By Anita Pleumarom (A Guest Editorial Published in The Nation 24+25 Nov. 1999)

In November 1998, the Royal Forestry Department (RFD) gave the US film company 20th Century Fox permission to create a “tropical paradise” on Maya Beach in the Phi Phi Islands National Park for its film ‘The Beach’, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Government officials justified the decision on the grounds that the Hollywood movie would help boost tourism and thus bring in badly-needed foreign exchange which could pull Thailand out of its economic crisis. Local residents of Krabi province and civic groups from all over Thailand protested strongly not only at the proposed changes in landscape but also at the state-sanctioned breaking of environmental and national park laws. One year on, the controversy is still far from being resolved.

The country’s environmental and pro-democracy groups consider ‘The Beach’ case to be a key test of Thailand’s new constitution adopted in 1997, which promotes public participation in policy-making and grants citizens more legal rights. They argue: If Thailand can not uphold the integrity of the country’s legal system by effectively prosecuting unlawful activities perpetrated by government agencies and a large foreign company at Maya Beach, it will be even harder to prevent future unsustainable and damaging development activities in the country as a whole.

Two elected assemblies from Krabi province – the Krabi Provincial Authority Organization and the Ao Nang Tambon Administration Organization – and several Krabi residents have filed lawsuits against the RFD and its general-director Plodprasop Suraswadee, Agriculture Minister Pongpol Adireksarn, Fox and its Thai coordinator Santa International Film Production Co. The next court hearing is scheduled for 9 December.

Recent reports, photos and a video from Krabi residents monitoring Phi Phi Leh Island just confirm what critics have predicted from the beginning: The alterations made to Maya Beach so that it conforms to Hollywood’s image have led to irreversible ecological damage despite Fox’s promises and attempts to return the site to its original state. Heavy rain storms in October have eventually ruined the beach completely. Local witnesses say Maya Beach has suffered much more from erosion this year than other beaches in the area hit by the monsoon. They also fear that the massive amounts of sand washed into the sea will have devastating impacts on the surrounding coral reefs.

‘The Beach’ controversy has not only been raging within Thailand but also in cyberspace through various web sites with international links and contributors – an aspect that has largely remained unnoticed in Thailand.

The most prominent web site is thaistudents.com/thebeach, established in October 1998. Contrary to its name, this web site does not represent the voice of any of the Thai university students groups who have joined the debates and activities concerning ‘The Beach’ in this country. It has in fact been developed by Richard Barrow, an expatriate on the staff of the high-class private Sriwittayapaknam School in Samut Prakarn, which accommodates children from the ages of three to fifteen.

The web site includes a disclaimer: “We are not affiliated with or receive payments from any groups that have associations with people and organizations such as 20th Century Fox, Leonardo DiCaprio, Beach Productions and environmental groups.” However, another of the school’s web sites, sriwittayapaknam.ac.th, states that Leonardo DiCaprio sent videos and calendars to the school “worth thousands of US dollars”. It shows photos of school children holding posters of the Hollywood heartthrob and displaying gifts he sent after ‘The Beach’ filming was completed in Thailand. Moreover, during the filming, Richard Barrow and three students were invited by the film publicist, Sarah Clark, to visit Phuket and Phi Phi Leh Island and meet the film’s cast and crew.

The school’s ‘The Beach’ web site reflects tireless and comprehensive efforts; it features massive amounts of written materials in English language and photos about the movie and related issues, including a lot of tourism information on Thailand. It is updated at least once a day, seven days a week. One gets the impression that this is not the effort of just Barrow, the diligent webmaster, and Thai pupils alone, but of a whole team of public relations experts, who are carefully monitoring and analyzing news worldwide, contacting individuals and agencies to make statements, producing articles and commentaries and moderating discussions on the various web site message boards. The Internet identification numbers from the webmaster’s messages put on the web site also indicate that these messages are sent from overseas as well as from Thailand.

