in coastal regions and in small islands
Coastal region and small
island papers 8
Indigenous people and parks 2
ENVIRONMENTAL, SOCIAL AND CULTURAL SETTINGS OF
paradise far from the mainland,
attraction to Thai and overseas visitors.
Hundreds of islands stretch along the Southeast Asia peninsular from
Langkawi in Malaysia in the south to the Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar in the
north. Thailand’s Andaman Sea coast, renowned for the splendour of its
underwater world, the spectacular landscape of limestone outcrops towering above
the water’s surface and the lush forests and white sandy beaches, has long
attracted tourists. As a result, southern Thailand has seen the development of a
booming tourism industry centered on the popular resort island of Phuket.
Close to the border of Myanmar lie the Surin Islands, an unspoiled group
of islands that acts as a refuge for fishing boats during storms and host to
two small communities of Chao Lay. The Surin Islands are situated some 60 km
from the coast of Phang-nga Province. The islands have largely retained their
beauty and pristine condition. The rainforest is abundant with wildlife, and
small patches of mangrove forests and seagrass beds are present. This biodiversity
makes the Surin Islands an important ecological site. Recognizing the unique
tourism and research potential of these islands, as well as their natural beauty,
the Royal Forest
Department designated the Surin Islands a national park in 1981.
The park covers an area of about 135 km2, of which 76 per cent is sea, and comprises five islands (see map).
A few kilometres to the north of the park is the border with Myanmar, and about
100 km to the south are the Similan Islands, another marine national park.
The coastline of the Surin Islands is very indented with wide sandy bays
protected by rocky headlands. Due to the islands’ distance from the mainland
and the presence of adjacent deep waters and strong ocean currents, the waters
of the Surin Islands are very clear, fostering healthy coral growth. Marine life
is bountiful with numerous types of coral and fish species present on the reef.
Occasional visitors include whales and whale sharks. Three species of sea turtle
use the islands’ beaches as nesting sites.
The islands provide a unique habitat, both on land as well as in the
surrounding water, for a variety of species. The two larger islands with their
summits extending several hundred metres above the sea are covered in thick
forests, ranging from tropical evergreen forests along their flanks, to beach
forest and several patches of mangrove forest along the bays. Dipterocarp trees
rise above the dense forests often interspersed with Pandanus palms. No less
than 80 species of animals inhabit these islands, including egrets, terns,
Brahminy kite, the rare Nicobar pigeon, the lesser mousedeer, monitor lizards,
reticulated pythons, crab-eating macaques, lemurs, flying foxes and a number of
bats and squirrels. Wild yams and other edible plant species are also found on
The monsoons exert considerable influence over the islands. The southwest
monsoon, or rainy season, prevails from May until November. During these months
the winds are strong and the seas rough, often rendering the Surin Islands
inaccessible by boat. No tourists can visit the island during this time. The
northeast monsoon or dry season begins in November and lasts until May. This
season corresponds to the tourism season. Although freshwater sources are in
ample supply on Ko Surin Tai, there is not enough to sustain large numbers of
visitors to the islands.
The Surin Islands’ principal attraction for tourists is the fact that it
is an unspoiled paradise far from the mainland, with healthy forested islands
and diverse coral reefs accessible to snorkellers and divers. An increasing
number of tourists, the majority of which are Thai, arrive each year, many on
pleasure cruises. Tourists are accommodated in a number of bungalows run by
the Royal Forest
Department. Other tourists who visit the islands stay in tents on the beach.
During the dry season (November to April), a ferry service operates from Khuraburi.
It takes approximately four hours for the ferry to reach the islands.
and cultural settings
The islands and coastal regions along the Andaman Sea are home to a
distinctive group of people, known as the Chao Lay, whose lifestyles, languages
and cultures differ from the rest of Thai society. In the English language they
are known as sea nomads or sea gypsies due to their maritime nomadic way of
life. The total population of sea nomads is estimated at around 9,500, i.e.
7,000 in Thailand and 2,500 in Myanmar.
There are three groups of sea nomads (now based in semi-permanent
settlements along the Andaman Sea coast), namely the Moken, the Moklen and the
Uruk Lawoi. It is still inconclusive whether these three groups have distinct
lines of ancestry or whether they might have shared common ancestry but
developed distinct languages and cultural traditions because of their dispersion
throughout Southeast Asia.
The Moklen (around 2,500 people) are former sea nomads who have settled
along the coast and inland areas of Phang-nga and Phuket Provinces. Their
language is very similar to that of the Moken. Because of their permanent
residential status, most of them have been integrated into Thai culture. The
adults hold Thai citizenship and the children go to Thai schools. Although many
of them adopted Buddhism, they still maintain their belief in ancestor spirits
and organize big celebrations in Bangsak (Phang-nga) every year.
