parades, university events and graduation ceremonies. In Thailand, the Nazi uniform and iconography (replicas of the black swastika and the Reichsadler, or ‘Imperial Eagle’) are deemed part of the aesthetic of some events; a mere accessory for a performer in an entertainment show or a celebratory parade. This could be observed during a 2019 Christmas display at a major department store in central Bangkok (as shown in the photograph below). The same year, a member of BNK48, a domestic franchise of the Japanese girlband AKB48, wore a Nazi-themed shirt during a performance that was broadcast on television two days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day [6]. Though some BNK48 fans defended the singer on the grounds of ignorance, stating that they were also unaware of the meaning of the Nazi symbol (‘Thai Girl Band BNK48 Sorry for Nazi T-Shirt Controversy’), it is likely that some claimed ignorance as a mere excuse.

6. The United Nations General Assembly resolution 60/7 on 1 November 2005 designated 27 January of each year, which was the day that Auschwitz concentration camp was liberated by the Red Army in 1945, as International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

BNK48 member, Pichayapa Natha wearing a t-shirt depicting a Nazi flag on stage.
(Credit: featured/2019/01/26/thai-idol-group-bnk48-member-wearsnazi-flag-on-stage, Assessed on 1 August, 2021)

Our project researcher, Dr Verita Sriratana of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok explains the root causes of the fascination and normalisation of Nazism and Hitler in Thailand and the wider region:

‘Thailand’s romanticisation of WWII strongmen leaders like Hitler and Stalin is a reflection of the country’s long history of having been ruled under absolute monarchy’s internal colonisation, bureaucratic polity’s patronage system and military authoritarianism. Having weathered thirteen “successful” coups d’état since 1932 (and counting), one can find discourses where past and present democides [killings of person(s) by their government] and the Holocaust are justified in the name of national security and to the credit of the past and present leaders, as well as “semi-divine” figures.’

The wartime actions of the Japanese are the most immediate prism through which many view the region’s history; Hitler was in Europe and the Holocaust was organised in Europe. In this way, Thais are typically unable to draw any immediate association between Hitler and the murder of six million Jews in Europe.

‘The room in question, which was given the name, ‘Communist room’, was known to be popular among guests (“Outrage over love hotel’s Hitler Room”). In the photograph, one can see that the room contains the pictures and symbols which would have been an extreme anomaly in Europe: Adolf Hitler with red stars and the hammer & sickle. The room epitomises and sets up
the backdrop to my analysis of the cultural trends of Nazi chic and Communist cool in Thailand. I contend that such trends constitute the problems of personality cult and ignorance of the Second World War history in Thailand and can be seen as a result and reflection of the country’s long history of having been ruled under absolute monarchy’s internal colonisation, bureaucratic polity’s patronage system and military authoritarianism. The ‘Communist room’ with the Hitler portrait as decoration, a transitory place designed to cater to sordid desires, can be seen as a mere secularised and commodified version of the cult of Hitler and Stalin’.

Watch Verita Sriratana’s presentation ‘The Land of Smiles, Nazi Chic and Communist Cool’ during a Symposium organised by the NEVER AGAIN Association.

Common global prejudices exist in Thailand and the wider region, such as the blaming of American Jews for political turmoil in Thailand[7]. Conspiracy theories invariably result in the scapegoating of groups, such as the Jewish minority. Individuals often turn to conspiracy theories during crises and the blaming of minorities has a long history. Antiminority propaganda and fake news (disinformation) are often spread in Southeast Asia through social media. It is possible for religious leaders to be both victims and perpetrators. This can be counteracted through education that provides individuals with the tools necessary to distinguish between true and false information, develop critical thinking skills, recognise facts that are supported by testimony and research, and use different perspectives to discover reliable sources of information.

7. Are you serious? Thai royalists blame Jews for political unrest’,,
Assessed on 1 August, 2021.

Photo from via the Bangkok Post

Thai men dressed as Nazis during a Christmas display at a Bangkok Department Store in 2019.
(Credit: Twitter (Stickboy Bangkok)

Photograph of Hitler fried chicken (later renamed ‘H-ler’ fried chicken) in 2013. The chain of restaurants, located in the provinces of Ubon Ratchathani
and Chiang Rai, has since closed down.
(Credit: Shuo & Zhaokun; Verita Sriratana )

A group of students in Red Guard uniforms performing a Nazi salute. (Credit: Washirawit Santipiboon (Facebook), Assessed on 1 August, 2021)

