'The Beach' war
The move by a US film company to change the natural landscape of a Thai island protected by the country's environment laws to make it conform to Hollywood's image of a tropical paradise, provoked mass protests from local villagers and civic groups all over Thailand. This account of the fight to stop the filming of 'The Beach' (the proposed title of the film) illustrates the extent to which 'tourist dollars' can dictate a Third World government's national policies.
THE 20th Century Fox film company has run into fierce opposition from environmentalists, pro-democracy groups, and local residents in Thailand over its move to change the natural landscape of Maya Beach in Krabi's Phi Phi Island national park for shooting the Hollywood movie 'The Beach', starring 'Titanic' teen heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio. The film, based on a novel with the same name, is about a bunch of Western backpack tourists who flee the confines of civilisation and end up in a hidden island paradise.
Last November, the Thai government approved the project in the hope the movie will help boost the country's image abroad, attract more tourists and bring in lots of money. The Hollywood production studio, a division of Rupert Murdoch's News Corp., anticipated to spend some US$10 million in Thailand (while DiCaprio reportedly received US$20 million for his role in the movie). The company also agreed to pay 4 million baht (US$111,000) to the Royal Forestry Department (RFD) for its work on Phi Phi Island and to provide a deposit of 5 million baht (US$138,000) as guarantee against possible damages at Maya Bay as a result of shooting the film.
But the island is protected by national park law, and Thai laws are not for sale, critics argued. Thai film-maker and environmental activist Ing Kanjanavit also said 'The Beach' could be made without changing the natural environment if the film company compromised by using similar locations for scenes and matching shots.
Still, the Fox company backed by the authorities went ahead and bulldozed the beach, removed native plants and planted some 100 coconut trees because the film script called for a perfect tropical beach, large enough to play football on it. During storms that hit the area by the end of the rainy season, the environmental consequences already became evident: The sand dunes dug up and stripped from their natural vegetation collapsed and were washed into the sea. The transportation of equipment and fully-grown coconut trees to the island also damaged coral in Maya Bay.
Shooting of the film began on 15 January, although opponents staged tireless protest actions, including a rally at 20th Century Fox's Bangkok office, several petitions to concerned national and local government agencies and media campaigns.
In December, protesters organised a peaceful sit-in on Maya Beach. Local villagers and representatives of civic groups, who came from all over Thailand to support the anti-'The Beach' campaign, had camped on the island for about two weeks until aggressive film-proponents, police and military officers threatened to use violence against them and destroyed their camping equipment.
In another attempt to save Maya Beach from further damage, opposing groups decided to take legal action, and on 11 January, the Civil Court accepted a lawsuit filed by 19 residents and two elected assemblies from Krabi province against Fox, its local coordinator Santa International and Thai government officials who had granted permission to the film-makers to make prohibited changes in a protected area. Initially, the hearing on the case was scheduled to take place on 26 March when the filming would be long over and the Hollywood film crew had left Thailand. On 15 January, however, the Civil Court also accepted the plaintiffs' demands to impose an emergency ban on the filming unless the Fox studio provided an acceptable defence and a 100-million baht (US$2.8 million) bond.
The violation of environmental laws is by itself not a new phenomenon in Thailand, where authorities have constantly turned a blind eye towards encroachments and the illegal construction of tourist resorts, golf courses and infrastructure in protected areas. But this is the first time that a state agency has been sued over an environmental dispute. As such, the case of Maya Beach is seen as an important milestone for Thailand's burgeoning environment and democracy movements and a historic test to show whether Thai citizens can succeed in upholding the principle of the national park laws against powerful state officials and big companies - foreign and Thai - who believe they can do whatever they want.
In response to the lawsuits, the accused government officials - Agriculture Minister Pongpol Adireksarn and director-general of the Royal Forestry Department, Plodprasop Suraswadee, denied any wrongdoings, maintaining they allowed the landscape changes on Phi Phi island with the 'best intention' to promote tourism and Fox had promised to put the beach back in its original state after filming was completed. Prime Minister Chuan Leekpai also stepped in, saying Leonardo DiCaprio's new movie 'The Beach' would do Thailand more good than harm. 'Filming here will create more jobs and enhance our image, which is what every country wants,' he argued.
Meanwhile, film-producer Andrew McDonald admitted in an interview aired on the Thai television channel ITV that the image of his project 'is terrible'.