The Urak Lawoi (around 4,000 people) are the most populous of the Chao
Lay groups. Their villages are found in Phuket, Krabi and Satun Provinces.
Although gradually integrating into Thai culture, they still hold their biannual
The three groups of Chao Lay are animists and they organize
spirit-offering ceremonies throughout the year. The Moken have their biggest
festival of the year during the fifth lunar month, when they carve wooden
ancestor poles and make grand offerings. During this time of year, the Moken and
other Chao Lay from different islands gather around their settlements and do not
return to the sea for three days and three nights.
The Moken (around 3,000 people) maintain a somewhat semi-nomadic lifestyle. National boundaries are an unfamiliar concept to them and they travel extensively across the waters of Thailand and Myanmar. Several decades ago a group of about 150 Moken people chose to base themselves in the Surin Islands. While other islands and coastal areas have suffered gravely from the impact of human settlement, the Surin Islands have remained relatively unaffected due to the unique lifestyle of the Moken. Their presence has not left a lasting scar on the surrounding landscape.
With the declaration of the Surin Islands as a national park in 1981,
restrictions on the fishing and foraging activities of the Moken were imposed.
Despite national park status, the Moken continue to live off the resources found
on the land and in the sea. The extraction of natural resources by the Moken is
not without environmental impact. Their gathering patches are somewhat
over-exploited since they have adopted a more sedentary lifestyle. Due to the
high price of certain seashells and other marine life, the Moken gather and hunt
these products for the local market to exchange for rice and other necessities.
Some species such as green snails and top shells have become sparse in the sea
around the islands. The Moken, however, are traders and the gathering of marine
resources has been a means of subsistence for them for centuries. Therefore, it
is crucial that the management of protected sites like the Surin Islands take
into consideration not only the conservation of the area, but also the basic
cultural needs of the indigenous people.
Despite the Moken’s use of the islands’ natural resources, there are no obvious signs of severe over-exploitation. Damage to the ecosystems around the Surin Islands is mainly the result of illegal fishing activities by the semi-industrial Thai fishing fleets and reef damage resulting from the anchoring of pleasure boats. No dynamite fishing or cyanide fishing is evident in the waters around the Surin Islands. In fact, the Moken are not considered true fishers, since they mainly extract resources from the reef and mudflats by gathering, rather than fishing.
of the Surin Islands
Before the islands were declared a national park, the only inhabitants
were the Moken who frequented the islands and sometimes made temporary shelters
there. A few Thai went to the islands in search of fragrant wood and other wild
products, but their visits were short and their settlements temporary. The
Department of Local Administration found no reason to exert their authority over
this wild and largely ‘uninhabited’ territory.
However, once the islands were declared a national park, they fell under
the jurisdiction of the Marine Parks Division of the Royal
Thai Forest Department. The superintendent is in charge of the islands and
the surrounding waters, and together with his assistants and a number of other
staff, is stationed on the islands or at the National Park Office in Khuraburi.
They all report to the Director of the Marine Parks Division, at the office
of the Royal Forest Department in Bangkok.
There is a small Marine Fisheries Conservation Unit also located in the
Surin Islands. The fisheries officers report to the Director of the Andaman Sea
Fisheries Conservation Unit in Krabi Province. The main concern of the fisheries
officers is to prevent illegal fishing and trawling in the northern Andaman Sea.
The emphasis on conservation prompted the officers to establish ‘Suraswadee’
in 1994, a one-classroom school that provides Moken children with a basic
education and teaches them about the importance of marine conservation.
Transportation and lunch are also arranged for the children in order to
facilitate learning. Their efforts have received support from Thailand’s
Non-Formal Education Department and additional volunteer teachers are sent to
the school during the dry season.
Health officers from the Malaria Control Unit visit the islands at least
once a year to conduct blood testing and to spray insecticide around inhabited
areas. The inadequate number of health officers does not permit any outreach
health programmes. When the Moken are sick, however, they can seek free medical
treatment from any state hospital on the mainland.
|Size of the Moken population in the Surin Islands|
|Number of households||35||45||34||37||36||42|
|Number of males||65||92||57||58||56||66|
|Number of females||71||109||77||86||85||96|
Representatives from the Department of Local Administration (the Governor
of Phang-nga Province and the Khuraburi District Chief) visit the islands
occasionally, but there is no cooperative effort or formal discussion between
them regarding policies affecting the Moken. The Department of Social Welfare
wanted to involve the Moken, but was discouraged by the small size of the Moken
population which, in the Surin Islands, averages around 150 persons. However, it
varies from year to year, as can be seen in the adjacent table.
The Moken tend to escape the attention of both the Local Administration and the central government since their population size is considered negligible and their situation too complicated.