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Moken nomads leave behind their ‘sea gypsy’ life for a modern existence

Ngui takes one last breath and disappears with a tiny splash. Tunnelling through the turquoise waves, he dives past brightly coloured fish and coral, until he reaches the sandy bottom of the seabed, 20 metres deep, where he begins scouring for tonight’s dinner.

He wears no mask, no fins, and no diving tank. He prefers sarongs and button-down shirts decorated with seashell and starfish motifs but the most startling thing about him underwater is his eyes. They are wide open.

Ngui, 30, belongs to the Moken, a nomadic, seafaring tribe of hunter-gatherers who live in the southern seas of Burma and Thailand. Little is known about their origins, but it is believed they descended from migrant Austronesians who set sail from southern China around 4,000 years ago. Spending eight months of the year at sea, the Moken roam in small flotillas of kabang – boats fashioned from a single tree and shared by a nuclear family – and return to land only to barter fish and shells for essentials such as rice and petrol, or to wait out the monsoon season in temporary shacks. It is a way of life that has existed, unchanged, for centuries – but one that may not last for much longer.

The 2004 tsunami greatly depleted the source of the Moken’s only livelihood: the ocean’s once-abundant array of seafood. International fishing boats are now wiping out the little that’s left. Those Moken who have moved ashore are often forced to take dangerous jobs for menial pay. Those who stay at sea are sometimes arrested for lacking papers or permits. Others return to land after months afloat only to find their huts destroyed and luxury tourist resorts built in their place.

“The sea has changed and life has changed,” explains Ngui’s father, Jao. “Things we used to do we can’t do any more. Places we used to go we can’t go any more. Life isn’t fun any more.”

It would be difficult to find a family that represents the changes wrought on the Moken as well as Jao’s. He was born on a boat and spent his childhood at sea. He married at 16 and nearly pursued a traditional, aquatic lifestyle – until he and his wife decided to settle on land.

“Life was hard being illiterate,” says Jao in the cramped house in Kuraburi they now share with a 13-member extended family. “I wanted my children to go to school and have options.”

Education is still a relatively new concept to the roughly 2,000 Moken who live in the waters around Burma and Thailand, most of whom are stateless. A recent push by various charities and the Thai government to issue Thai identity cards has granted some access to state-run schools and healthcare, but claiming full-blown citizenship – by proving that they, or a parent, were born in Thailand – is a complex issue for a nomadic people who hardly use numbers and mark the date according to the tide, not the Gregorian calendar.

Even getting children to school can prove trying, said Sumana Sirimangkala, headteacher at the only school on Koh Lao, an island of 50 Moken families on the Thai-Burmese border. “Moken lack supplies like clothes, food, stationery, textbooks, shoes, raincoats, lifejackets, umbrellas – all the things that are necessary for children to come to school,” she says.

“Moken can’t afford any of these things, so the school has to provide it all – otherwise they don’t want to come.”

Moken children regularly drop out to help their parents earn money, students say. Some boys as young as eight are sent to work in construction, while others help their mothers dig for shells – backbreaking labour in the hot sun.

Nearly all the men on the island are hired by Thai fishing boats to plant explosives on the seabed, or to dive for expensive and exotic rarities such as sea cucumber. Sometimes they are sent down with air run through thin plastic tubes hooked up to a spluttery, diesel-run compressor; other times they dive without any air at all. Many succumb to decompression sickness (the bends) from ascending too quickly; some don’t return at all.

“I’m afraid of being killed, it’s so risky,” admits a 30-year-old Moken who has just returned from a fish-bombing expedition. “We wire together four to five dynamite sticks, connect another explosive wire that hooks up to the boat, and then I dive down to the bottom of the sea. When I come back up, the sticks are ignited with a battery.”

Sitdit, a Moken elder whose son died from decompression sickness during a job in the Nicobar Islands, says risks such as these are increasingly part and parcel of a new way of life.

“We are running out of resources, so our skills have to be adapted to the new challenges,” he says simply. “Sometimes the big boats get caught by the Burmese military and Moken are arrested. I had four relatives arrested by the Burmese military and they all died in jail.”

Apart from a handful of researchers who had studied their language and customs – notably the French father-son anthropologist duo Pierre and Jacques Ivanoff – the Moken were a relatively unknown lot until the tsunami, when headlines described the mysterious “sea gypsies [who] saw signs in the waves”. Charities and religious groups poured in with free supplies – food, petrol, boats and building materials – at such a velocity that some communities were left bewildered by the handouts.

“We had to become Christian to qualify for a boat, so I became a Christian – I even became a church leader!” explains Sitdit, his charity-built, two-room stilt house facing the “church”, an empty wooden structure with a simple roof. “All we had to do was follow the gospel and sing songs. But then the church [group] cheated us, and now nobody goes to church any more.”

