From Sea Gypsy to Gypsy:
How the Moken Way of Life is Being Forsaken for Modern Living and the Rich Man’s Plate
Moken, Mawken, Morgan, Chao le or Sea Gypies: a group of people that lives, or once lived their lives at sea. Mainly found in the seas along the coast of Burma, Thailand and Malaysia.
The sea is the natural habitat for Moken people; it is entrenched in their culture, their livelihoods, family life and it runs through their veins. Their boats are their homes and can almost be seen as an appendage to their bodies, or a part of their soul. The traditional Moken boats are called ‘Kabangs’ and different areas of the boat are given names referring to different parts of the human anatomy, for example the mouth, stomach and ribs.
The Moken people are a nomadic seafaring ethnic group descended from the Austronesian people, a group of people who are said to have migrated from southern China in the 1600’s. These days they are mainly found in the waters and shorelines of southern Thailand and Burma, particularly in the Mergui Archipelago, an area made up of more than 800 islands over 400 kilometers through the Andaman Sea near Burma.
Different sources point to different population figures still existing today; from a measly population estimated at 1000, up to a more optimistic, albeit ever-so-slightly, 3000 Moken people. Whatever the actual figure, it is safe to say that that the Moken are an endangered culture and way of life.
Moken lives are intrinsically tangled with the sea. Just as our bodies have adapted to our respective climates throughout the centuries, Moken people have become attuned to the aquatic life. Research has proved that their children’s eyes have acclimatized to the depths of the sea bed, ready to hunt out the smallest mollusc or sea creature whilst moving rapidly and smoothly through the water. These people are some of the most adept free divers in the world, often able to reach depths of 75m without any equipment or aid.
Though not all adaptation is good. Moken now face problems as they start to lose their culture in the modern world; from governmental restrictions to new waste concerns, not all change is for the better.
Moken Dug-out Boats on the beach at Ma Kyone Galet
2004 Tsunami Impact on Moken
Moken people, like most ancient tribes and ethnicities, are now progressing and soaking up – willingly or not – the man driven developments that have taken place over the last couple of centuries. Natural progressions have also had their toll on the Moken lifestyle, with the 2004 tsunami making a significant impact.
Reportedly no Moken died in the tsunami except one disabled man who could not get away. Their ties to the ocean were education enough to know what was about to happen. This did not, however, mean that they were left without effect from the destruction that the big wave caused. Boats and fishing equipment were torn to pieces and traditional shoreline houses on stilts were decimated; this left many Moken with no homes and no livelihoods. It affected people in different ways.
One case study from the Khao Lak area is of a young girl who was left orphaned due to the fact that her father, being left with nothing after the tsunami, turned to drink, killed her mother and was imprisoned for murder. Now she lives with her elder brother who struggles to take care of her and his own family and tries to get by on an income from fishing when possible.
Bo Cho Island, Mergui Archipelago, Burma
The tsunami also impacted these previous sea dwellers in other ways as now many are afraid of the ocean and have decided to live further inland. Problems arise when identification papers come into play; Moken people previously led a nomadic existence through the seas off Burma and Thailand. They had, and many still have, no passports or land to call “home” and these days both countries are reportedly unwilling to claim responsibility for them.
Nomadic Traditions Restricted by Modern Laws
Although countries are quite often unwilling to issue identification papers to Moken, they will mostly accept them into their country and treat them as their own citizens. Obviously the Moken people must adapt to the country that they inhabit and must abide by their laws, regulations and as best they can, their customs. Positives from living on land and in the countries of Burma and particularly Thailand are access to health care and education. Even the Surin islands, off the coast of Thailand, have a proper school and health centre these days, the same as you would find in any local Thai village. How well equipped and up to date they are is dubious, but at least this is progress in the right direction. It must be noted here, however, that Moken children are renowned for being poor school attendees. Something about the free and wandering nature of their ancestor’s lifestyles must have been built into their makeup.
