An estimated 12,000 Moken people live across five seaside provinces in southern Thailand. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
Thailand’s semi-nomadic Moken people, popularly known as sea gypsies, remain severely underprivileged and are at risk of losing their traditions and old ways of life.
In what was widely seen as a welcome development, Moken people were promised several basic rights by the country’s then government, including their own plots of land, in 2010. Yet a decade on many of those promises have yet to materialize.
An estimated 12,000 Moken people live at 41 spots across five seaside provinces around Thailand’s part of the Andaman Sea in the country’s south. Many of them continue to lead a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle, largely at sea, but their old traditions and ways of life are under serious threat.
In June 2010, a government committee in Bangkok promised to set up special social and cultural zones for sea gypsies in the south, yet little progress has since been made. Making matters worse for Moken people, several locations where they live in impoverished communities have been designated protected marine areas. That has limited their ability to fish, depriving them of vital sources of food.
“Sea gypsies are evicted from their homes, their ancestral lands. They [have] lost access to the sea they used to fish as [parts of the sea have been] transformed into state conservation zones,” says a social worker who has worked with sea gypsy communities since the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2014, which devastated several Moken communities.
“The Moken communities living on the Surin archipelago in Phangnga province are not allowed to fish in a nearby conservation zone, and since they no longer have an income from tourism, they have to rely on aid,” says Paskorn Jumlongrach, founder of the Thailand-based Transborder News, which sheds light on rights abuses in the country
“Taking away their rights to resources [has] not only dealt a major blow to them, but also destroyed [their] cultural values inherited from previous generations over hundreds of years.” Deprived of their access to the sea, many Moken people have been forced to settle in ramshackle villages on land where they eke out a meager living as best as they can.
The Mercy Centre, a Bangkok-based Catholic charity run by American Redemptorist priest Father Joseph Maier, has been running community enrichment projects in a village of sea gypsies on Koh Lao, a small island in the Andaman Sea.
Over the years the Mercy Centre has initiated various income-earning projects for locals, including commercial vegetable gardens whose produce villagers can sell at local markets. The Catholic charity’s volunteers have also installed gutters on every home in the village so that rainwater can be collected as a clean water source for locals who have no access to potable water.
The Catholic charity also runs free schools for children and provides them with nutritious meals and snacks daily, in addition to various medications, to ensure they remain well fed and healthy.
The Mercy Centre has repeatedly warned of the precarious status and dire situation of Thailand’s sea gypsies, many of whom lack proper citizenship status in Thailand and so are technically stateless people.
“Because of their ambiguous citizenship status, the Moken are denied basic rights such as education and healthcare,” the Catholic charity said in a Facebook post. “Here in Koh Lao (where we have been serving the Moken since the 2004 tsunami) there are no healthcare facilities,” it added. “Hygiene is poor; the children are malnourished; and the village economy runs far below subsistence.”
The Mercy Centre has been working with the provincial government offices, village leaders, teachers and community members to improve the situation of locals. Yet elsewhere around their traditional roaming grounds at sea, many other Moken communities have fallen on hard times.
The Covid-19 pandemic has dealt a further blow to Moken fishermen and their families as the absence of domestic tourism has curtailed their ability to sell their catch at local markets. As a result, they have been deprived of a key source of much-needed income.
Yet mass tourism has not been entirely a blessing to Thailand’s Moken people over the years because the rapid redevelopment of seaside areas has further limited the scope of their traditional activities at sea.
“[Thailand’s] tourism policy is crushing sea gypsies,” the social worker said. “A large number of tourists penetrate [their] areas with huge sums of money, welcomed by both businesses and state agencies.”