Maya Cove, December 1998
HOLLYWOOD IN PARADISE
9 August, 2016, Bangkok
Dear Foreign Friend,
Let’s waste no time on the Referendum Melodrama. I have a real story for you though it’s not news.
Four years ago today (9 August 2012) artist Manit Sriwanichpoom, our producer, & I were at the Administrative Court, filing with the help of Wasan Panich of the Lawyers’ Council, a case of discrimination & power abuse against the Censors, the Film Board (chaired by then PM Yingluck Shinawatra) & the Ministry of Culture for banning our Thai Macbeth, ‘Shakespeare Must Die’ as a threat to national security. 4 years on and all is silent as the grave.
We did get our day in court nevertheless last Wednesday 4 August. The Claims Court had summoned both of us as witnesses in a case that’s almost 20 years old: Phi Phi Islanders vs the Hollywood movie ‘The Beach’ over the rape of Maya Bay. I’m using that word with justification after due consideration.
The case was filed by the Lawyers’ Council of Thailand on 11 January 1999. Defendant#1 Minister of Agriculture; Defendant#2 the Forestry Department; Defendant#3 Forestry Director; Defendant#4 Santa International Film Production (‘The Beach’ Thai fixer); Defendant#5 Twentieth Century Fox.
I was summoned to testify as an eyewitness to the destruction & as the writer of a book with in-depth content on the Phi Phi Islands – Nopparat Thara Beach national park & the long struggle to preserve the sanctity of the National Park Protection Act. Though the book was published years before ‘The Beach’ came to Maya, it detailed the islands before the events & its 4th edition was dedicated to the memory of the National Park Protection Act, “Born 1961, Died 1999”.
This letter’s headline is the title of a documentary about the Maya war, which I never completed despite having obtained some of the most explicit & sensational footage any environmentalist filmmaker could ever hope for. But what was the point when the war was already irretrievably lost? Just to shame people? I couldn’t find enough motivation to force myself to relive, in the editing, the traumatic equivalent of the gang rape of my mother and such blatant & obscene subversion of truth & beauty.
The court summons resurrected old demons. It’s not easy to be dragged from a quiet, harmonious life back into the jaws of a grievous injustice. I was relieved to hear from Varin Thiemjaras, the lawyer who for 16 years has doggedly pursued the case through court after court, provincial & national, that Krabi artist Boonkasem ‘Paeh’ Saekow (now Kow-Santi) “had worse symptoms” (of reluctance to testify) than I did.
Of all its human victims, Boonkasem & I suffered the worst threats & damage to our lives. For years afterwards, he was exiled from his home town to teach art in neighbouring (safer & more democratic) Phuket. They flat-out told him to get his face out of sight for a while & that he was only alive because he was a local man, the relative of relatives of relatives. Such courtesy did not extend to me & Manit, which is why neither of us has gone back since the day national park officials & a local heavy hounded us out of the province, going so far as to stalk our car along the highway until it left the Krabi border. Even in Bangkok, anonymous men phoned my house to leave “a message from the Forestry Department”, which consisted of nothing but a detailed description of where I live.
The case is in its final stages but still pending. I’m not permitted to describe anything except my own testimony. Not having done this before, I thought I could refer to notes I had prepared, or even read a statement to the judges. But obviously no notes were allowed so I’m posting it here:
“Filmmaking is make-believe. You don’t need to actually kill people in a war movie because movies tell their stories through pictures that are cut & joined together. For instance, one close-up of a man followed by a wide shot of what he sees is enough; you don’t actually have to show the man & 360
degrees around him, especially if your insistence on doing it all in one take entails horrific environmental destruction. No film is worth that.
‘The Beach’ people didn’t need to relandscape Maya Bay. That they insisted on doing this despite all the protests shows an unreasonable stubbornness, a deliberate intent to transgress both the laws of Thailand and the laws of nature.
