MOKEN: SEA NOMADS OF SOUTHEAST ASIA

MOKEN

The Moken is a group of maritime hunter-gathers that traditionally roamed freely between the small islands, reefs and shoals in the Andaman Sea and ranged across an area that embraces the waters off Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia. Also known as Sea Gypsies, Chaolay and Sea Nomads, they are similar to sea nomads in the Sulu and South China Seas between the Philippines and Indonesia. Although there are a number of subgroups, the Moken can be viewed as a single unified group in that different groups have similar myths and religious practices and their languages are mutually intelligible.

There were once many Sea Nomad groups, who spoke a variety of languages. The Selung and Moken are two names used to describe nomadic boat people that live off the coast of Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Sumatra and Borneo. There are only a few thousand of them left. Moken has been used to describe people living around Mergui Archipelago off Myanmar. The origin of Selung is not clear. Moken means “sea drowned.”

The Moken are a nomadic sea culture of Austronesian people who likely migrated from southern China some 4,000 years ago, and, moving through Malaysia, eventually split off from other migrant groups in the late 17th century. The Moken lifestyle began to change after World War II when mainlanders moved to the islands to escape diseases and was dealt a blow when the islands they traditionally visited were transformed by the tourist industry.

Moken speak a Malay-based language and were given a written language by missionaries. They have little interest in writing and generally can’t write Burmese. Their religion was is tied to their myths about their origins and the sea. Youths often made their own boats at relatively young age so they roam around and look for women. Moken have traditionally gone to sea in the dry season and stay on islands in the wet season. Their boats have traditionally been painted black and have curved notches in the bow and stern (symbolizing a mouth and an anus). Many have diesel engines. When their engines break down they paddle.

Mengui Archipelago, Home of the Moken

the Mengui Archipelago (in southern Myanmar near Thailand) is a string of 800 mostly uninhabited islands with stunning white sand beaches and lovely blue and green water, sea gypsy nomad (Moken or Selung) camps, and delightful rain forest teaming with wildlife such as sea eagles, kites, hornbills, herons, gibbons, flying fox, crab-eating monkeys, elephants, crocodiles, pythons, kraits, cobra, wild pigs, buffalo and deer. The underwater life in coral reefs is just as diverse. It is similar to that found in the Similan Islands in Thailand.

One 19th century explorer wrote “these are mostly mountainous islands, stretching from Tavoy Island south beyond the limits of British territory...Those amongst them which are not bare rocks are clothed with dense vegetation...They are sparsely inhabited, a few Burmese and Karen having settled on one or two. They are the resort of peculiar race, the Selung, who rarely or never leave them to visit the mainland. The most westerly are composed of granite and porphyry, those nearer the mainland of sandstone, grauwache and conglomerate. They islands are infested by snakes and wild animals---tiger, rhinoceros and deer.”

The islands haven’t changed that much since then. The Moken Moken that live here live in temporary huts. Burmese fishermen live on stilted huts in the forest near the beach. At low tide they collect shellfish, shrimp and shellfish, check their fish traps and fish with tridents. At high tide fishermen head out in their long-tailed boats and traditional Mawken boats, on which Moken live when they go out to sea.

The Mengui archipelago is scattered over an area of about 14,000 square miles. Most are jungle covered granite islands. Some are limestone, karst pinnacles that look Guilin in China or Halong Bay in Vietnam. In the old days they were notorious hang outs for pirates and Moken. The areas was off limits to tourist for a long time but was opened in the 1990s. Many travelers visit the islands by sailboat or long-tailed boat.

Pula Nala Island is the home of Marghon Galet, a village where the government has attempted to settle a community of Moken. The village is kind of artificial. The Moken have traditionally not lived in on one place. There are lots of Burmese here as well as some souvenir shops, a monastery, a school, a hospital; and fuel depot. But not many Moken if any. About of them 400 Moken live there in the rainy season. The government encourages them to send their children to school but the Moken are not interested. When they are in the boats in the dry season, Burmese fishermen occupy their homes. Some of these are dynamite fishermen and illegal timber harvesters.

Moken Religion and Spiritual Beliefs

Among the Moken, traditional animist beliefs have coexisted with Islamic, Christian and Buddhist beliefs. Shaman pull pains spirits from the sick and deposit them in carved figures which are disposed of. Boats power bired in the boast which are cut in half, The Seling believe souls go the east whole evil spirits remain in the grave, The Moken have faced pressure to accept other faiths, such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, but many have refused, retaining their animist beliefs.

