There is a tiny minority living on small islands and coastline of the Andaman Sea, and a few other coastal areas including Phuket, Ranong and up the Mergui Archipelago of Burma. They are the Moken people (in Burma they are called the Salon) that speak their own language and have their own customs to maintain a unique identity, but because it is such a small group, most people in the world, even in Thailand, know little about them. The nomadic Moken, are called Sea Gypsies (in Thai, Chao Ley – ”sea people”) and only number somewhere between 5000 and 8000 people. They are some of the poorest people in Thailand and Burma. All of their worldly possessions are piled into their small boats — even the household dogs, and they wander the seas stopping at lonely deserted islands as their forefathers have done for thousands of years.
The origin of the Moken is perhaps as part of the Austronesian-speaking peoples that began from the island of Taiwan sometime between 10,000 and 6000 B.C. Other theories suggest they migrated from China some 4000 years ago. In any case, they have been roaming the Andaman Sea for many centuries. They have no written language and no recorded history. The Moken themselves don’t know the story of their origin.
The Moken have lived for countless generations on the sea, and their knowledge allows them to live off fishing and cultivating sea plants. They are without doubt the Masters of the Sea, able to forage a living using nets, traps and spears for getting food during their seven or eight months at sea each year, typically traveling in groups of a half dozen or so boats. They dry fish, sea cucumbers, squid and other products from the sea atop the thatched roofs on their boats which are then used to barter for other necessary items in the town markets. Moken children are famous divers for food, and are known to see better underwater than other people after generations of visual focus on their many dives with primitive spear in hand. Even the deadly sea urchins with their prickly and poisonous spikes are handled with ease by them. During the monsoon seasons, they are on shore building additional boats. Their boats are small hand-crafted wooden boats called Kabang, which serves for transportation and their work, plus providing their home with a kitchen bedroom and living area.
After the devastating 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, the Moken received some media attention. That Tsunami took hundreds of thousands of lives, but many Moken with their keen awareness of the sea knew the Tsunami was coming and managed to save many lives. The Moken read nature’s signals: the silence, the receding of the water, the color of the sea, the strong current, and were able to get to high ground before the killer waves hit shore.
Both the Thai and Burmese governments have made attempts at assimilating the Moken people into the national culture, but have had very limited success. Permanent settlements of Moken have been built in some Thai islands and coastal areas. Unfortunately, in the Andaman Sea off of the Burma coast, offshore oil has been discovered and multinational corporations are working to exploit the find. Because of that, the Burmese military leadership have tried to have forced relocation of the Moken to on-land settlements, but many of the Burmese Moken remain nomadic people roaming the seas.
In Thailand, Moken have been settled into permanent villages which are found on Phuket and Phi Phi Island. These villages are extremely poor, dirty and bathed in an atmosphere of depression. The children beg from the tourists, even grabbing things from them. Thai government officials have tried to draw the Moken children into school, but this has largely been unsuccessful. As soon as conditions for fishing seem right, the children desert the classroom to join the family at sea. Life in the settlements demonstrates a people dispossessed of their traditions and dignity.
The majority of the Moken do not have Thai ID cards so they have no legal right to work. As a result they are horribly underpaid and often exploited. When they don’t go to sea, they don’t have a lot to do. They spend much of the day sitting in the shade under their houses, playing games. The justification that the Thai government gives for not issuing the Moken ID cards is that there is no way of proving which ones are from Thailand and which are illegal immigrants from Burma. Those with an ID are hired for weeks at a time to work on large fishing boats, earning less than $200 a month.
The Moken living in the permanent settlements are in stilted shacks built on a mud flat above piles of oyster shells, broken glass and rubbish, their nomadic days on the seas of South-East Asia gone. It is a very impoverished and sad sight.
For an in-depth report on the current status of the Moken people on land, I can recommend a story in the Sydney (Australia) Morning Herald of 21 May 2012.
see also: Discover the Karen People of Thailand
see also: Meet the Hmong People of Thailand