Looking back at Asian Tsunami of 2004…and media response

Nalaka Gunawardene talking about 2004 Asian Tsunami

To mark the fifth anniversary of the Indian Ocean Tsunami of December 2004, TVE Asia Pacific has just released excerpts from an in-depth TV interview I recorded four years ago.

The wide-ranging interview was originally filmed in November 2005 in Bangkok, Thailand, by Thai journalist and film maker friend Pipope Panitchpakdi. He used excerpts at the time for a Thai documentary to mark the first anniversary of the tsunami. It remains one of the best media interviews I have given, for which all credit goes to Pipope.

Selected segments of that interview, in its original English, can now be viewed on TVEAP’s YouTube channel, while the transcript is published on the TVEAP website.

To give a flavour of this belated release of archival material, here are the first two extracts:

Nalaka Gunawardene recalls Asian Tsunami of Dec 2004 Part 1 of 6

Part 2 of 6:

Watch all extracts on TVEAP’s YouTube channel

Pipope Panitchpakdi: “It’s Like Being Out There Naked!”

Pipope Panitchpakdi

“It’s Like Being Out There Naked.”

That’s the reason given by Thai film maker and media activist Pipope Panitchpakdi why he doesn’t want to be present when his films are being screened.

A reporter at the recent Mekong Media Forum held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, noted how Pipope headed for the door when his ambitious 2009 documentary, Mekong: The Untamed began to be screened on the first day.

Asked why he was stepping out, he replied: “I don’t like to watch when my films are shown. It’s like being out there naked.”

Fair enough – there isn’t one right way to handle such public sharing, and each film maker does it differently. I know some who simply want to be there from beginning to end, derive great satisfaction from being acknowledged upfront, and are eager to engage the audience after the screening (I’m one of this type). A few prefer to sit quietly and unrecognised amidst the viewers, observing candid reactions of the audience, and may (or may not) own up in the end. Then there are those who leave the room.

But one thing every film maker I know shares with equal passion is that their film be screened with proper visual and sounds. This isn’t as easily or commonly accomplished as you’d think – I’ve seen a good film sharing moment ruined by technical glitches in too many countries, both developed and developing. Having been the victim of such mishaps, I know just how unnerving and frustrating this can be. Ours may be the digital age, but video and audio literacy levels are still very uneven.

Have you had such an experience as a film maker or film user? If so, please share it here!

The Mekong: One river, six countries, two films — and many views

Mekong River flows through 6 countries, nurturing 65 million Asians

The Mekong is one of Asia’s major rivers, and the twelfth longest in the world. Sometimes called the ‘Danube of the East’, it nurtures a great deal of life in its waters – and in the wetlands, forests, towns and villages along its path.

The Mekong’s long journey begins in the Tibetan highlands. It flows through China’s Yunan province, and then across Burma, Thailand, Laos and Cambodia…before entering the sea from southern Vietnam. It’s a journey of nearly 5,000 kilometres, or some 3,000 miles.

The Mekong River Basin is the land surrounding all the streams and rivers that flow into it. This covers a vast area roughly the size of France and Germany combined.

On its long journey across 6 countries, the Mekong provides a life-line to over 65 million people. They share Mekong waters for drinking, farming, fishing and industry. Along the way, the river also generates electricity for South East Asia’s emerging economies.

Naturally, these teeming millions who share the river feel differently about how best to manage the river waters in their best interests. The Mekong River Commission (MRC) tries to nurture cooperation among the Mekong river countries, but differences still remain.

Some of these surfaced during the Mekong Media Forum being held in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai from 9 to 12 December 2009. As IPS reporter Marwaan Macan-Markar reported, “A heated debate about the future of the Mekong River at a media conference in this northern Thai city exposed a fault line triggered by the regional giant China’s plans to build a cascade of dams on the upper stretches of South-east Asia’s largest waterway.”

At the centre of this debate was Pipope Panitchpakdi, my Thai film-maker friend who recently made the documentary Mekong: The Untamed. He is both an outstanding journalist and an outspoken media activist.