3. Governmental and nongovernmental initiatives to prevent and counter denial

  • Despite all of these challenges, Thailand is the headquarters for many human rights organisations in Southeast Asia, such as Fortify Rights. One of the region’s leading higher education institutions, Mahidol University, runs a human rights and peace programme in Thailand. The embassies of Israel and other nations regularly organise Holocaust commemoration events, to which governmental representatives are also invited. It seems that Thailand exhibits high potential to develop and support future Holocaust education.
  • Our collaborator, Verita Sriratana of Chulalongkorn University, stresses the promotion of Central and Eastern European Studies in Thailand as a way to help the Thai public question and deconstruct its tendency to glorify totalitarian regimes. This can be achieved through training programmes for Thai teachers and students, and through extracurricular cultural

A recent example of the impact of Central and Eastern European Studies in Thailand on the deconstruction of Nazi chic and Communist cool is the public screening of the 2019 film, Nabarvené ptáče, (‘The Painted Bird’) at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Arts. The screening was followed by a discussion with the film’s director, Václav Marhoul. A controversial film about the atrocities of both the Nazi and the Communist regimes, which is loosely based on Jerzy Kosiński’s novel of the same name, Nabarvené ptáče is the story of a Jewish boy who had to find ways to survive in wartorn Central and Eastern Europe. Medžuslovjansky (Interslavic language) is utilised throughout the film to avoid pinpointing specific locations, as the film focuses on Central and Eastern European collective grief and the cross-border transcendence of the cruelty of war.

  • The NEVER AGAIN Association cooperates with Thailand-based Buddhist monks from Thailand, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Vietnam. Venerable Lablu Barua Thirasattho Bhikkhu of Wat Phrmarangsi Buddhist Monastery has organised lectures and discussions about the Holocaust and interfaith dialogue for Buddhist monks and students at the International Buddhist College of Mahachulalongkornrajavidyalaya University in Ayutthaya. He has invited NEVER AGAIN members, Sydney-based interfaith expert and leader of the Jewish Community Jeremy Jones, and chief rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich as speakers at these events.

Venerable Lablu Barua holding a WeRemember (Holocaust remembrance) campaign poster at his Monastery in Bangkok, 27 January, 2019.
(Credit: Sanjoy Barua Chowdhury)

Venerable Lablu Barua visits Warsaw’s historical ghetto and the Monument to Warsaw Ghetto Fighters,
November 2019. (Credit: Natalia Sineaeva)

Venerable Lablu Barua (second right) during his study visit to Poland, with NEVER AGAIN members in Warsaw.
(November 2019, Credit: Natalia Sineaeva)

Online discussion of Venerable Lablu Barua (third left), Buddhist monks, and NEVER AGAIN’s Natalia Sineaeva about genocide, interfaith and peace education.
(Credit: Archive of Lablu Barua)

Interfaith meeting of Venerable Lablu Barua, Buddhist scholar Dr Sanjoy Barua Chowdhury, and Jeremy Jones (centre), Bangkok, January 2020.
(Credit: archive of Lablu Barua)

Questions for Critical Thinking:

  • What can be done to tackle the presence of ‘Nazi chic’ in the popular culture of Thailand and Southeast Asian countries?
  • What is the role of faith leaders, such as Buddhist monks, in identifying and confronting Holocaust denial and distortion?

Thank you for taking the time to give us feedback on this online exhibition. Please share your thoughts, reflections and comments on this. We appreciate your cooperation.



  • McCargo, Duncan (Editor). (2007). Rethinking Thailand’s Southern Violence. Singapore: National University of Singapore Press
    Winichakul, Thongchai. (2020). Moments of Silence: The Unforgetting of the October 6, 1976, Massacre in Bangkok. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press
  • Strate, Shane, Chandler, David. (2015). The Lost Territories: Thailand’s History of National Humiliation. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press

Journal Articles

  • Braithwaite, R.W. and Neil Leiper. “Contests on the River Kwai: How a Wartime Tragedy Became a Recreational, Commercial and Nationalistic Plaything”. Current Issues in Tourism, Taylor & Francis, Vol. 13. No. 4, July 2010, pp. 311-332
  • Lenon, John. “Kanchanaburi and the Thai-Burma Railway: Disputed Narratives in the Interpretation of War”. International Journal of Tourism Cities. International Tourism Studies Association. Vol. 4. No. 1, 2018, pp. 140-155

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