Savants of the Sea Engulfed by Politics – Thailand’s Sea Nomads’ Post-Tsunami challenges


The Moken sea gypsies, a small indigenous fishing community in Thailand, relied on their deep knowledge of the sea to save the lives of tourists and locals when the giant tsunami that devastated coastal communities in South Asia swept across their islands. Yet the Moken are facing stark choices in the aftermath of the catastrophe, with the Thai government now pursuing them to consider citizenship.

Tom Vater reports in the Asia Times.

Savants of the sea engulfed by politics

“I was taking 12 tourists to a coral reef. Suddenly the water level dropped. I shouted for everyone to get on board. I knew something was really wrong. I raced across the bay, when suddenly, the water dropped to nothing, spinning the boat madly until it was stuck in the sand, on the bottom of the ocean, but there was no ocean. I told the tourists to run, and then the water came back.”
– Sarang, a Moken sea gypsy

KO SURIN, Thailand – The Moken sea gypsies, a small indigenous fishing community in Thailand, relied on their deep knowledge of the sea to save the lives of tourists and locals when the giant tsunami that devastated coastal communities in South Asia swept across their islands. Yet the Moken are facing stark choices in the aftermath of the catastrophe, with the Thai government now pursuing them to consider citizenship.

The Moken, animist, nomadic boat dwellers, have been sailing the Andaman Sea for centuries. They make their homes among the nearly 800 islands scattered along the sea off Myanmar. The Moken are ethnically separate from people in Thailand or Myanmar, with their own culture, language and way of living.

There are currently more than 3,000 Moken following this traditional lifestyle. Most live off the coast of Myanmar, though 200 of these sea dwellers live on the islands of Ko Surin National  Park in Phang Nga district on the west coast of Thailand.

Ko Surin, a stunningly beautiful and popular marine park, has some of Thailand’s prime coral reefs, frequently visited by scuba divers and tourists from all over the world. The park, which lies far from the Thai coast and close to the border with Myanmar, has for decades afforded the nomadic sea dwellers some degree of protection against the vagaries of modern life.

In recent years, however, the Moken have been under intense pressure from authorities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to abandon their transient culture and assimilate into mainstream Thai society, a development the community has been quietly resisting. What’s more, increased contact with park staff and tourists tempts the community to adapt to the modern world. Prior to the tsunami, the Moken ran several television sets off car batteries in their village and were encouraged by NGOs to produce tourist trinkets. The ancient art of building kabang, traditional Moken houseboats, has been slowly dying out. The long-term effects of the tsunami may now force the Moken to give up completely their struggle to maintain their unique culture.

Immediately after the tsunami hit, tales of Moken heroism swept through the Thai and international press. Surviving American tourist Mohezin Tejani had nothing but praise for the Moken. “The Moken were very helpful during the tsunami. They were the ones who went out on long-tail boats in between waves to pick up survivors in the water and on the rocks.”

Statements like this, as well as the arrival of international television crews, assured the Moken a special status among the thousands of refugees created by the catastrophe, after which the Moken took refuge in a Buddhist temple on the mainland at Kuraburi, 200 kilometers north of Phuket. But as soon as they had arrived at the camp, they found themselves pressured by squabbling power brokers, NGOs and politicians to assimilate and remain on the mainland.

Dr Narumon Hinshiranan, a social-studies lecturer at Chulalongkorn University and originator of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO’s) Andaman Pilot Project – aimed at helping the sea gypsies help themselves – backed the Moken’s plan to return to Surin.

“The Moken should be able to return to Ko Surin if they want,” Narumon said at the time of the debate. “They lived there before the park existed.”

Others disagreed. The abbot of Wat Samakitham, the pagoda where the Moken found temporary shelter, wanted the sea gypsies to remain on or close to the mainland and assimilate. Nun Walairat explained, “We don’t want to destroy their culture,  but we want them to be Thai. They should learn how to speak Thai fluently and go to a government school.”

Like Narumon, the Ko Surin National Park authorities also wanted the Moken to remain on Ko Surin, where they have become part of the working infrastructure. But local people, including Nun Walairat, complained that low wages the park pays amount to slave labor.

As different strangers discussed his community’s long-term priorities, Moken chief Dunung remarked dryly, “It’s simple: there is no work on the mainland. And we have nothing – no boats, no kitchen ware, fishing gear or money.”