Restrictions within these countries have had their toll on the Moken way of life too, especially in Thailand. Much of the forested area has been made into national parks, prohibiting trees from being felled. Obviously this is a positive step for the environment, but for the Moken it is a step towards their culture fading away. In previous years the forest provided the Moken with the large trees that they needed to craft their unique boats; they would only use one tree that was big enough to shape a Kabang suitable to act as their home, transport and livelihood.
The restrictions on fishing are perhaps the most obstructive influence on their culture these days though. Many National Parks have been formed throughout the Andaman Sea to restrict big fisheries from eating up all the wildlife within and destroying the environment. This also means that the Moken are technically not allowed to fish here either. How does an ethnic group that is born from the sea continue with these new imposed laws on their food supply?
It is clear to see that the impact of contemporary regulations and limitations has a negative affect on the preservation of the Moken culture. Without the traditional Kabang boats and with a lack of education of the young, the Moken culture, myths and legends will not be passed down through the generations. Those that do still live at sea and live by traditional methods are restricted on what they can do and where they can go by boarders and identification papers, or lack there of.
Fast Food Slow Disintegration
Modern diseases are also taking their toll on these people; malaria being a forerunner in the causes of death chart. Of course lack of education about such diseases and how to prevent and treat them is at the heart of this epidemic, but it is also largely due to yet another 21st Century aspect of life embraced by the Moken: fast food. Their traditional way of life does not transfer well to their new surroundings; or rather, the new surroundings do not mesh with their habits.
Fast food and disposable packaging often laces the ground where Moken live; they are not educated about these new readymade non-biodegradables that have replaced freshly caught fish and a bowl of rice. Moken used to dispose of their litter in the sea, it was an easy time when they lived on the water and could use it as a passing rubbish tip, but in those days the waste was likely to be degradable and wouldn’t have had a huge impact on the environment.
These days many Moken still live by the same methods, whether it is at sea or on land. At sea this has devastating affects on the marine life and shores, and on land it has an impact not only the environment, but also on the inhabitant’s health. Littered areas are unhygienic to say the least and they also become welcome breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Packets, wrappers, bottles and plastic noodle cups lie across the ground ready to be filled by the rain; this is a perfect place for larvae to thrive and hatch into malaria carrying mosquitoes.
This disease is on the increase in the North Andaman region, effecting island dwellers from Burma, Thailand and the Moken. Those that have no access to health care, or no identification to receive any health care that might be available, have few options.
The fishing industries and how Moken people have joined them, however, is the biggest outside impact that is destroying, or rather altering, Moken culture. Read more about the blast fishing here.
Caught between a Rock and a Hard Place
So this leads us on to the final catch 22 of the plight of the Moken to sustain their culture. Due to the restrictions they now face through border controls and national park protections, their traditional way of life has been shaped into a new existence. This results in a downward spiral for the culture as it converges with contemporary (and arguably westernized) Asia.
There are many aspects that are tearing the Moken away from their distinct and ancient way of life; many are outside influences that have not been discussed here like drinking, gambling and drugs which are diluting their core values. Living further inland rather than on the shore edge is having an effect on future generations with the diminishing numbers of children who can glide freely and easily through the water to spy a small shell 10’s of feet down on the ocean bed. It seems that education of the young in the languages and practices of the Moken people and an emphasis on learning about the ecosystem is the only way to keep their culture alive.
Education is the very root of this problem; Moken people have been brought up on the sea, in the sea, with the sea, and yet it seems that many are not savvy enough to know what their choices are doing to the environment and to their own homeland. This is the heartbreaking aspect of the demise of the Moken culture: they themselves are now, unwittingly or not, destroying their traditional stomping ground, their traditional food supply and the arena in which their traditional legends, beliefs and mythologies took place and allude to. If this is gone, if they help to destroy this part of the earth that is so vital to the continuation of their ancient culture, how can it be remembered and passed on to future generations? The Moken are quite literally, biting the hand that feeds them.