The Moken worship two spirit gods - the good and the evil. Shamanism is the central element during the spirit festival. Devotional offerings made at festivals include popcorn, alcoholic drinks, honey, betel and the flesh and blood of ducks, chickens, dolphins and turtles. They like to sing at their festivals. The Moken are regarded as singers. One of their musical instruments is a drum made from monitor lizard skin.

Some Moken carve and paint totems called spirit poles. The are used in full-moon rituals by shaman who use them to contact ancestors According to National Geographic: “Connecting to the past the ancestors are summoned during the annual spirit pole festival, For weeks ahead of time, the Moken gather ritual offerings, including cakes of rice flour, alcohol, betel nuts, and cans of soda—whose bubbles represent life-giving wind. It is a joyous day of song and recitation, led by a master of ritual. Here he also acts as the shaman, who, in a trance, tastes the head, blood and flippers of a fresh turtle and asks the ancestors for favors, translating their replies for the community.

Moken Festivals

The Moken or Sea-gypsy festival is held at Ma-Kyon-Galet village on Lampi Island, one of the islands of Myeik Archipelago of Southern Myanmar during the second week of February each year. The visitors to the Moken Festival can see the Moken traditional ritual dances as well as the traditional dances of the local tribes of Dawei and Kawthaung. It has been arranged that the visitors can also participate in some Moken spiritual dances. Bonfires are held during the nightime. In addition to the dances and show booths. Submerging competitions and traditional regattas are held.

Shaman are involved in the festivals and also are involved in curing illnesses and performing rites at funerals. The Moken do not bury their dead. Instead they are left on a scaffold stand and all the people of the village move to another island.

The turtle has many meanings. It represents all women: daughters, sisters and especially life-giving mothers. Harpooning a turtle means to marry her. The most important Moken rituals involve turtles. They are caught live and when eaten are shared by all. Moken woman prepare iron forged into harpoon used to spear turtles for ritual festivals.

Moken Life

Some of Moken that live off of Myanmar have retained their traditional ways---living in simple shelters bear the ride line of one island for several weeks before moving onto another island. while most of the others have been assimilated to varying degrees. Some live in permanent homes. Many have a home base from which make excursions out to sea.

The Moken do not live on farming. Instead they roam in the sea near the coasts and pursuit on sea and marine products that they can obtain in in various traditional ways. Their customary way of living in the sea is extraordinary in that they take all the household things— utensils. food rations and including dogs. cats and chickens — with them on the boat. [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

During the hot and cool seasons the Moken survive by fishing and gathering and selling of natural marine products. During the rainy season, when the weather is strong and rough, they live on the nearest islands they can find, where they build stilted hut made of bamboo, canes or anything that they can find useful for building huts. Honey is greatly valued. It is offered to ancestral spirits and consumed. Moken that collect it coat themselves in mud and plug leaves into their ears and nose and fill the air with smoke before approaching the hive.

Women were also good with boats and fishing. Traditionally, a couple became married when they started having sex together.

According to the Myanmar government: “Wondering about among the Islands of the Myeik Archipelago in a nomadic existence has caused them to become known as the sea gypsies. The Moken people are so simple and shy: non-violent, egalitarian, they don’t like outsiders. That means when you arrive in their group. You feel like an intruder. They won't say anything. They won't push you away. They won't welcome you. They ask what are you doing there. That's the main question they ask you. So. it's quite difficult to be in touch with them. So shy, and really on their own and living in their own story, legend and dreams that are difficult for outsiders to understand. it. There are no more then five thousand Salons left in the world today scattered over the Myeik Archipelago as well as some parts at the Andaman Sea. “ [Source: Myanmar Travel Information]

Moken Fishing and Diving

They collect and trade marine products such as sea shells, oysters, mollusks, ambergris, seaweeds and pearls as well as the edible nest of swifts, honey and medicinal plants that grow on the islands. Moken have traditionally used harpoons, hooks, and hands to fish. Though fishing with nets and lines is not part of Moken custom, some Moken men are employed on Burmese fishing boat vessels—and occasionally die from diving too deeply or breathing bad air from old compressors.