Sarang further described the mood of his people: “At least on Surin we can build our own houses and live the way we want. We are not scared and we can look after ourselves.”

After weeks of meetings, suggestions, attempted coercion and confusion, the Moken decided to abandon the relative safety of their refugee camp and returned to their homes on Ko Surin. They found nothing but devastation.

By February, however, the Moken had cleared a new beach and the local government had assisted the community in re-establishing a new village. But survivors’ bliss has been short-lived. Large uncoordinated donations from celebrities, the government and various aid groups, propelled by tsunami fever rather than sound planning, have turned the Moken against one another and brawls over rice and tools have become common.

Narumon is adamant that the Moken be given an opportunity to regain their independence. “We have worked for years with the Moken to try and enable them to live here and preserve their unique culture. What’s happened on Ko Surin is devastating for the sea gypsies.”

Now the Thai government has ordered the National Security Council to solve the problem of identity for everyone living on Thai soil. Within two years a report must be drawn up and indigenous people like the Moken will have to prove they were either born in Thailand or have been residents for at least 10 years. Considerations for human rights and cultural diversity are integral parts of this effort.

The Moken’s instinctive reaction to the big wave is part of their intimate relationship with the sea – one of the cultural characteristics that makes this community unique. Under the new initiative, Thailand has promised to support these special traits. But the reality on the ground promises little in the way of improving Thailand’s patchy rights record.

Dr Panthip Saisunthorn, an associate law professor at Thammasat University who is working on the development of the new legislation, regards the Moken as “basically Thai”.

“The Moken should be recognized as Thai nationals by birth. Thailand has had legislation to this effect since April 10, 2456 [1913], through the Nationality Act enacted by His Majesty King Rama VI. I don’t feel there is a need to naturalize the Moken. If the Moken are indigenous people who decide to integrate into Thai territory, they should be recognized as Thai by birth. But some state organs try to consider them as aliens. For us, this consideration is very dangerous for the Moken. This means that they might not be able to enjoy social security, particularly the right to health care and the right to land entitlement. In principle though, this was laid down in the strategic plan on personal right and status accepted by ministerial cabinet in January.”

Meanwhile, the Department of Provincial Administration has been ordered to draw up lists of indigenous people who may one day be able to claim some kind of Thai identity or even citizenship. This process has started on Ko Surin – with dubious results.

According to academic Narumon, the records the local authorities are compiling could be suspect. “Government officials only used our [Andaman Pilot Project] research when they realized that they could not get a survey done in the two days they spent on Ko Surin. They have now drawn up a so-called Yellow Paper, and I really fear that once something is documented, accurate or not, it will be very difficult to change. The central government promised us that no documents would be drawn up for now, but these officials have gone ahead any way. What’s more, the local enforcement of national policies is clearly a huge problem. These people have no concept of human rights and cultural diversity. There are no plans for the Moken to manage themselves.”

Establishing a community’s identity without a paper record will be difficult and could be arbitrary. Moken from Myanmar regularly visit Ko Surin and the surrounding islands. An ID scheme could put an end to this.

In the meantime, more urgent are issues are affecting the Moken.

Starting in January, the Kuraburi district office shipped numerous volunteers to Ko Surin to build a new school, a multi-purpose community pavilion and install toilets on the island. District officials then forced all the Moken into one village. Traditionally, Moken villages are small, semi-permanent settlements without  communal buildings. Now the Moken village community is too big – communal disputes have become more common.

The sea nomads were then told to build their new huts on the edge of the jungle, as the local authorities feared another tsunami. Traditionally the Moken build their homes on the water’s edge, because according to their cultural beliefs, spirits inhabit the jungle.

Of the current living arrangements, one Moken remarked, “In a year’s time we will abandon this village and rebuild somewhere else, the way it suits us.”

In addition, according to eyewitnesses from the Andaman Pilot Project, the volunteers who remain on Ko Surin have imported TVs, karaoke machines and pornographic digital video discs (DVDs) to the Moken village.

On Friday, the Moken celebrated Lorbong, their annual festival for ancestral spirits. This year they were scheduled to be joined by a multitude of visitors – NGOs, TV crews and politicians – each and every one clamoring to push their programs through, applauding one of Thailand’s most unique communities, while attempting to document, control, harass and bribe the sea gypsies of Ko Surin into cultural extinction.

Photographs by Aroon Thaewchatturat

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