Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

Two Oscar-nominated films tackled some very controversial issues involving the modern histories of Cambodia and Indonesia. Rithy Panh’s The Missing Picture made history by becoming the first Cambodian film to be nominated for an Academy Award. Meanwhile, Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing was the documentary about Indonesia to get the nod.

The Missing Picture, filmed without any actors or script, is based on the life of director Rithy Panh, who survived the brutal regime of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s. The Act of Killing, meanwhile, was a brave retelling of the anti-communist purge in Indonesia in the 1960s which resulted in the slaughter of almost a million people.

For Rithy Panh, it is important to make a film about the Khmer Rouge from the perspective of a Cambodian: “Before me, nobody made films about genocide, except the foreigners. No point of view came from Cambodia. It’s not easy, you know? People here want you to show the sunset on the Angkor Wat temple, the Water Festival, the boat-race boat, the smiling countryside, Country of Wonder. I understand. I like watching films with special effects, romance films. But we have also to face our history.”

Aside from incorporating archival video footage and Khmer Rouge propaganda clips, the filmmaker used clay figurines to represent Cambodians in the film.

“I couldn’t make a film about genocide using actors and actresses like Steven Spielberg did with Schindler’s List. I lived through this genocide, so it’s very difficult for me to explain to actors and actresses what death is like, what it’s like to watch an execution,” the director said in an interview.

The title of the film is also a poignant reference to the lost images of Rithy Panh’s parents who died in a Khmer Rouge labor camp.

“It’s the one that I miss the most. It’s to see my parents get older, to be able to share time with them, to help them, to love them, to give them back what they gave me…I would prefer to have my parents with me than to make movies about the Khmer Rouge,” the director explained.

If the genocidal legacy of the Khmer Rouge is globally recognized, the anti-communist purge in Indonesia is not generally acknowledged. Perhaps Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing quickly earned accolades because of its daring attempt to discuss a taboo subject in Indonesian society.

The documentary reminded the world that a million people were murdered, raped, and enslaved in Indonesia in 1965 to 1968 to allegedly protect the country from the scourge of communism. And Oppenheimer’s team succeeded by interviewing veteran gangsters in North Sumatra who gamely re-enacted the massacres they committed in the past.

“I spent two years filming every perpetrator I could find across North Sumatra, working from death squad to death squad up the chain of command, from the countryside to the city. Everybody was boastful, everybody would invite me to the places they killed, and launch into spontaneous demonstrations of how they killed,” wrote the director.

Reacting to the documentary, the Indonesian government objected to Indonesia being “portrayed as a cruel and lawless nation.”

“The film portrayed Indonesia as backwards, as in the 1960s. That is not appropriate, not fitting. It must be remembered Indonesia has gone through a reformation. Many things have changed,” said Teuku Faizasyah, the presidential spokesman for foreign affairs.

But for Oppenheimer and his Indonesian crew, the documentary is an indictment of the present government which has failed to officially probe and punish officials involved in the bloody anti-communist witch hunts.

“People may assume The Act of Killing is a historical documentary about what happened in 1965. But our purpose was to expose a present-day regime of fear for what it is. In that sense, the film is not a historical narrative, but a film about history, about an unresolved traumatic past that continues to haunt and color the present,” the director asserted.

Some of those responsible for the killings are still in power, which explains why Oppenheimer’s Indonesian co-director has chosen to hide his/her identity. The co-director denied that it was their intention to tarnish Indonesia’s reputation when they made the documentary.

“A negative image is to make the architect of the mass killing a hero. A negative image is when there is an absence of efforts to start a true reconciliation process but instead displayed a fake reconciliation that basically contained a process to forget and made it as if it was the only possible way,” the co-director said.

Oppenheimer hopes that the film would stir more open debates in Indonesia: “It’s a really important time for Indonesians to be talking about this film, and an important time for Indonesians to find the courage to confront their painful past, and the role of their present political leaders in masterminding that past and lying about it for decades.”

Neither film won an Oscar, but both have already created an impact in the modern politics of Cambodia and Indonesia. The youth of the two countries will benefit from the greater historical awareness inspired by the films. Perhaps Cambodian and Indonesian leaders will learn from the mistakes of the past. In the case of Indonesia, the upcoming presidential election is an opportunity to make human rights a major campaign topic, including an appeal to acknowledge the anti-communist massacres orchestrated by top military leaders.

Thailand’s Deadly Highways

Written for The Diplomat

On March 24 a bus accident in Tak province in western Thailand killed more than 30 people. The chartered double-decker bus was carrying municipal workers on a field trip.

A month earlier, 15 school bus passengers died after their vehicle collided with an 18-wheeler truck in Prachinburi province. More than 40 people were seriously injured in the accident. The crash took place on a mountainous slope that is regarded by the Department of Highways as the most dangerous highway section in the country. Since 2007, more than 100 people have been killed and 500 injured by road accidents in that particular area.

On December 27, at least 29 tourists died after their bus plunged into a deep gorge in Petchabun province.

Road accidents in Thailand shoot up during the two most popular holidays in the country: New Year and Songkran Festival (April). More than 600 people are killed on Thailand’s highways during these two festivities or an average mortality rate of 49 person per day. Because of the high rate of accidents during this period, the police are calling it the “Seven Dangerous Days” of the New Year.

But despite the government’s information push on road safety and responsible driving, a high number of road mishaps were still registered last December and January. According to the Road Safety Center, 366 people were killed and 3,345 injured in 3,174 road accidents during the danger period. Another such period will take place next week during the Songkran festival.

Road safety has been a major issue in Thailand for many years. Despite its large number of tourist arrivals, Thailand seems unable to improve its road safety record. In fact, several foreign embassies have already advised their citizens about the dangers of land travel in Thailand.

The statistics confirm this bad reputation. According to the World Health Organization, Thailand registered the highest record for fatal road accidents in Southeast Asia. About 38 out of 100,000 people die from road accidents in Thailand annually compared to the global average of 18.

Bus accidents may have figured prominently in the past few months, but statistically-speaking, it’s more dangerous to ride motorbikes in Thailand. More than 11,000 motorbike drivers or passengers die from road accidents annually, representing 70 percent of the country’s road fatalities.

Aside from legislation and proper implementation of traffic laws, the WHO recommends the adoption of crash avoidance technologies. For example, Thailand can strengthen its road traffic injury data systems.

Immediately after the fatal bus crash last week, the Land Transport Department ordered all double-decker bus drivers to undergo retraining and apply for a new license. It also announced that provincial buses are now required to install safety features such as an anti-lock braking system. The department also wants to limit the height of double-decker buses to four meters.

The deadly road accidents in recent months have forced the government to review its road safety policies. Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra has vowed to improve road infrastructure especially in the affected provinces.

Public awareness campaigns should also target the young. For Weerawit Wajjanapukka, chief of the Traffic Police Division in Bangkok, strict enforcement of traffic rules would be meaningless if drivers continue to be irresponsible on the road.

“It seems most drivers only display road etiquette to pass their driving test. It’s very important that everyone puts those values and correct practices into practice. Strict law enforcement alone can only fix the tip of the problem; we need contributions from every driver,” he said.

Thailand has grabbed global headlines in the past six months because of the street rallies in Bangkok; in particular the clashes between the police and anti-government protesters. Without belittling the number of casualties caused by this political conflict, it must be emphasized that more people have died riding buses in Thailand than joining protests in the capital. There should be an aggressive and continuous initiative to make roads safer in Thailand.

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