Barrow has repeatedly stressed his neutrality in ‘The Beach’ controversy and his eagerness to present all sides involved in this case, and judging by the messages sent to the site, most correspondents abroad believe that his information is independent and correct.

There is the observation, however, that as soon as any information and comment not in favour of the ‘The Beach’ finds its way on this web site, counter-statements will appear promptly or the webmaster interferes to question the credibility of the critical reporters and to pre-empt their arguments. Therefore, it is not surprising that apart from DiCaprio fans living all over the world, the site has received special praise from voices closely related to Fox: the official web site of DiCaprio, his media consultant for ‘The Beach’, Richard S. Ehrlich; his production consultant, Dave Walker; the production director of Birken Interactive Studio, Chuck Smith; and the producer of’ ‘The Beach’, Andrew MacDonald, who was quoted as saying: “To the students of Sriwattayapaknam School. On behalf of the entire cast and crew of The Beach, including Leonardo DiCaprio, we would like to thank you for all your support and goodwill messages, which we have been reading on your web site. We appreciate all the time and hard work that has gone into the site.”

A recent example gives an insight as to how this web site operates for the film’s supporters. On 29 October, the British newspaper The Guardian published an article about the recently discovered environmental damages at Maya Beach. Basically, the story was not much different from a full-page report, including photos, in The Nation of 12 September, which described Maya Beach after heavy monsoon storms as “a forlorn scene of ugly bamboo fences and dead native plants – the legacy of (Fox’s) promise that could not be kept.” Strangely, the webmaster overlooked The Nation article. But within a few days after the internationally renowned British paper brought up the matter on its front page, thaistudents.com/thebeach featured statements from both Fox and the RFD, playing down the destruction as a natural annual event during the monsoon season – meaning this was not the result of misguided human action. It was also suggested that the film company and its British-based gardener Ross Palmer had done good work to rehabilitate Maya Beach. Webmaster Barrow added his own comment: “We met Ross several times and he is very qualified at the job he is doing now for Fox.”

Furthermore, there is evidence that earlier this year, this web site mobilized various parties to challenge a US environmental justice group, Women’s Voices for the Earth (WVE), which had called for an international boycott of ‘The Beach’ via their web site, wildrockies.org/WVE. This group mostly presented information based on what was common knowledge among the Thai public when the protest gained momentum in December 1998 and justified their boycott call with environmental and legal concerns in accordance with those raised by Thai activists. Webmaster Barrow, however, was quick to point out “discrepancies” in WVE’s statements and claimed the group was distorting the truth regarding the number of people who had expressed their intention to boycott ‘The Beach’. Meanwhile, he referred to “our own independent look at the issues involved and the pictures we took ourselves of Maya Beach”, which suggested there was hardly any reason to protest.

Since WVE’s boycott call, more foreign researchers have put forward their views on various web sites – including thaistudents.com/thebeach and sites promoting eco-tourism in this region. They often refer to each others’ “independent” or “scientific” investigations on Maya Bay to strengthen their stance that campaigners against ‘The Beach’ are biased, produce false information and manipulate both the Thai and international media.

One report, which was widely picked up and also published in the Bangkok Post (18 Feb. 1999), was produced by Phuket-based members of an international conservation group, Reef Check (no link available). In their article, Robert Cogen and Anne Miller claimed they had thoroughly inspected Maya Bay in December and January and found that as a result of Fox’s activities, the area’s environment was better than it had been in years. Discrediting the movement protesting against the filming of ‘The Beach’ in a national park, they concluded: “We were sure that none of those demonstrators (from Bangkok) had seen Koh Phi Phi Leh. Who put on this show? Who scripted it?” Their report ended with the call, “Seek the truth. Go look for yourself.” That is exactly what many Thai people from all walks of life actually did at that time, and most of the eyewitnesses reported very different findings. (See the photo essay).