He told the Forum: “The most important issue for people who live along the banks (of the lower stretches) of the Mekong are the dams and how these affect them. They cannot see the river as a pretty sight.”

Mekong: The Untamed chronicles the journey of Suthichai Yoon, a leading Thai media personality, from the headwaters of the Mekong River in Tibet to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. The question he seeks to answer through his travels is how the planned Chinese dams affect communities who live along the banks of the river.

“My Mekong journey goes to the heart of Asia’s complexities,” says the narrator as he makes his way from China’s southern province of Yunnan to the north-eastern Thai town of Chiang Khong. The scenes he passes range from the raging waters of the Mekong and hills swathed with mist to riverside communities being torn apart by a building frenzy. “I wonder if the Chinese realise what the people who are impacted by the dam feel?” Suthichai asks at one point.

According to Pipope, another documentary film about the Mekong made by Chinese filmmakers overlooks some serious issues: “There was nothing about a lot of villages disappearing, that there are floods and the doubts people have about the Chinese dams.”

This second film, also showcased at the Mekong Media Forum, is a 20-episode series titled Nourished by the Same River, and has been made by China Central Television (CCTV).

A Chinese journalist on the panel conceded that the planned development targeting the Mekong would provoke a range of responses. “It is natural that different people will have different perspectives on similar issues,” said Zhu Yan, a senior editor at the national broadcaster China Central Television. “In China there is a debate (around the question) of environment or dams.”

The Mekong is both a mighty river and a massive bundle of issues for any film or film series to tackle. And given the multitude of countries, interests and viewpoints involved, it’s unlikely that there will be consensus.

But it’s good that films are sparking off discussion and debate…just what we need for more informed choices to be made in the future.

Read full IPS story: Chinese Dams Expose Fault Lines, By Marwaan Macan-Markar

Thai audiences in the dark about ‘Children of the Dark’

Yami no kodomotachi (Children of the Dark) movie poster

Yami no kodomotachi (Children of the Dark) movie poster

Human trafficking – peddling and trading of human beings for slavery, sexual exploitation and servitude – has grown to alarming proportions in recent years. It’s among the top five illicit trades in the world, whose net annual worth is believed to be between 9 billion and 42 billion US dollars. The truth is, nobody knows exactly how big it is, but human rights activists and development agencies agree the problem is pervasive.

Of the estimated 2.5 million persons trafficked worldwide, more than half are in the Asia Pacific. At the UN General Assembly for Children in August 2007, it was reported that about 1.8 million children became victims of commercial sex trade in 2000. About one million children in Southeast Asia are said to be involved – Thailand is one centre of this shady trade, drawing on misery in its rural hinterlands as well as poorer neighbouring countries like Burma, Cambodia and Laos.

So what happens when someone goes to the trouble of studying the issue in depth, and then pools talent and resources to make a feature film that exposes international connections that sustain the child sex industry in Thailand? Instead of being welcomed as part of the effort to counter this scourge, the film gets banned.

Yami no kodomotachi (Children of the Dark, 138 mins, original Japanese) is a Japanese-Thai film made in 2008 about child sex slavery. It has been banned in Thailand on the grounds that it was ‘inappropriate’ and touched on a ‘sensitive’ issue.

Watch the official trailer of the film (Japanese soundtrack, Thai captions):

I haven’t seen the film, but according to one reviewer who did, Junji Sakamoto‘s film is based on a novel by Yan Sogil and scripted by Sakamoto himself, shows, with a documentary-like directness, how children caught in the web of a Thai prostitution ring are exploited, abused and, in some cases, murdered when they are no longer sexually salable.

Mark Schilling, writing in The Japan Times in August 2008, noted: “…In being so visually graphic — particularly in the sex scenes in the Thai brothel — Sakamoto treads a dangerous line between hard-hitting social drama and stomach-turning exploitation. He takes care never to show his young actors (whose average age looks to be about 10) and their adult ‘clients’ in the same explicit shot, but he films them engaged in sexual acts or their aftermath. Sakamoto may defend these scenes in the name of realism, but could he have filmed similar ones in Japan, using Japanese children? The short answer is “no.”