‘The Beach’ filmmakers did this because they could. They could not have done it in the Great Barrier Reef, the Grand Canyon or the Lake District national parks in their home countries. Clearly, they viewed Thailand as a lawless, powerless third world country where they could do whatever they wanted.
This is most painful for the local community & all Thai people. That they were able to bulldoze the sand dunes of Maya is proof before the eyes of the whole world that Thailand really is a savage land whose laws are not sacred & need not be respected. Since even Maya Bay, which is like our crown jewels, was suffered to be relandscaped according to the whims of those with enough clout & cash.
Even though the case involves bare-faced, outright wanton destruction before our very eyeballs, an academic (Dr Suraphol Sudara, now deceased of liver cancer, not long after his fateful decision to side with ‘The Beach’) was found to say that the relandscaping should be allowed because any damage that might occur could be restored. The Maya war is probably the first time that an academic ‘expert’ was used to contradict the facts in a controversy, a practice now common and even routine especially in politics.
This defanging of the National Park Protection Act had an immediate, obvious (& foreseen & preventable) impact: after ‘The Beach’ was given a free pass to alter Maya Beach with earth-moving equipment, there was a visible rise in national park encroachment by resort hotels.
From the testimony of many local park officials & my own direct experience as an investigative journalist, encroachment usually begins by hiring some villager to poison big standing trees (with root killer, like ‘Round-Up’) to downgrade the desired area from protected forest or national park to ‘degraded forest’ (a less strictly controlled category of land), which soon becomes a coconut or cashew plantation. Sometimes seeds or coconuts are tossed into the jungle which is gradually cleared as the coconut grows. There have been instances of ‘magic coconut’ plantations that rise overnight by transplanting trees over ten years old from somewhere else. This “old family agricultural use land” then acquires some thatched beach huts. Once the perpetrators are fairly confident that they won’t be evicted, the huts are replaced by permanent solid structures, usually involving prominent investors whose very presence ensures that the process becomes virtually irreversible. (Though last year’s court decision to evict Krabi businessman Chuan Phukaoluan’s resort hotel from iconic Podah Island—the one with the long neck of sand at low tide— in the Phi Phi Islands park is both miraculous & welcome; it hardly made any news.)
In Khao Lak, for instance, many hotels were erected after the Maya example successfully eroded the real estate sector’s fears of the National Park Protection Act. Hotels were built where no hotel should be. This is why the 2004 tsunami resulted in so much damage and loss of lives in Khao Lak and Phi Phi.
This is a DIRECT impact of the destruction of the National park Protection Act by the filmmakers of ‘The Beach’ as well as by the Forestry Director, (Plodprasop Suraswadee, yes the very same who was in Yingluck’s cabinet, but in those days he was still friends with the then government led by Democrat leader Chuan Leekpai) and the Minister of Agriculture (Pongpol Adireksan) who signed the permission after receiving an over-the-table ‘donation’ to the department of some 4 million baht (Forestry figure widely quoted in mass media). It was Pongpol’s signature that signed way the fate of Maya Cove & the 1961 National Park Protection Act.
Maya protest, 1998
‘The Beach’ filmmakers must also have known that such an action also transgressed the law of their own nation, namely the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act which forbids US companies from ‘persuading’ foreign officials to break their own country’s laws.
They know of the FCPA because Thai environmental groups sent them a clear & public warning by filing a complaint with the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) through its local office at the US embassy on Wireless road in Bangkok. Even though the FBI’s local man didn’t see the case as important enough to proceed in any way, perhaps deterred by the prominence & glamour of the perpetrator, notice had been given that this action went against their own law, the FCPA.
(Years later, the FBI successfully enforced the FCPA in the corruption case against the US couple that bribed the Governor of the Tourism Authority of Thailand to win the bid to organize the Bangkok International Film Festival.)
The living natural site was not the only casualty. Great damage occurred as well to the National Park Protection Act, which lost its effectiveness as a deterrent to crime the very moment that permission was given to Hollywood filmmakers to desecrate with bulldozers a sacred site of this land merely to stick coconut trees into the ground like toothpicks as set-dressing, to conform to colonial fantasies of a tropical paradise.
