The knowledge that saved the sea gypsies

Derek Elias, Soimart Rungmanee and Irwin Cruz[1]

When the water lapping the shores of Yan Chiak in Myanmar suddenly drew back on 26 December, the Moken recognized the signs. La Boon was about to strike. Dropping everything, the entire village headed for higher ground and safety. The Moken owe their survival to tales passed down by the elders of the seven waves which came to kill the Moken in their parents' day. As the story goes, those Moken who had anchored their boats close to the shore were crushed by the waves, whereas those who had made for higher ground were saved. La Boon is the Moken word for tsunami.

The Moken are 'sea gypsies', one of three groups who have roamed the waters straddling southern Thailand and Myanmar for centuries. They are all animists and culturally distinct from Thais and Burmese, speak their own languages and have their own set of traditions.

Today, some of the 200 Moken living on Yan Chiak island would like to move to the Surin Islands in Thailand to join their relatives. 'Living in Myanmar is very tough', one Moken explains. 'The Burmese soldiers force us to work without pay and, if we refuse, we are jailed for three or four days. The men are forced to carry heavy soil and sand for construction and the women are made to collect rocks'. The problem is that the Surin Islands are under Thai administration and the National Park Authority will not allow more Moken to move there.

While the other sea gypsy groups, the Moklen and the Urak Lawoi, have integrated Thai society and acquired a modern lifestyle on land, the Moken remain semi-nomadic. They live in boats out in the sea during the dry season, coming ashore only during the wet months. The total population amounts to approximately 3000; 200 live on Thailand's Surin Islands and the rest in Myanmar.

The Thai Moken settled on the islands decades ago. Here, they built bamboo huts suspended on stilts several feet above water. Men fished, sold their catch to the mainland and used their earnings to buy rice. Children grew up in the water, where they learned to dive and swim with skill. During low tide, the women scoured the reefs for sea urchins, crabs, mussels and sea cucumbers.

For years, the Moken led an isolated life until the Surin Islands were declared a national marine park in 1981. This would trigger a range of complex issues for the Moken that continue to entangle them today.

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[1]: Derek Elias (Co-ordinator of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development), Soimart Rungmanee (UNESCO Field Office in Bangkok), and Irwin Cruz

>> Download full article which appeared in A World of SCIENCE, Vol. 3, No. 2, April-June 2005

See also the related field project A place for indigenous people in protected areas, Surin Islands, Thailand and UNESCO Bangkok's feature on this project.

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