It is interesting to note that the Reef Check authors are not innocent of commercial interests. Cogen and Miller jointly run an eco-tour company based in Phuket called In Depth Adventure, which offers explorations to “Romantic Uninhabited Tropical Islands” in Thailand and Mergui Archipelago in Burma, including activities such as scuba diving and snorkeling, sailing and sea canoeing, trekking and birdwatching.

As competition among eco-tour operators in Phuket and Krabi provinces is tough, it is logical that companies have been trying to capitalize on the filming of ‘The Beach’ in the area and superstar DiCaprio to prop up their tourism business. From the In Depth Adventure’s homepage, which actually states that “Filming ‘The Beach’ did NOT harm the environment”, one can click to the Reef Check report, which includes a photo of Cogen and Miller arm-in-arm with DiCaprio during his stay in Thailand.

Reef Check has also benefited in other ways as the official web site of DiCaprio promotes this conservation group in its “Earth” section. On the occasion of DiCaprio’s 25th birthday on 11 November, a Project 25 was publicized via a US-based web site geocities.com as well as thaistudents.com, encouraging DiCaprio fans to send – as a birthday present for their idol – donations to DiCaprio’s “environmental favourites”, including Reef Check. Fans willing to make financial contributions were asked to sign on to a donation cover letter to the conservation groups as “Thai students ‘Leonardo Fans Only!’ board member”, even though not one Thai student was involved in setting up the initiative. The Project 25 web site includes a letter from Reef Check coordinator Miller of 10 October, accepting the funding offer.

Other eco-tourism promoters also became active in cyberspace, such as Noah Shephard, director of Environmental Tourism Consultants in Phuket. A former general manager of the Phuket-based eco-tour company SeaCanoe, which has won several international travel awards, Shephard is now running his own tour company, Siam Safari Nature Tours and has established a web site for the Lao PDR tourism authority to promote “Visit Laos Years 1999-2000”.

In April, Shephard placed a message on an internationally renowned, tourism-related web site, green-travel.com, under the title “Re: Scientific Research & Ecotourism: The Beach”, claiming the protest actions against ‘The Beach’ filming were “a rather silly chain bandwagon campaign, with no foundation.” As proof, he included the Reef Check report, referring to co-author Cogen as “an expert and buddy of mine.” He also added a 5 February press release by DiCaprio, stating that Fox was taking “meticulous care” of Maya Bay and that ‘The Beach’ was a wonderful opportunity for tourism.

Ecotourism.about.com is a US-based web site that has also played a significant role in rebuffing the international boycott call by the American women’s group and actions of Thai protesters, while promoting Phi Phi Islands as an ideal and “unspoiled” destination for eco-tourists. It features a July report produced by another “independent” research team, entitled “20th Century Fox’s ‘The Beach’ exonerated by EcoLert Investigation”, which again uses thaistudents.com/thebeach and the Reef Check article as its main sources. EcoLert, which is described as a non-profit, ecological and environmental public awareness and education programme, claims: “The alleged destruction of these uninhabited, unspoiled islands by 20th Century Fox produces more than just damaged reputations… We do not comprehend why or how these initial allegations were created upon completing our investigation. The painstaking measures taken to insure the safety of the islands, reefs, beaches, and the native vegetation were observed, documented, providing factual evidence of restoration. We are confident that this additional information will abolish the unqualified opinions and assumptions of others.”

Meanwhile, on the Environmental News Network’s web site, enn.com, another article appeared “In defense of ‘The Beach'”, authored by the director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) Asia Program, Dr. Joshua Ginsberg. He insists, “There are critical environmental issues in Thailand, but the filming of The Beach is not one of them,” and reiterates the claims of ‘The Beach’ producers and supporters. Notably, the American conservation group WCS has a notorious record in Southeast Asia, according to many ecological and social justice groups from around the world. A few years ago, the WCS was condemned for supporting the highly controversial Nam Theun 2 dam project in Laos because it would cause massive deforestation, wipe out wildlife and affect the livelihoods of several thousand people. More recently, international human rights movements have drawn attention to its cooperation with the Burmese military dictatorship to establish conservation-cum-ecotourism projects in Burma. They include the Lampi National Marine Park, which is part of Mergui Archipelago, and the Myinmolekat Nature Reserve in Karen State. Both projects reportedly involved the forced eviction of local villagers and forced labour to clear the areas for the construction of tourism facilities and infrastructure.