The Moken generally did not use nets, At low tide they collected oysters clams, snails and crabs, gathered turtle eggs and sea slugs and speared and harpoon fishes, turtles, dugong, trepang and crustaceans at low tide and caught sharks for their fins. . Many also worked as pirates or provided assistance for Malay and Thai pirates. They traded seafood, pearls, other of pearl and shark fins for rice, sago. tobacco, opium and iron tools.

The Moken can dive to a depth 10 meters and and stay submerged for long time. They used to dive and submerge several times in a day. It is presumed that the Moken are the only people who can stay underwater for many minutes without using oxygen tank. Today the Moken tie stones to their waist as ballast and reportedly can dive as deep as 60 meters breathing through an air hose to the surface.

Like the turtles of their rituals, the Moken spend much of their time submerged, both for work and play. Plastic goggles are now the fashion among the nomads, who used to carve their eye pieces from wood, then attach glass lenses from broken bottles with tree sap.

Heidi Schultz wrote in National Geographic online: “A recent study by Swedish scientists shows that Moken children see twice as well underwater as European children do. They are able to focus on and pick out small shellfish and other sea life from the rocky ocean floor that for most people are only a blur. The human eye is adapted to function optimally in air and its focusing capability deteriorates underwater, that's why we need goggles to see clearly while swimming. The researchers found that Moken children are able to constrict their pupils more than European children, thereby producing sharper images. They were also able to effect a greater change in the shape of the eye's lens to increase visual focus (a process known as accommodation). The researchers are still unsure as to whether the ability is primarily genetic or learned, but they speculate that the environmental component plays the larger role because preliminary evidence suggests that non-Moken can be trained to improve their underwater vision.

Moken Boat Life

The Moken have traditionally traveled around in handmade outrigger boats and owned few possessions. They shared everything they had, even with a strangers, a custom based on the belief that the sea was bountiful and there was enough for all. They showed virtually no signs of materialism or greed. They didn’t save; they didn’t want possession because carrying a lot of things only slowed them down. The accumulation of wealth went against their social and community spirit. Those that settle down often lose these values.

The only possessions that meant something to the Moken were their boats and a few simple seafood-gathering tools. They caught only what they needed for that day and didn’t use nets. They didn’t try to make large catches and they didn’t sell what they caught. Individuals had a sense of well-being when the group was happy. Outsiders were generally welcomed.

Traditionally the Moken formed boating communities with 30 or 40 boats that head out to sea together, generally no further than 50 kilometers from their home island. They spent much of their time living on their 6- to 8-meter dugout canoes with a main a sailing mast made of palm sheets. The boat has walls made palm leaves and an hearth built with earth on the deck to prevent a fire. Even when the came to islands they continued to live on their boats.

The Moken spend eight to nine months at sea each year, with some boats traveling more than 1,600 kilometers in that time. Seasonal monsoon rains make the Andman Sea rough and unnavigable at time of the year. During the periods of the heaviest rains and winds—mainly in May, June and October—the Moken take refuge on land, making temporary houses from wood, bamboo and pandanus leaves they forage from the forest. Fish are caught and shells are collected from the shore. New boats are built.

Boat building is a skill passed down through the generations from father to son. The boat, called a kabang, is the mainstay of their nomadic culture. Each is hollowed out in the forest from a single an old-growth log, then hauled to the beach, where the hull and roof are built. A kabang take about four months to complete. Most modern kabang have motors. Those that employ sails use ones made from plastic. In the old days they were made of pandanus leaves. Barnacles and algae that collect on the hull are burnt off with burning pandanus leaves.

Moken Boats and Family Life

The Moken often travel in a flotilla of boats grouped by extended family, with individuals occasionally venturing off to seek tradable items like shells and sea stars, find a spouse or healer or join another flotilla for a ritual. [Source: National Geographic]Each kabang is occupied by a family or extended family with five or more relatives. The sleeping quarters are cramped and possessions are basic and minimal. Their boats represent the human body. Inside the Moken eat, sleep, cook and give birth. Young couples with a baby live with their mother’s parents until their community builds them their own boat.

A nuclear family of five or six usually spends much the year mobile at sea. Each boy will eventually help build a boat of his own. On the traditional panadanus leave sails a Moken epic goes: “Oh Young man, may the wind fill your sails. I ask the seven gusts of wind to come and blow. May they push the boat of the young man who is going home.”

