BANGKOK, Thailand– The Moken, also known as “Sea Gypsies,” are an ethnic group found throughout peninsular and maritime Southeast Asia. This ethnic minority is said to be one of the least numerous in the region. However, their geographical presence stretches from the Andaman Sea to the island of Borneo. For those living in the archipelago of some 800 islands along the thin stretch of Thai-Burmese coastal borders, their fragile way of life, in recent years, has undergone dramatic tribulations, both natural (the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004) and man-made.
Largely unknown to the rest of the world, it was only until recently that the Thai government granted this ethnic minority Thai citizenship. For this reason, education is rare among older generations. Even with the government allowing them to obtain Thai citizenship (usually an impossibility,) it is not easy for people belonging to a nomadic culture that does not have a writing system to produce proofs that their parents were born in Thailand.
Consequently, most Moken people still lead a rural lifestyle; living on wooden boats for most of the year and on stilted houses when on land, causing the community to be economically and politically marginalized. The lack of economic representation and numerical strength also makes the Moken’s interests vulnerable. Furthermore, the Thai education system is rather a Trojan Horse for assimilation into the mainstream Thai society rather than a door opener to opportunities. In addition, in the extremely touristic resort locations of southern Thailand, the Moken have been relegated to being simply exotic objects of photography.
On the Burmese side, Moken people still do not have Burmese citizenship; this leaves them without rights. Furthermore, the islands of southern Myanmar are pristine and picturesque. This idyllic quality is beginning to attract tourists. Also known as “the Lost World,” the Mergui Archipelago as it is known in English (Myeik in Burmese) has been isolated for decades from the mass tourism industry of Southeast Asia with only about 2.5 visitors per island per year.
Recently however, plans to develop some of these 800 islands threaten to worsen the living condition of the Moken. A Singaporean development group advertises on its website that it will turn the Mergui Archipelago into “The Next Phuket,” with casinos, hotels, resorts and golf courses being planned. These developments could drive the Moken people out of their homeland. This concern is not unfounded. In Borneo, another place in Southeast Asia where another related people live, many of the sea nomads of the Malaysian state of Sabah have been forced out from their villages to go find work in Kota Kinabalu while their island is being converted into a diverse resort.
In a culture that possesses no such words as “my,” “I want,” or “take,” modernity has already proven to be detrimental to the survival of the Moken tradition. In Thailand, the declaration of the Surin Islands, on which the Moken live, as a national park in 1981 has been restricting them from using the trees on these islands to build their traditional boats and houses. Restrictions on fishing and foraging have also been imposed despite the fact that their traditional way of life does not require any over-harvesting of natural resources. Thus, while hotel owners and the government benefit from the tourist money, these regulations impede the Moken from continuing their traditional lifestyle.
Unable to make a living in their villages, illiterate and possessing very little skills deemed economically valuable by the mainstream society, working age Moken are forced by circumstance to take up dangerous menial jobs. Hired by Thai fishing boats often for their perceived skills to do deep diving, they are often sent unequipped at deadly depths to plant explosives on the seabed or to collect sea cucumbers. In doing so, many Moken men risk decompression sickness and many have died from it. Many Moken teenagers have also turned towards drugs. Alcoholism and drug abuse are rampant among Moken communities in Thailand.
In Myanmar, the Moken culture is also being threatened by the government’s forced resettlement and environmental degradation caused by over-logging and explosive fishing by companies working in the region. The dramatic decline of the Moken population in the Mergui Archipelago presents a serious concern. Within a decade, the area’s Moken population has gone down from 12,000 people to only 2,000.
The hardships confronting this fragile ethnic community is an archetypal case of how inconsiderate development may serve to ruin an entire culture. Commercialized tourism does not always benefit the locals. Perhaps, what the Moken need for their collective survival as a distinct culture is an education system that does not aim to assimilate them but rather to equip them with the skills necessary to economically empower themselves as a distinct ethno-cultural group.
Sources: The Prince George Citizen, The Guardian, The Irrawaddy, Project MOKEN, Survival International, YouTube