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Post-tsunami threat to Thai Sea Gypsies' way of life
Most Moken survived the 2004 tsunami but have struggled to retain their traditions in the aftermath BANGKOKWhen the Indian Ocean tsunami struck southern Thailand...
Most Moken survived the 2004 tsunami but have struggled to retain their traditions in the aftermath BANGKOK When the Indian Ocean tsunami struck southern Thailand ten years ago, the Moken, a nomadic people living on a string of islands along Thailand’s Andaman coast, were the first to be affected. Unlike those living further inland, however, very few perished thanks to their traditional knowledge of the sea. Despite escaping the worst ravages of the waves – their animist oral tradition told them to head to high ground or out to deep water when a tsunami threatened – the Moken, known as sea gypsies or nomads, found their lifestyle under threat by the focus of governments and NGOs in the aftermath of the disaster. As aid organizations and disaster management agencies were mobilized, the Thai Royal Navy evacuated the Moken inland. Their stilt-house beach villages had been smashed to pieces by the giant waves but as a people more suited to life on the sea than land – most Moken learn to swim before they can walk – they were perfectly capable of adapting to the upheaval. For the Moken, an Austronesian people archaeologists believe migrated from southern China 4,000 years ago, the move inland was a drastic change. “We were brought to Wat Samakhitham, a temple in Khuraburi province,” Moken fisherman Koot Kla Talay told The Anadolu Agency. “Some aid organizations gave us boats, but the temple authorities did not want us to go back to the islands as they knew they could receive money if we were in the temple.” The Moken, of whom there are around 4,000 left around Myanmar’s Mergui archipelago and the neighboring Thai islands, were used as “donation magnets” for two years after the disaster, Koot Kla Talay said. When new villages were built closer to the shore, either by NGOs or by a foundation set up by Princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, the Moken were moved there en masse. Some Moken have adapted to their new homes. “Here we are free to move,” Koot Kla Talay explained. “We continue to fish near the islands as we did before.” The fisherman, who lives in a house built by Caritas International, added: “Life is even better than before the tsunami. Before, when we were sick, we had to travel a long time by boat to get to the hospital. Now, the hospital is nearby.” However, not all Moken wish to embrace this new life and a few hundred have returned to their traditional homes on the Surin and Prathong islands. Even here, though, they have been placed under greater control than before the tsunami. Their new village was built in the jungle, where the Moken believe forest spirits live, rather than on the water’s edge. And their nomadic lifestyle has been discouraged and laws imposed banning them from hunting for fish – a restriction that would obliterate their traditional way of life if it could be fully enforced. The tsunami and the hordes of journalists who swarmed to Thailand’s western coast in its wake raised awareness of the Moken and their astounding prowess in the water. The nomads, who fish with spears, can freedive deeper than 20 meters, remaining underwater for several minutes and controlling their buoyancy without weights as they remain motionless above their prey. An influx of tourists to the islands provided new opportunities for income. Some Moken have taken up making handicrafts while others transport tourists by boat. A few have even become guides, explaining the basics of Moken culture to visitors. But for most Moken, lives led foraging from the ocean and few educational opportunities have left them unable to benefit from modern tourism, especially when competing with aggressive tour agencies. The modern world has impinged on their way of life in other ways. Having previously had no need for any sustained interaction with inlanders other than to barter fish for rice, the Moken have found themselves subjected to regulations that demand they prove their right to live in the coastal areas where they have survived for centuries – land that is highly valued by developers. At Baan Niang, a coastal village close to a string of luxury hotels, a Moken community has struggled for years to resist eviction. “We have been living here for centuries, but we never had any documents,” village leader Hong Kla Talay told AA. “After the tsunami, civil servants tried to chase us off in order to build a hospital for a German organization. We refused to leave as this is our ancestral land.” As the Thai government tried to tackle the problem of statelessness after the tsunami, many Moken were unable to prove their birthplace and so were not granted full citizenship – restricting their movement across seas and lands they had previously roamed freely. Crossing the Thai-Myanmar border also brought greater risk as both governments cracked down on immigration. According to Survival International, the Moken’s existence is also under threat from off-shore oil drilling and industrial fishing.
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