Today, a different kind of communion is going on, one where Moken women in sarongs while away the afternoon heat with card games and whisky so strong it makes the eyes burn. When the men return from their jobs at sea, they too take to drinking and gambling.

“There’s an issue with their drinking a lot of alcohol – it’s everywhere,” says Jitlada Rattanapan of Plan Thailand, a charity working to support Moken children.

At Baan Tung Wah, a Moken village of around 70 families in the mainland resort town of Khao Lak, children with snotty noses and dirty T-shirts beg for sweets while elders take shots of strong drink. Most of the parents are away doing menial day jobs – working in construction, spraying insecticides, or scavenging for recyclables along the beaches and streets – leaving the children to play among puppies and chickens in the rubbish-filled streets.

“Everyone in this village drinks – they hit their kids, too,” says a shopkeeper, Kong Kwan, 35, who spends all day selling sweets and crisps to Moken children and petrol and whisky to Moken elders. “Sometimes the police come, but they can’t be bothered to deal with it.”

The community’s 20-year-old youth leader, Big, says that life in the village can be stifling, forcing many youths to look for a way out.

“We’re restricted to living in this area only – about five acres [2 hectares] – and because of the influx of hotels and resorts around here, the sea has been polluted,” he says. “That makes it difficult to go fishing. So a lot of young people just choose easier jobs, like working in hotels or at 7-Eleven.”

Big adds that the Moken youth have pretty much “assimilated seamlessly” into Thai society, so much so that “whatever ‘bad Thais’ do, Moken do now too”, he notes. “Drugs, stealing, marijuana, glue-sniffing. We never saw this before, and it’s getting serious.”

The village is trying to counter such behaviour by offering classes in Moken language and customs to the children, many of whom are unaware of their traditions. Other classes, directed at teens, offer training as tour guides.

The community leader, Hong, who heads the classes and created the village’s Moken museum, hopes that turning Baan Tung Wah into an ecotourism destination may help get people back on track.

“Moken are supposed to travel, to be nomadic, to travel freely. So if we cannot travel freely, we are dead, culturally at least,” he says. “Moken children use mobile phones, study English and choose to be educated. We’ve abandoned our old traditions so much we risk losing them entirely.”

While many charities working for the Moken promote education and citizenship as giving new “options” to such a vulnerable group, Narumon Hinshiranan – a cultural anthropologist at Chulalongkorn University who speaks fluent Moken and has studied the group for the past decade – says this kind of “one-size-fits-all development … limits their nomadic background”.

“I don’t see education as an ‘option’, I see it as integration into Thai society – so that they are essentially cut off from their roots.”

Those who have pursued this new kind of life – such as Jao’s 23-year-old daughter, Kang, who is so far the only Moken to have graduated from university – may determine what choices the Moken make next.

“I see myself as a bridge between the Moken community and the outside world,” says Kang, who this month starts her first job, as the only Moken teacher at the school on Surin island.

She will be living with her brother Ngui, along with some 200 other Moken villagers, but they will be parallel lives in what seems like a parallel world.

“I like to be out doing things,” says Ngui, thrusting a hand out to the sea to explain why he chose not to stay in school. “I dive to collect seafood, gather it up bit by bit, and sell it to shops. It’s enough to make a living for now.”

The Moken

• The Moken are one of many sea gypsy tribes across south-east Asia: there are the Orang Laut of Indonesia; the Bajau of Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei and the Philippines; and the Salone (Moken) of Burma

• Thailand is home to an estimated 12,000 sea gypsies, divided into three groups: the Moken, the Moklen and the Urak Lawoi

• A 2003 study by Lund University in Sweden found that the underwater vision of Moken children was twice as good as that of their European counterparts

• Food sourcing is subsistence-based: men traditionally spear fish, or use nets or traps, to find seafood, while women catch crabs and oysters by hand, or dig for shells. They also engage in basic agriculture

• The Moken are often described as sincere and peace-loving, preferring to flee trouble than engage in disagreements

• Traditionally animist, the Moken perform a large spirit-offering festival in the fifth lunar month and celebrate death by singing, dancing and drinking

• Though the Moken give themselves only one name, the Thai monarchy has created surnames for them, among them “Klatalee” (“brave person of the sea”)

• A bucket of sea cucumbers, which the Moken dive for, earns about $10 a day. A small dish of the stuff sells for $30 or more in Taiwanese restaurants

• Moken are often called “dirty islanders” by Thai people, a phrase that has encouraged many Moken youth to adopt Thai fashion and haircuts to fit in

• Surin island, home to a large Moken settlement, was turned into a national marine park by Thailand in 1981, rendering illegal traditional Moken activities such as fishing and logging (in order to make boats)

• Burma has been rumoured to be looking to permanently resettle many of its Moken and has already turned one Moken island into a military base.