Maya Cove is well-known as a sacred site for the sea gypsies who have lived in these islands since time immemorial. Every year around March they stage ceremonies of worship by making simple offerings in seashells adorned with little paper flags to the presiding Spirit of Place.
Before the filmmakers began work on Maya Bay, the local Influential Figure who helped to eject environmental protesters (including Wanida Tantivitayapitak of the Assembly of the Poor who staged a camp-in at Maya) from the area did organize a ceremony, going so far as to sacrifice a buffalo to propitiate the spirit of the bay. Though it was claimed that this was part of the annual ritual, this didn’t usually involve buffalo blood sacrifice. Felling a buffalo in ritual was a serious matter in the Phi Phi Islands, perhaps still is. (When asked, ‘The Beach’ publicist declined to confirm the truth or untruth of the local people’s story.) It is highly probable then that the filmmakers knew that Maya was a sacred site deserving to be treated with reverence, not dug up and bulldozed.
Maya is sacred to every person who loves nature—indeed, anyone with eyes can see its sanctity. Its shocking beauty has power to inspire in human beings a great love for the earth so that they’re willing to protect such beauty with their lives. In both material & spiritual terms, Maya is an invaluable national treasure, the heritage of our children, the safety net of their future.
The physical damage that resulted is on a national scale. Encroachment on reserved forests and national parks have become extensive & entrenched, the most recently exposed case being the total disaster of Phu Tub Berg mountain. In such cases, it’s the A1 watershed forests that are destroyed, affecting our survival & livelihood, because bald mountains result in dried up rivers, as we have seen.
When the massive scale of the damage that was inflicted is taken into consideration, damage both on the site and on the law, clearly the perpetrator should be made to atone for it in a public manner. A clear example should be made for the Thai people & the world to witness, given that the instigator of the action is a transnational corporation presiding over one of the biggest, if not the biggest, media empires on earth, of which Fox News & 20th Century Fox are but a part.
The atonement should also reflect the damage to the law, to notify the world that Thai national park laws have regained their original potency, and that we intend to protect & preserve our heritage better than we have been doing especially these last 20 years.
One scene from this experience has really stuck with me: The Beach’s Australian landscape gardener pushing my camera lens and shouting “Call the police!” Which is to say, this foreigner, a corporate colonialist with his earth-moving machines, was calling Thai police to arrest a Thai environmentalist who was trying to witness & record the destruction of a legally-protected national treasure. His digger was poised above the ancient virgin sand dunes, higher than a man, that had shielded the famous spider-lily sanctuary of Maya; I was in his way. So his driver, laughing, slammed the digger down, hard, missing my feet by inches. The policeman duly came, and he was there to protect the attackers. Such a scene may explain why the Maya case destroyed my faith in my own country and why I’m no longer a journalist. When facts no longer work as a weapon, there is no hope.”
Maya, December 1998
The verbal testimony I gave was almost the same, except I did tell the court about a strange and unlikely meeting with ‘The Beach’ director Danny Boyle, years after the destruction of Maya, at the Toronto film festival when I (there with ‘Citizen Juling’) picked a number from a hat & was sent to a breakfast table presided over by Catherine Bigelow (there with ‘Hurt Locker’) & Danny Boyle (with ‘Slumdog Millionaire’). I told the court how he remembered me, moved over beside me & said (as I fantasized that he might express regrets), “We didn’t manage to get our side of the story out there very well.”
Danny Boyle appeared to believe this despite the fact that the whole Rupert Murdoch Empire which runs 20th Century Fox was behind him, bound to defend their investment whether they liked it or not, so that environmentalists & locals opposed to their rape of Maya Bay have been described as misled, at the very least, by publications as diverse as Outside & Vanity Fair (DiCaprio interview by Evgenia Peretz. The distortion is in the writer’s words, not a direct quote).