In conclusion, most web site postings represent the views of the pro-‘The Beach’ lobby and reflect a collusion of different interests. Fox, as well as Thai government officials, facing court cases for having broken the Thai law and ravaged a protected area, have a natural interest in defending themselves. The producers of ‘The Beach’ and their cast, including DiCaprio, are eager to shrug off their bad image caused by the controversy and to sell the movie to as wide an audience as possible with an optimal profit. They particularly cater to the many movie and DiCaprio fans who find it hard to believe that their favourites could have been involved in any wrong-doings. Last but not least, tourism entrepreneurs and conservation groups have been using the Phuket and Krabi area as a playground for their own activities and are likely to gain from worldwide distribution of ‘The Beach’.

These and other support groups may have different motivations, but all express similar opinions.

Firstly, there is the common argument that Fox in cooperation of the RFD have made tremendous efforts to avoid damaging Maya Beach and to even upgrade it, by collecting garbage and natural debris for example. This reveals a strikingly narrow environmental view. To make a place look green and clean can be easily done at any time to hoodwink people and to sell images of an “unspoiled” paradise to tourists. Meanwhile, the attempt to conceal other Fox activities – exactly those that have caused the most serious long-term ecological damage such as bulldozing the sand dune and removing its natural vegetation – is obvious. There even persist claims that Maya Beach was not levelled and widened to prepare the filming.

Secondly, several commentators assert that Thai people in general do not really care about the environment, and those who are making “a fuss” about ‘The Beach’ should deal with other more important ecological issues instead. There is no acknowledgement that Thailand has one of the most advanced environmental movements in Southeast Asia to protect the country’s natural heritage from encroachment, over-exploitation and destruction. Fortunately, the country’s relatively free press has for many years covered Thai citizens’ uphill struggles against unfettered development – including destructive tourism projects – and related environmental conflicts. Through this omission, the pro-‘The Beach’-lobby tries to convince their audience that the protesters are not working for the public good but have a private “hidden agenda” – a term commonly used by ‘The Beach’ fans to dismiss oppositional voices.

Indeed, the misrepresentation of the Thai resistance movement against ‘The Beach’ is immense. Clearly, the self-appointed “independent” investigators leading the discussions on the web sites have little, if any, knowledge who is actually involved and why. The “Who’s Who” section of thaistudents.com/thebeach, for example, does not even list the names of the plaintiffs in the court case and the environmental and legal experts of the Lawyers Association of Thailand who have played a key role in the investigations and the legal challenge. Without full information about the participating parties, how can a judgement be made about the motivations of opponents and their “hidden agendas”?

One aspect that has been particularly played down or ignored is the involvement of local residents, which has helped to create the myth that just a few trouble-makers in Bangkok are behind the protests. Ginsberg of WCS states bluntly: “The local people of Phi Phi, the Sea Gypsies, no longer exist in the area,” giving the impression that the islands are all uninhabited and that residents of Krabi, who have been settling and making a living in the area for centuries, are outsiders as well. Flatly denying the existence of locals implies there is no resident population to claim ownership or rights to use and look after the land and the sea around Phi Phi. Ironically, an exception may be the many resort-owners, tour-operators and other tourism-related businesses from outside who are keen to take over the “uninhabited” territory to attract foreign visitors to “unspoiled” islands, including the filming site of the ‘The Beach’.

The Internet is an intriguing communication system to spread information quickly and stimulate discussion worldwide. But there is also the danger that cyberspace debates become removed from local realities and serve as a means of exclusion and propaganda. ‘The Beach’ affair is a case in point.

Anita Pleumarom is a researcher and investigative writer focussing on tourism, development and environment issues in Southeast Asia.