Moken in Myanmar

Jacques Ivanoff, wrote in National Geographic, “On the horizon we see them, their flotilla of small hand-built boats, called kabang, like a mirage beneath the setting sun. They are wary of strangers: At our approach they split up and scatter. We close in on one boat, and I call out reassuring words in their language. The boat slows and finally stops, rolling on the swell in heavy silence...An elder named Gatcha who allows me on his family's boat. [Source: Jacques Ivanoff, National Geographic, April 2005]

The Moken’s home “is the Mergui Archipelago, some 800 islands scattered along 250 miles (400 kilometers) of the Andaman Sea, off Myanmar (formerly Burma). For decades piracy and Myanmar's military dictatorship kept outsiders away. ..As divers and beachcombers the Moken take what they need each day---fish, mollusks, and sandworms to eat; shells, sea snails, and oysters for barter with the mostly Malay and Chinese traders they encounter. They accumulate little and live on land only during the monsoons.

Also known in Salon in Myanmar, the Moken live part of the year on a few littoral area on the fringes of the Andaman sea and part of the time on their boats. The Moken can be found in the southern part of Myeik Archipelago which has more than 800 small islands. It is believed that in the ancient times the Moken lived on the Malay Peninsula until the Malay incursion when they left their native places and lived scattered throughout the Myeik Archipelago. Nowadays the Moken can only be found on the coastal islands around Kawthoung. formerly Victoria Point --- the southernmost town of Myanmar. In Thailand, a population of 200 Moken was forced to move to the Surin Islands National Park as a tourist attraction.

According to the Myanmar government The Moken nomads do not easily mix with other people. They do not participate in economic, social or cultural life of the countries they live in. Their society has different cultural values from those offered by modern society. The Moken have faced pressure to accept other faiths, such as Buddhism, Christianity and Islam, but many have refused, retaining their animist beliefs.

Moken Family in Myanmar

"The Moken are born, live, and die on their boats, and the umbilical cords of their children plunge into the sea," goes an epic of the Moken. For eight to nine months a year they live aboard their low-slung kabang---punishment, according to the myth, laid upon the society by an ancestral island queen, Sibian, when her husband, Gaman the Malay, committed adultery with her sister. The queen declared that the kabang would represent the human body, with the front of the boat a mouth constantly seeking nourishment and the back an anus for defecation.

The wave troughs look immense from the kabang, but Puket---one of Gatcha's seven children---sits in the stern calmly smoking his pipe amid the exhaust of the motor. Puket and another son, Jale---a mighty spear fisherman---and a daughter named Iphim, a childless widow, travel with their father most of the time. This family, like all Moken, poses little threat to others sharing these waters. Apolitical and nonviolent, Moken keep to themselves except when trading, usually on the move in flotillas of seven or more kabang belonging to an extended family. Still, our lone vessel is stopped by a Burmese military boat disguised as a trawler. Fortunately, we are sent on our way without incident, and Puket even manages to beg a few fish and some liquor by flattering the officials.

But it is not always so. The Moken have been exploited and harassed throughout history by the British, Japanese, Thai, and Burmese alike. They've been stopped to pay taxes, driven away by illegal fishermen, forced to work in mines and on farms, prohibited from vital trading areas, jailed for lacking permits, even turned into opium addicts by merchants to keep them dependent. Recently the Myanmar government, following Thailand's lead, has tried to settle the Moken permanently in a national park as a tourist attraction.

The Moken have resisted, but threats to forcibly settle them still hang in the air. And other troubles abound. Their own demography could destroy them: Many young men die each year in diving accidents---often from the bends when they dive too deep and resurface too quickly while working for Burmese fishermen. As the military presence increases throughout the islands, the Moken are unable to move freely in search of spouses. And without room to roam, they cannot find the traders who provide rice---the staple Moken food---and fuel for their motors. Ten years ago, some 2,500 Moken still led the traditional seafaring and spiritual life in this archipelago. That number is slowly diminishing and is now at perhaps 1,000.

As the son of a shaman and a father figure to his people, Gatcha's mission is to keep the old ways alive, bringing the Moken together for rituals that have suffered as flotillas have divided into subgroups and scattered north and south to reduce competition for natural resources. On this journey he will round up followers, including sacred singers and dancers to take with him to Nyawi Island, where things have gone awry. Soldiers are harassing the Moken and Burmese there, and the Burmese government has mandated a Moken festival for tourists---which Gatcha says is upsetting the spirits. With offerings, trances, song, and dance on Nyawi, he hopes his people can begin to appease the ancestors, to whom they look for guidance and protection.

