Plight of ‘sea gypsies’ unending without a push for legislation
Suriyan “Hook” Kla-thalae, a 36-year-old Moken born on Koh Surin, keeps dreaming that he’ll get his community’s boat, known as a kabang, back out on the Andaman Sea.
But it remains anchored on shore on the island, which lies 60 kilometres off the Phang Nga coast, waiting for tourists who rarely ever come.
A few years ago the kabang took a few tourists around the island as part of a pilot eco-tourism programme that was intended to inject some vigour back into the disappearing Moken way of life. But concerns over safety and tourism-related regulations forced the boat back to shore.
“I don’t want my traditions, my way of life as a Moken, to die,” says Hook, a younger member of the population that now numbers only about 1,000 throughout the Andaman islands.
The Moken, subjects of a years-long study by noted anthropologist Dr Narumon Arunothai of Chulalongkorn University’s Social Research Institute, are semi-nomadic, roaming among the islands half the year and settling down for the rainy season.
Koh Surin has been one of their homes since long before Mu Koh Surin National Park was established in 1981. Narumon noted that about 10 sites on Surin had Moken names. At least two communities – nearly 50 families – resettled there before being hit the 2004 tsunami and made headlines.
Narumon cited a Christian missionary named Walter White who travelled in the area in the 19th century, proselytising. In his journals he described the Moken’s amazing ability to identify every creature in the sea, reflecting their delicate observations on nature.
Swedish biologist Anna Gislen, who studied the Moken on Surin, watched Moken children seeing clearly underwater because their pupils were adjusted to the practice and remarked on the gulf in humanity’s “biological limitations”.
The Moken lead a generally carefree lifestyle, choosing to have as few possessions as possible.
“Their nomadic life had choices, and was not entirely without purpose,” wrote Narumon. “Once they chose to roam in the sea, they roamed so freely without realising that others would start staking claims on the sea.
“With countries marking territorial waters, the Moken ‘spirit of roaming’ has been disappearing little by little.”
A kabang boat parks off-shore along with new boats at Moken community on Surin Island.
Over the years the Moken have settled on Surin and other islands almost permanently. Narumon estimated that nearly 75 per cent of the 50 Moken families on Surin had stayed put for over a decade, though 9-11 per cent still travel between islands, freely crossing the Thai-Myanmar border.
Those figures still hold true, as Narumon and National Human Rights Commissioner Tuenjai Deetes learned when they visited the Moken just last month.
Now that they have resettled, though, the Moken are facing fresh challenges.
Apart from territorial boundaries in the Andaman, their land is being given “protected” status, which in fact deprives them of access to natural resources.
In the late 1990s they were barred from collecting marine resources such as molluscs to sell to tourists.
Park officials decided to help by giving them jobs, but funding was limited and they were stuck working as labourers. Moken women were meanwhile encouraged to produce handmade items to sell to tourists.
Two communities on Ao Bon Lek and Sai End were merged after the tsunami and relocated to Ao Bon Yai, but the cramped situation has led to social and health problems, conflicts and poor living conditions.
As tribal people without nationality, the Moken have no access to basic public services such as healthcare and education.
They are considered a minority (khon chai khob) and as such are mistreated by the state, advocates say.
Tuenjai, who fights for the rights of minorities and stateless people, visited the Moken a few months after their houses were burned down accidentally.
Her aim was to help them secure nationality, telling them that children born on Thai soil have the right to Thai citizenship.
She managed to find people who helped deliver these children and hopes their testimony will serve as nationality verification, in turn setting an example for Moken living on other islands.
Advocates like Tuenjai also believe their long-established wisdom and traditions should be preserved, so they began pushing for “special cultural zones” to be designated to protect them as a minority under a 2010 Cabinet resolution. However, owing to the lack of supporting legislation, the resolution is doing little to protect these people.
Narumon said people don’t generally understand that the Moken are a modest people with few possessions who are attuned to nature.
With a little adjustment of perspective, though, public support for the Moken could be drummed up without having to wait for the resolution to become law, she said.
She is also placing her hopes in eco-tourism, which she believes is a new space that will allow the “spirit of roaming” to continue with dignity.
Hook too hopes the idea will allow him and his people to show how the Moken lead harmonious lives with nature and are willing to share their knowledge about everything from rocks to “underwater beings”.
“I want our traditions to survive in the new world,” says Hook, a good Moken diver-turned-a diver trainer assistant, who has made another attempt with the Moken Leads a Tour project as its key coordinor.
Negotiations now are ongoing with park officials to loosen regulations blocking the project.
The creation of community leaders and the designation of a new village for the Moken are also being discussed as part of a long-term resolution while the needed legislation catches up.
Some souvenirs based on their traditional knowledge.
Struggle on shore
Further inland, Larp Hanthalae, in her 50s, is fighting to reclaim her rai of ancestral land in Bang Sak, otherwise known as the Thab Tawan community.
Larp is Moklen – another tribe of so-called sea gypsies – whose land she says is being “snatched” by private entities.
The Chumchonthai Foundation, which learned about the matter while helping tsunami victims, says more than half of the 40-plus communities of sea gypsies living along the Andaman coast have lost land to private interests.
The foundation says the problem emerged after the tsunami when people began returning to their devastated land, only to find that others had laid claim. And as sea gypsies they were powerless to fight back.
Having no access to state services, they possessed no title deeds to prove ownership. They even lost access to ancestors’ graveyards and other places of spiritual importance.
Sporadic clashes were reported in which the sea gypsies were beaten up. The most notable case was in Phuket’s Rawai area a few years ago when they demanded access to a sacred site on the shore and were attacked by around 100 never-identified men.
In Thab Tawan, a few Moklen including Larp are facing charges filed by private entities that have taken their land.
Eventually, thanks to help from the foundation and its allies, a committee was set up to resolve the conflict and it managed to get portions of some properties returned.
Larp, however, has found this unacceptable, insisting that her ancestors’ land cannot be carved up. She wants it all back – a condition the private interest refuses to consider.
“I was born here. This is my land, my ancestors’ land, so how can they claim it as theirs?” she asks.
“I have no regrets about my demands and I will not mind if I don’t get a title deed. Title deeds can fly away in the wind, but our right to the land and the pillars of our houses cannot fly away. That’s all I want for my children – guaranteed rights,” Larp says.
Preeda Kongpan, director of the foundation and a member of a Cabinet-appointed panel on “sea gypsies”, known in Thai as chao lae, says it’s time to push for policy changes to address the issues more broadly.
Though the sea gypsies were the first of the minorities to be addressed at the policy level, time has proven that a Cabinet resolution alone is not enough.
It has to be translated into legislation so that measures can be officially pursued, Preeda says.
The committee and concerned agencies, including the Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn Anthropology Centre, are pushing for a law to protect these vulnerable tribes.
“Mass tourism, the deprivation of rights and other issues have been suppressing these people,” Preeda says.
“That’s why we need this resolution to be turned into law so we can overcome this situation, instead of just moving back and forth.”
Tuenjai, along with Dr Narumon, Preeda, and other anthropologists and human rights advocates paid a visit to Moken after their houses were burned down in a fire a few months ago.