• Pinnapa "Minor" Pruksapan in "The Purple Kingdom"/Photo by Saptawee Puthom
  • Pinnapa takes a photo at the event.
  • Film director Pimpaka Towira, far right, and Pinnapa "Minor" Pruksapan, centre, discuss "The Purple Kingdom", a short film inspired by the case of missing Karen environment activist Porlajee "Billy" Rakchongcharoen.

Making the case for equality

movie & TV August 02, 2018 01:00

By Jintana Panyaarvudh
The Nation

11,224 Viewed

The disappearance of Karen environmentalist Billy Rakchongcharoen and the problems faced by his wife in getting the authorities to look into his case are portrayed in a short film



In real life, Pinnapa “Minor” Pruksapan, the wife of the missing Karen environmental activist Porlajee “Billy” Rakchongcharoen, has been seeking justice for her husband for the past four years.

On the screen, the mother of five who plays herself in “The Purple Kingdom” is trapped somewhere a dream world and reality.

Produced by independent film director Pimpaka Towira, the short film is inspired by disappearance of Porlajee who went missing near Kaeng Krachan National Park in Phetchaburi province, 161 kilometres south of Bangkok.

Park authorities arrested Billy on April 17, 2014 for possessing a wild honeycomb and six bottles of wild honey but released him after giving him a warning. He disappeared shortly afterward and has not been seen since.

 

Two years before he went missing, Billy played a key role in collecting evidence and interviewing witnesses to file a case with the Central Administrative Court against park authorities accusing them of destroying the Karen’s habitat in the Thai-Myanmar border during the socalled Tenasserim Operation in 2011.

The film was produced in 2016 but was not widely screened. It was shown again late last month at the first “Movies that Matter”, a monthly film event organised by Amnesty International (AI) Thailand to promote human rights. 

Pimpaka says she came to know Billy through his short movie “The Way of Lives”, which tells the story of Karen villagers living in Kaeng Krachan National Park’s Bangkloi community.

“Billy gave this voiceless ethnic group the opportunity to tell their story to society,” she says.

The idea for “The Purple Kingdom” was born when Pimpaka was contacted by a law reform committee to produce a film as part of the “Nine Short Films, Move Reform Forward” project.

 

With Billy’s disappearance still making headlines, she chose the Karen activist’s disappearance as the subject of her contribution. 

Pimpaka picked Pinnapa to play her real life role but fearing it could have a negative effect on the continuing legal case of Billy and his wife, changed her name in the movie to Namthip Thongyod.

“No one can relay her story or message better than Pinnapa,” she says. 

Pinnapa was hesitant at first but later agreed to take the role after consulting with her lawyers.

Pimpaka uses her film to draw attention to inequalities in Thai society by comparing two women whose husbands have gone missing.

While Namthip was treated badly by authorities when she tried to file a missing persons report with the police, Woon, the wife in the parallel story, received nothing but helpful cooperation in finding her husband who was killed in a helicopter crash in the jungle.

“I want to show the disparity in our society. Influential people tend to use their connections to help each other,” Pimpaka says.

The film shows Namthip repeatedly being told by a policeman to speak clearly and slowly while filing her report. Pinnapa is quick to add that this is a real life conversation and left Billy’s wife exhausted.

 

In real life, it took Pinnapa more than four years to convince the authorities to begin an investigation into her husband’s disappearance and it was only in June this year that the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) accepted the case. Pinnapa says she had to go over all the original questions again with the DSI officials to assure them of the validity of information.

Pinnapa has not given up hope although she often feels that justice does not truly exist in her case.

“Is it because I’m poor and don’t have any money to pay them so the officials are not interested in helping me?” she says of her journeys back and forth between her house in Phetchaburi and Bangkok to file petitions.

“I don’t know if Billy is still alive. But I hope that if they [authorities] take this case seriously, they will at least find some trace of Billy. If they don’t it’s hopeless,” Pinnapa explains.