The Thai ban prevented ‘Children of the Dark’ from being screened at the Bangkok International Film Festival, held in the Thai capital from 23 – 30 September 2008.

“The ban puts under the spotlight the country’s – or at least its higher-ups’ – seeming unwillingness to let go of the Film Act of 1930, when Thailand was still under absolute monarchy. That law gave a Board of Censors the power to impose cuts or to ban a film it deems inappropriate,” writes my friend and colleague Lynette Lee Corporal in an article just published on Asia Media Forum.

Thailand in denial about its Children of the Dark

Thailand in denial about its Children of the Dark

She quotes my Thai colleague and documentary filmmaker Pipope Panitchpakdi as saying: “Authorities always think that viewers need to be protected and shielded from real issues. They still have that kind of sentiment that the media should function as a gatekeeper. That is, let the good stories in and the bad ones out. It’s okay in certain circumstances but not when talking about real, serious issues.”

Pipope adds: “This country has no problem with hypocrisy; we don’t see anything wrong with double standards. We have sex workers in corners of the city, but we can’t watch people kissing.”

A Bangkok-based journalist who calls himself Wise Kwai, writing in his blog, asks: “When will they (Thai authorities) learn that when they ban or censor a film, the ensuing stink that’s raised causes more problems than if the film had been allowed to quietly unspool? Perhaps if people had seen it, they might criticise it, but they’d also talk about the problems in society that allow children to be exploited.”

Read the full article: Film Censorship Leaves Viewers in the Dark by Lynette Lee Corporal

My Sep 2007 post: MTV Exit: Entertainment TV takes on human trafficking

Thailand’s people power gets a boost from satellite TV

Street protests in Bangkok - image from DayLife

Street protests in Bangkok - image from DayLife

Thailand, which had built up a reputation as a relatively stable country, has been under siege for much of this year. Confrontations between the coalition government, elected in December 2007, and the anti-government People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD) have affected civil administration, law enforcement and economy, especially tourism.

On 10 September 2008, Thai prime minister Samak Sundaravej was forced to step down when a court found him guilty of accepting money from a TV station to host a popular cooking show. Bizarre as this reason was for his ouster, it has only added to the confusion that currently dominates Thai life.

Although I have been visiting Thailand regularly for the past 20 years, I don’t claim to understand the murky world of Thai politics. But until recently, Thais had somehow managed to keep their politics and business separate, allowing the latter to continue largely unaffected.

Pro-democracy struggles are not new to Thai people. But this time around, there is a new player involved: Asia Satellite Television (ASTV) a relatively new entrant into Thailand’s TV world which is dominated by commercial TV stations that offer a staple of light talk shows, soap operas and gossip programmes.

ASTV’s programmes, since May 2008, has consisted of speeches beamed from a stage set up at the site of a Bangkok protest rally, led by the PAD.

In early September 2008, around 200 PAD supporters banded together to guard the ASTV station and Manager newspaper offices on Phra Athit road amid rumours Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej was going to take the cable TV channel off the air.

In an interesting news analysis filed from Bangkok, Inter Press Service (IPS) noted on 5 September: “ASTV makes little effort to hide its political mission as the principle broadcaster of the PAD. After all, its founder, Sondhi Limthongkul, a fiery speaker, is one of the PAD’s leaders. His sustained attacks on the government and Thai democracy — that the prevailing elections system does not work, and the country needs a largely appointed parliament — have resonated with the thousands drawn to the PAD rallies after first hearing them on ASTV.”

Much of the PAD’s mass mobilisation has been possible due to ASTV’s reach, which is currently estimated at 20 million viewers. ‘’Our audience has doubled since 2006, when we had 10 million viewers, because we present the political side of the news that is not available on national TV,” the article quoted Chadaporn Lin, managing editor of the station’s English-language channel, as saying.

