Sea Gypsies of the Andaman

Sea Gypsies of the Andaman


By Steve Sandford


Children Moken

Children Moken in Koh Surin. Photo: Steve Sandford

The high-pitched wails of the shaman sound across the still waters of the Andaman Sea as the Moken sea gypsies beckon the spirits from beyond with the steady beat of their drums.

A potent mix of home-brewed spirits and supernatural beliefs add to the backdrop of the full moon, marking the annual lobong spirit worship of male and female ancestors on Surin Island, north of Phuket in southern Thailand.

The celebration, in the fifth lunar month, is a happy annual reunion for the Moken. It’s also a chance to reflect on things past and what lies ahead for this unique and slowly dwindling tribe of indigenous people who are struggling to retain their rights and citizenship.

The ocean-faring gypsies have been navigating the Andaman Sea for centuries after migrating north from the islands of Indonesia to live along Thailand’s southwest coast.

Finely attuned to deep-sea diving and fishing using nets and spears, Moken families live on the high seas aboard traditional houseboats called kabang.

The 3,000 sea gypsies were suddenly thrust into the international spotlight after their miraculous escape from the 2004 tsunami. The village elders recognised the strange retreat of the sea and warned their people to flee from the subsequent killer waves

Efforts to preserve their unique culture have been an ongoing commitment for Dr Narumon Arunothai, a social scientist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, who has studied the Moken for the past decade.

“People were saved from the tsunami because these elders know the sea. We should encourage the young to have pride in their [traditional] wisdom, which is bound to be forgotten one day.”

Dr Narumon describes how the Moken make use of more than150 forest products in their daily lives. “They have this wealth of knowledge from the sea and the forest,” he says. “[But] this knowledge is not recognized as being valuable.”

The government declared the Surin islands a national park in 1981. With the official title came restrictions on where the Moken could fish and gather shells. Menial jobs as park staff were offered as consolation, with funds set up to employ the adults for about Bt80 a day.

To further assist cohabitation on the main island, Thailand’s fisheries conservation unit established Suraswadee, a one-room school, in 1996 to give Moken children a basic education about the importance of marine conservation.

“The renewed attention is worthwhile,” Dr Narumon says. “The interest is back on the issue of education. Cultural diversity is important again.”

Chulalongkorn, with the assistance of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), has produced a book entitled “We, The Sea People” for elementary-school children. Written in Thai, English and the Moken language, it describes the gypsies as skilful gatherers who maintain a sustainable livelihood because of their small population and rotation of their foraging territory.

Unlike the large-scale industrial – and often environmentally damaging – methods of Thai fishing trawlers, the Moken use non-destructive techniques such as large fish traps, which allow small fish to escape.

Their legends suggest some Moken have the capacity to listen to fish underwater – and locate large schools to hunt.

But it isn’t just folklore or tall tales. A scientific study published in 2003 described how Moken children, by constricting the pupils in their eyes, could see twice as well underwater as European children – a helpful adaptation when diving for shells.

“Without masks or scuba gear, they are able to gather tiny shellfish and other food on the ocean floor at depths as much as 23 metres. Their constricting pupils improve vision further,” researcher Anne Gislen said in the report.

“It’s the same process that improves focal depth if using a camera with a smaller aperture.”

But with these inherent abilities also come the liabilities of a nomadic lifestyle that is currently causing the Moken distress.

“Many of the Moken have problems with land-rights issues because they move around a lot. They don’t know to lay claim to the land,” Dr Narumon says. “Many of them were fooled into signing papers and giving up their land.”

After the tsunami, the department of local administration in Phang Nga province turned their attention to the Moken. Provincial officers came to the main island to complete documentation about the status of the Moken, obtain fingerprints and take individual photos.

“I gave them a list, which they disregarded, even though we had researched these people for six years,” Dr Naruman says. “It is so confusing. They only had two or three days to interview all the Moken. There were about 250 – including 60 visiting relatives from Burma. I’ve heard that the documentation collected by the local administration had some mistakes – once they are official documents they will be there forever.”