The spin is that these silly, unhip killjoy cinema-hating people staged a protest against the “filming” and the “planting of coconut trees on the beach.” But the bare fact was simple as this: they bulldozed the cove’s sand dunes & their plants, drilled countless deep holes (1 metre x 1 metre) all over the sliver of fragile coastal land behind the dunes, to stick in full-grown coconut trees as set dressing for a backpacker fantasy movie, which trees then die having not been planted but merely stuck in the sand & kept alive with constant watering which ended when the production crew left. The unrooted, loosened soil & sand dunes then turned to dust, clouding the lagoon and killing the coral reef, and all the plant life is washed away in the fearsome monsoon of the Andaman sea.
Why didn’t we set the record straight? Because we know that whatever we send would not be printed, or printed with malicious distortions. If we can’t get a letter into the Bangkok Post, how would we rate with Vanity Fair? You will not see our version anywhere. These were the (very last) days before YouTube & social media; there was no alternative to protesting on the pavement with actual paper leaflets in the real world, at the total mercy of network TV & print media.
It was a shock to me that Danny Boyle showed not a hint of remorse. Quite the reverse: still on the attack having learned nothing from perpetrating one of the most wanton acts of destruction on one of the earth’s rarest temples to beauty. His leading man, Di Caprio, was at least driven to overt environmental activism, as if to atone for his complicity in this crime. For it was his star power, fresh off the Titanic, that was used to doom Maya Cove and discredit those who tried to save her and failed.
With Love from Bangkok,
PS. Below is an ‘antique’ protest leaflet from the turn of the millennium, a treasure rediscovered while rooting through my Maya box:
“SUICIDE NOTE and APOLOGY from LEO Di CAPRIO THAITANIC
To All Whom I have Wronged, Especially Mother Earth:
I, Leonardo DiCaprio Thaitanic, hereby bow down before the world in abject humiliation, to apologise for my active defence of the grievous ecological crime committed in the making of my last film, THE BEACH.
As I have repeated said, I am a serious environmentalist. As Chairman of Earth Day 2000, I earnestly urge you to BOYCOTT ‘THE BEACH’ (which critics in my home country say is a stinker anyway. If you must see it, wait for the video—they get less that way). Help me send the message that CRIMINALS MUST NOT PROFIT FROM THEIR CRIMES, and that international corporations like 20th Century Fox should not profit from the bulldozing of a Third World country’s national park and conservation laws—something they would not dare to do in their own First World countries.
Aside from joining the international BOYCOTT CALL AGAINST ‘THE BEACH’, there is nothing more I can do to pay for my sins and prove my heartfelt sincerity…except to kill myself in shame.
May my manly dignity be restored through this fearless samurai act of Hara Kiri.
Leonardo DiCaprio Thaitanic
LEO DiCAPRiO’s HARA KIRI* WILL TAKE PLACE ON
TUESDAY 7 MARCH AT 5.30 PM
in front of MAJOR CINEPLEX RACHAYOTHIN
occasion: THE BEACH’S THAI PREMIERE”
[*Leo was performed by Manit Sriwanichpoom. His guts, in a plastic bag taped to the performance artist’s belly, were a mix of red cherry syrup, tapioca pudding & blackbeans, which some criticized as being horribly violent.]
A pioneer of environmental investigative reporting, Ing Kanjanavanit is a filmmaker, painter & bilingual writer, best known in Thai for the cult classic travelogue/handbook for environmental activism, ‘Khang Lhang Postcard’ (‘Behind the Postcard’) under the nom de guerre Lharn Seri Thai (136)—‘Free Thai Descendent/Force 136’, to evoke the Free Thai Movement against fascist forces during World War 2, which fought for the Allies then after the war was betrayed by the Allies. Sadly, she no longer attends Free Thai merit-making rites, not since Thaksin’s redshirts appropriated the name & equated Thaksin with Free Thai leader Pridi Banomyong, which is a travesty & a sacrilege.