The Manager owns ASTV

The Manager owns ASTV

Viewers who cannot access the station through a satellite dish or a provincial cable company turn to the website of ‘Manager,’ the newspaper produced by ASTV’s parent company. The site has seen the number of regular visitors rise and is now placed third among the top 10 Thai-language websites.

Read the full IPS article: THAILAND: Satellite TV Boosts Anti-Gov’t Protests By Marwaan Macan-Markar

To make sense of what’s going on, I turned to Pipope Panitchpakdi, a Thai friend who has worked in the broadcast media industry for many years:

Pipope Panitchpakdi, independent Thai journalist

Pipope Panitchpakdi, independent Thai journalist

He says: “It’s just too bad that the ideology behind the ASTV movement is identified by many as right-winged and nationalistic. For me, the movement itself is quite progressive in its post-modernistic use of everything that works to topple the existing government. In a way, it’s going back to the muckraking days of partisan journalism, which may be in need when mainstream media are no longer functioning during Thaksin/Samuk’s administration (with his equally keen media strategist team).”

Pipope adds: “Few mentioned that ASTV is self sponsoring through viewers’ subscriptions. That’s, to me, says a lot about the station. In my opinion what is unacceptable is when NBT (National Broadcasting Television) starts to give air time to government politician to bash the ASTV and to report heavily distorted news on the anti-government movement. They said it is the counter measure to what the ASTV is doing.”

He continues: “NBT, which is a free to air TV, funded by tax money and has a nation wide coverage, now becomes the state propaganda in the true sense of the word and by being such, there is no telling what kind of political fervor the NBT can stir.”

The argument of using NBT to project government view is a familiar one in other fragile or immature democracies across Asia. To understand it, we need to recall how rapidly broadcasting has changed in the past two decades.

In 1990, most Asian viewers had access to an average of 2.4 TV channels, all of them state owned. This has changed dramatically — first with the advent of satellite television over Asia in 1991, and then through the gradual (albeit partial) broadcast liberalisation during the 1990s. Asian audiences, at last freed from the unimaginative, propaganda-laden state channels, exercised their new-found choice and quickly migrated to privately owned, commercially operated channels. Soon, state owned TVs and radios found themselves with ever-shrinking audiences and declining revenue. For the past decade, most have survived only because governments infused them with massive amounts of tax payer money. Their public service remit is long forgotten.

In recent years, some governments have taken the view that since a growing number of private channels provide an outlet to political opposition and other dissenting views, the state channels are justified in peddling the ruling party (or ruling military junta) view – often exclusively. This convenient argument overlooks the fact that Pipope points out: state channels are funded mostly or wholly by tax payer money (as many lack the entrepreneurial skill to compete in a market environment). They have a moral and legal obligation to serve the public interest — and that does not coincide with the ruling party’s or junta’s self interest.

There are some who accuse ASTV of Thailand, and its equivalents such as courageous Geo TV of Pakistan (which stood up to the once mighty, now fallen general Musharaf), of being partisan. Perhaps they are, and in ASTV’s case it unashamedly and openly is. But in my view, they offer a much-needed counter balance to the disgusting excesses of state TV that prostitute the airwaves.

Supinya Klangnarong

Supinya Klangnarong

Supinya Klangnarong, deputy head of the Campaign for Popular Media Reform (CPMR), an independent local group lobbying for media rights, told IPS: “ASTV is offering knowledge and political information and new ideas that have never been seen on Thai TV. They have opened a new space for TV. There is 100 percent media freedom. You can say anything against the elected government and get away.’’

But she warned that while such a media agenda has tapped into an older audience that has felt left out by the dominant trends on the existing commercial stations, where youth is the focus, it is also creating a following that could become increasingly intolerant. “They are creating a culture of hate by the one-sided opinions being broadcast. They are promoting very conservative and very nationalistic ideas.’’

She added: “And if it attracts more people, ASTV may take over the role that has always been played by Thai newspapers of setting the political agenda for the country. That will be a win for those who say that Thailand has become too liberal, open and globalised… like my mother’s generation.’’

PAD protests hold Thai capital under siege - image from DayLife

PAD protests hold Thai capital under siege - image from DayLife