The tsunami and subsequent media attention also appear to have spurred Thailand’s National Security Council (NSC) to focus on the Moken.

In January, the NSC set up a committee to identify which Moken qualify for Thai citizenship. The sea gypsies will have to prove they were either born in Thailand or have been residents for at least 10 years.

The Thai economy is nine times the size of its three neighbours – Burma, Laos and Cambodia – whose people flood across the porous borders in search of work and to avoid the economic and political woes at home.

Faced with a constant flood of foreigners, the NSC is notoriously tough on citizenship claims. More than half a million hilltribe people in the North, such as Akha and Hmong, still do not have citizenship – despite living their whole lives in the country. It’s partly because of the dreadfully slow approval process and sometimes because of a nationalistic bias against them.

But Phuntip Saisoonthorn, an associate professor at Bangkok’s Thammasat University who began assisting stateless people 11 years ago, believes the sea gypsies’ case is strong.

“I am confident that we can convince the NSC that the Moken are Thai nationals, not aliens,” she says.

She is worried, however, that the Moken will continue to be taken advantage of by shrewd businessmen while they wait to attain Thai ID cards and citizenship. Some Moken, she says, are working gruelling hours retrieving oysters for mainland businessmen for a mere Bt38 per kilogram.

Phuntip is particularly distressed by one horror story.

“I was told that a mother and father were blown up when they attempted to use explosives – introduced to them by Thai fishermen – and that left three children to be cared for by the grandmother.

“My duty is to help human beings get their human rights. I am confident that we can convince the NSC that the Moken are Thai nationals according to the National Act enacted in 1913 under King Rama V. With proper documentation, the Moken can at least get minimum healthcare and education in this country. They will be guaranteed the right to work, to survive.”

Meanwhile, UNESCO has implemented the Andaman Pilot Project that concentrates on three distinct groups of indigenous sea gypsies – the Moklen, the Urak Lawoi and the Moken.

With the possibility in mind of the Surin islands being designated a World Heritage Site, the current project is aimed at providing the Chao Lae with the knowledge and skills needed to take shared responsibility in the site’s management – and to guarantee their continued presence in the area.

But the nomadic nature of the group has inherent problems.

“At this stage the Moken are not organised at all. They are hunter-gatherers and they do things on an individual basis,” Dr Narumon says.

Thammasat’s Phuntip hopes the Moken can avoid some of the exploitation and manipulation by greedy businessmen that hilltribes in the North have endured for the sake of tourist dollars.

“And I would like to tell anthropologists that the Moken are not animals in a zoo. You can’t expect them to remain primitive.”

At this year’s ancestral worship ceremonies, the sea gypsies are paying special homage to the tsunami victims, with two extra spirit poles erected to commemorate the disaster and protect the village.

“This year there are more sins to be sent out to sea because of the tsunami,” says the head female shaman, Meesua Keladat. She believes “the wave that eats people” came to the village because of her people’s gambling, drinking and extramarital affairs.

The fishing vessels take a miniature kabang boat out to sea in the morning, after a full night of spiritual summoning and revelry. Nail and hair clippings from the villagers are put into the boat along with offerings to the spirits.

The kabang is guided by the shaman and the “direction of the wind”. A head boat carries freshly carved spirit totem poles, wrapped with coloured cloth along with a small craft containing the various souls from the past.

After the kabang is set adrift, the spirit poles are taken back and planted in the ground to protect the village from misfortune.

But on this night, as the village leader in a trance-like state raises his hands to the moon, a new mysterious sound comes from the trees. Nearby, a recently arrived government-provided TV set blasts out the latest Asian karaoke tunes while children watch, oblivious to the shaman’s cries.

Village boatman Tatcha Keladat, his skin leathered and darkened by long hard days under the tropical sun, looks on wearily and says, “It is a bit of good luck that we survived the tsunami and that help has come to our village … but I am not sure that everything that has come is so good.”

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