The Karen villagers in Kaeng Krachan have never had it easy but their plight didn’t become known to the general public until 2011 when news broke that a joint force of military and park officials at Kaeng Krachan, led by then chief Chaiwat Limlikhitaksorn, had burned 98 properties in the deep forest close to the Thai-Myanmar border during the so-called Tenasserim Operation.

In 1996, 57 Karen families, including Ko-I Meemi, the 107-year-old Karen community’s spiritual leader were relocated from their homes in Bangkloi Bon (the Upper Bangkloi) and Jai Paen Din (the heart of the land) to new villages – Bangkloi Lang (the Lower Bangkloi), and Pong Luek. 

 

However, three months after the relocation, Pu KoI, Billy’s grandfather and a few other Karen who could not adjust to the new environment went back to their old communities. Five years later, park officials and military officers decided to burn the dwellings and their contents.

In June this year, the Supreme Administrative Court, ruled on the case – the first in the country dealing with customary and land rights reclamation – instructing the National Parks, Wildlife, and Plant Conservation Department, to pay Bt50,000 to each of the six plaintiffs for the damage done.

But the court said it could not allow the Karen to return to live in their original land because it had been declared as being inside a national park and they had no land documents to provide their rights.

“We had no knowledge of these Karen communities who were forced off their land. We always regard the Karen as migrant labourers rather than an ethnic group,” Pimpaka says.

“We [Thai people] always think the land belongs to us while they [the Karen] just want to stay in their ancestors’ dwellings and don’t want to be owners,” Pimpaka adds.

The director shot large parts of the film in Bangkloi Lang and Pong Luek. 

 

“I met Pu Ko-I there. He didn’t know who I was. He then started to pray for bad things to happen to bad people,” says Pimpaka of her first encounter with the elderly Karen man. 

“He later asked me whether our film would help him to return to his original home at Jai Paen Din. I was speechless,” she continues.

“The Purple Kingdom” has been screened at overseas film festivals, including in Switzerland and Singapore, and is scheduled for release in Malaysia this month.

“‘Enforced disappearance’ is a universal problem and doesn’t only happen in this region. Many countries are unable to either resolve or pass a law to protect against the act,” the film director says.

“I want my movie to inspire society to look at this case and feel more connected to the story,” she adds.

Pimpaka plans to produce more films related to the ethnic group in the future.Get involved

“Movies that Matter” is an initiative organised by Amnesty International (AI) Thailand to provide a monthly creative space in which people get together to experience, share, and discuss human rights issues.

On the third Saturday of each month, AI Thailand and related organisations will screen different human rights-related films. Topics covered include freedom of expression, sexual diversity, human rights education, human rights defenders, and refugees.

Piyanut Kotsan, director of AI Thailand, says there are many ways to learn and express interest in human rights and film is a powerfully expressive medium where you can explain potentially complicated subjects in accessible manner.

She added that the event is not just a movie screening, but an opportunity for community members to engage in discussions with film directors, human rights defenders, and activists, in order to explore the real issues that our world faces and to learn about the experiences of different individuals.

At its core, the goal of this initiative is to bring people together through film and raise awareness of human rights issues and Amnesty’s works.

 

Get involved

“Movies that Matter” is an initiative organised by Amnesty International (AI) Thailand to provide a monthly creative space in which people get together to experience, share, and discuss human rights issues.

On the third Saturday of each month, AI Thailand and related organisations will screen different human rights-related films. Topics covered include freedom of expression, sexual diversity, human rights education, human rights defenders, and refugees.

Piyanut Kotsan, director of AI Thailand, says there are many ways to learn and express interest in human rights and film is a powerfully expressive medium where you can explain potentially complicated subjects in accessible manner.

She adds that the event is not just a movie screening, but an opportunity for community members to engage in discussions with film directors, human rights defenders, and activists, in order to explore the real issues that our world faces and to learn about the experiences of different individuals.

At its core, the goal of this initiative is to bring people together through film and raise awareness of human rights issues and Amnesty’s works.