In Thailand, A New Party Tries to Take Back the Swastika

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Ajay Verma / REUTERS

Children light lamps in the shape of Swastika, a Hindu symbol of prosperity, on the eve of Hindu festival of Diwali in India in November 2004

In early June, the founders of Thailand's New Politics Party (NPP) unveiled their logo — usually a routine procedure in a country where new parties seem to come and go with the monsoons. But the yellow-and-green symbol of the NPP has generated controversy not just for its questionable 1970s color scheme but because it resembles a swastika.

Asians are rightly miffed that Adolf Hitler hijacked an ancient religious symbol of luck and peace and turned it into the unofficial logo for genocide and racial hatred. The swastika symbol is venerated in eastern religions ranging from Hinduism and Jainism to Buddhism. Even in pre-Nazi Europe, the good-luck talisman adorned everything from Celtic art to Finnish Air Force medals. A 1904 first-edition copy of Rudyard Kipling's Traffics and Discoveries has a swastika on the cover, a sign of his kinship with India where he was born.

Naturally, the Führer stripped the luck from the sign in the West, and its continuing use by neo-Nazi groups — not to mention Charles Manson slicing the symbol onto his forehead — prevents its rehabilitation. But in Asia the swastika still connotes all things auspicious. I remember traveling in Japan years ago and watching the shocked faces of American tourists coming across a giant topiary swastika that adorned a hillside near a famous temple. In fact, on some Japanese maps, temples are denoted with a swastika, just as churches are symbolized by a cross. (For the record, the Japanese swastika, or manji, faces counter-clockwise, while the Nazi symbol goes clockwise.) Similarly, Tibetans, who believe the symbol represents the Buddha's footsteps, adorn their walls or bodies with the token.

The NPP, which has aligned itself closely with Thailand's Buddhist King, was presumably reaching for a potent religious symbol as its new logo. Fair enough. But the swastika carries a lot of global baggage. The NPP is an outgrowth of a street-protest movement called the People's Alliance for Democracy (PAD), which, despite its name, is skeptical of the efficacy of a one-man-one-vote system. Last year, the yellow-shirted PAD besieged Bangkok's international airport, forcing its closure for a week before the government it was protesting was ousted from office by a court ruling. The airport takeover dented Thailand's tourism industry and contributed to an aura of instability that has enveloped the country since. Choosing such a contentious symbol could further harm the NPP's fledgling reputation. No matter how many ancient talismans are used, that's hardly auspicious.