DiCaprio, who arrived in Thailand in the midst of the battle, got to feel the heat as well. An AFP report said: 'A huge environmental row over the movie is threatening to sink Thailand's love affair with the "Titanic" star.' After having been pampered on a first-class flight to Phuket and put up in a luxury hotel with a breathtaking view over the Andaman Sea, DiCaprio was not allowed to move without an army of bodyguards at his side. Despite the tight security measures, some 30 environmentalists and a group of Thai and foreign journalists from several provinces in southern Thailand staged a rally on board two boats moored in front of the hotel where the mega-star was staying, to voice their opposition to the shooting of 'The Beach'. They waved banners reading: 'Leo, stop breaking our laws and our hearts', 'Leo, stop killing national parks' and 'Don't rape our beach'. A representative of the Phuket Environmental Protection (PEP) Group said: 'Our intention is to draw attention to the scandal and make the hotel guests aware of it, too.'
A few days later, the press reported that Fox wanted DiCaprio to promote Thai tourism, and promptly 'The Beach' star came up with two public statements, paying tribute to Thailand as a 'magnificent' tourist destination and defending the shooting of the film. One of the protest leaders replied in a letter to newspapers: 'The fact of the matter is that DiCaprio is starring in a film that is destroying the environment. He is part of the problem because he is allowing himself to be used by "The Beach" and the Thai government in their mutual attempt to desecrate our National Park Protection Act...'
After relentless efforts by the anti-'The Beach' campaigners in overcoming forces of big money, stubborn bureaucracy and intimidation by film supporters, the legal process also proved difficult, and repeated appeals to block the filming on Phi Phi island in time were fruitless because the defendants successfully applied delaying tactics to undermine the emergency ban. But the protesters vowed to fight on.
On 29 January, representatives of 20 civic and environmental groups rallied in front of the US Embassy in Bangkok, thus taking the case right to 20th Century Fox's doorstep at home. Hoping that the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) would help to bring about justice, they handed a petition over to an FBI official, seeking a ruling by the US Department of Justice on allegations that Fox bribed Thai government officials to sabotage national park law for the permission to change the landscape in a protected area.
'...we cannot allow the crime to go unpunished,' said the petition. 'It is difficult to have faith in the process of enforcing Thai law. This is why we have resorted to informing you of this matter, since the whole thing had been instigated by the action of (the Fox) company in furthering its own interests.'
In the meantime, news of another conflict broke as more scenes of 'The Beach' were planned to be shot from 8-10 February at a waterfall in Khai Yai National Park, some 250 km northeast of Bangkok. The Khao Yai Protection Forum - an alliance of several local environmental groups - presented an open letter to the provincial governor of Nakorn Ratchasima, calling on the authorities to disclose the contract signed with the Fox company and to inform the public on the activities the film-makers were allowed to conduct in the national park.
After their demand remained unheeded, they produced a video, which documented that the production team of 'The Beach' actually cut down tree branches, disrupted the ecological system by using pumps to boost the flow of water, and caused other environmental damage at Khao Yai's Haew Suwat Waterfall. Subsequently, several protest groups filed a complaint with the police against the film-makers for violating the 1961 National Park Act and the 1992 Environment Act. Thirasak Chikhunthod of the Law Society of Thailand commented there were enough witnesses and evidence to file criminal and civil suits against the production team of 'The Beach' for changing the environment and discharging paints and chemicals into the waters in Khao Yai National Park.
Fox's activities in Phi Phi Island and Khao Yai National Park and the government's eagerness to support the controversial filming of 'The Beach' in return for a petty sum of money have made a mockery of Thailand's legal system. The Nation concluded in an editorial: 'The whole scenario concerning "The Beach" shows that there has been a total breakdown in the system, and as a consequence those who have been mandated the power to protect our rights and interests have failed us... In the end, Fox will simply move on to its next project and give Phi Phi and Khao Yai parks - and the upheaval and the mess they have caused - not a second's thought.
The Hollywood "big shot" syndrome and the power of money reign supreme in their world, not the dignity of a Third World country. And when the bickering and din die down, the bureaucrats will be left with the money, the people with empty promises and the country with a reputation for being an easily trampled upon banana republic.'
It is also utterly clear that this entire issue goes far beyond any tourism benefits - the government's main argument to defend the filming - because public interests and the sanctity of law are at stake. However, this sordid 'The Beach' affair serves as an excellent case study on how persistent state officials are in conveying the message to the public that: If it is for the tourist dollars - and that's what we want - anything goes, and there is nothing you can do about it.
In this situation, it is necessary that concerned citizens in Thailand and elsewhere demonstrate that they can make a difference. (Third World Resurgence No. 103, March 1999)
This report, prepared by Anita Pleumarom of the Bangkok-based Tourism Investigation & Monitoring Team (t.i.m.-team), is based on articles published in New Frontiers (4 November-December 1998; 5 January-February 1999).