'Beach' case settled at last
A ruling has finally been handed down for a court case related to the production of the Hollywood movie The Beach. A Supreme Court verdict on Tuesday ordered the Forestry Department to restore Maya Bay, which was environmentally damaged during the movie's filming that began in November 1998.
The ruling finally spells an end to a prolonged legal battle over the film's shooting by 20th Century Fox and its Thai partner, Santa International Film Production. The production took place at pristine Maya Bay on Phi Phi Island which is part of a marine national park in the Andaman Sea.
The news of the ruling may raise many eyebrows. Thais, who are older than 35 years of age, may have forgotten what the case is all about. For many, the most memorable part of the film is that a young Leonardo DiCaprio is its main actor.
The legal battle started in January 1999 when local conservationists, local administrators in Krabi province and Ao Nang Tambon Administrative Organization (TAO) initiated a lawsuit to stop the filming in Maya Bay. This came after heavy equipment such as a backhoe was brought in to expand the beach so to build a beach football field while coconut trees were planted to replace indigenous plants to fit in with the director's imagination.
Named in the lawsuit were five defendants, then agriculture minister Pongpol Adireksarn, the Royal Forest Department and its then chief, Plodprasop Suraswadi, 20th Century Fox and its Thai production house. Nevertheless, the court denied the plaintiffs' request for an injunction.
Somehow, however, it wasn't until about 10 years afterwards that the Civil Court agreed to proceed with a civil case where the plaintiffs were demanding 100 million baht to pay for restoration work to the bay. This came only after a judge had conducted an unusually rare on-the-spot inspection of Maya Bay to observe its condition. A compromise was eventually reached between the two mayors and 20th Century Fox which agreed to pay 10 million baht for Maya Bay's rehabilitation.
Meanwhile, the movie made Maya Bay and the Phi Phi islands a must-see for many foreign tourists. Thai and foreign visits to Maya Bay at their peak were estimated at 4,000-5,000 per day following the film's release.
Indeed, a heavy price has been paid. The bay's natural ecology was battered and with mass tourism, it never had a chance to recover. Over two decades, an unregulated influx of tourists only exacerbated the bay's conditions until 2018 when the bay was closed to all visits so to allow it to regenerate. At the beginning of this year, the bay was reopened to a small number of visitors so as to limit the ecological damage.
This week's ruling might seem somewhat irrelevant now, decades on. The Royal Forest Department is no longer responsible for overseeing national parks as this now rests with the Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation, which supervises the protection of Maya Bay.
Now, the case is just another example of how delayed justice can nullify the noble purpose of the law. This case was just one of many environmental ones awaiting court. Environmental lawsuits like this can take about a decade or more to find some sense of resolution. Justice can be served, eventually, as in the case of The Beach lawsuit. But it was obviously a very long, drawn-out process, during which it was the environment and victims that withered as they waited.
Bangkok Post editorial column
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- Maya Bay