The days of gathering end with a night of restorative ritual, after which I am heartened to see Gatcha and his family push out to sea in the damp, gray morning, continuing their journey through the archipelago. As the dry season nears its end, it is time to put down shallow roots on land, setting up a temporary camp in which to wait out the swift winds and rains of the monsoons. It will be a place to honor the spirits and to build new boats for young men coming of age.

The island chosen for a monsoon camp offers a breathtaking setting: A wall of virgin forest---rife with boar and bats to be hunted---a band of beach, and a deep, powerful sea. Women comb the beaches and sing, and children play in the surf. Girls coax sandworms from hiding with rattan sticks; boys fashion harpoons and learn from the older men how to hunt for fish, crab, turtle, ray, and eel.

Moken in Thailand

There are more than 8,000 sea gypsies in Thailand, some of whom are members of the Moken community. Over generations, some gypsies have abandoned their nomadic ways and moved to huts on the shore. But the fishermen among them still spend long periods at sea, often following the old traditions of moving to different fishing grounds according to the moon phases. [Source: Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, August 5, 2005]

Abby Goodnough wrote in the New York Times: “A few thousand chao ley - the Thai term means "water people" - live on the Andaman coast or islands near it. Most are more assimilated than the Moken, but they still lead segregated, impoverished lives. Yupa Klathalay, a 35-year-old Moken, said she visited the mainland a few times a month to sell sea cucumbers but had no interest in moving there."This place comes from the old generation, and we have to continue it," Yupa said. [Source: Abby Goodnough, New York Times, January 24, 2005]

The Moken know the mysteries of the ocean better than most Thais, having roamed it for centuries as fishermen and divers. They used to live half the year in houseboats on the Andaman Sea, wandering between Thailand and Myanmar; and, while less itinerant now, they remain closely attuned to the water. They are animists who believe that the sea, their island and all objects have spirits, and the Moken use totem poles to communicate with them.

The eyesight of the Moken under water is so sharp that researchers have studied it. Many cannot read or write, passing lore and knowledge down through the generations orally. They have their own language, though many younger Moken now speak Thai. Some go to the mainland to live and find work, but Salama said many return."They're not used to it over there," he said.

Moken Today

Moken are still found in the Mengui Archipelago of southern Myanmar. They have rejected agriculture, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, and even fishing with nets. They generally try to avoid contact with the their Thai, Burmese, Malaysian and Indian neighbor, preferring to be among their own kind in their boats. They are known to flee at the sound of motor boats.

Moken don’t look that much different than Burmese or Thais. They spend much of their time resting and eating and smoking tobacco rolled in newsprint and drinking strong smelling rice whiskey. Most dress in Burmese clothes. A typical meal is made of boiled mollusks. They trade sea cucumbers and shells for rice and tools. Some have been hired to work in the pearling industry because of their ability dive deep and hold their breath a long time.

Their lives should not be romanticized. They have drinking and health problems. Many have skin diseases and look sick. They need doctors and medical care and are often illiterate, They have to compete with Burmese for sea cucumbers and fish. Sometimes they have their shells stolen by Burmese and Karens. . There is plenty of food. They know which islands have fresh water. They can’t write Burmese.

Changes in the Moken Way of Life

Once the Sea Nomad came in regular contact with mainlanders their way of life was dramatically altered, in some cases collapsing abruptly. When they first came in contact with money they avoided it. Commerce with outsiders was carried out with barter with trusted merchants who provided them with food, alcohol, motors and fuels in return for valued seafood and sea shells.

The Sea Nomad way of life lasted as long as did in part due to the presence Andaman Sea pirates who scared off outsiders but left the Moken alone because they had no wealth. After World War II the Malaysian and Thai governments were finally able to drive out the pirates and after they did so they began insisting that the Moken become citizens of a country and become “civilized” The also allowed outsiders to take title to the islands

When outsiders began taking over their islands the Moken did their best to avoid them but when number of outsiders became too large and their presence scattered over a wide area, the Moken turned to Islam partly because the religion’s egalitarian philosophy matched their own. But this was not enough to hold off the demise of tehri way of life.

Collapse of the Moken Way of Life

As outsiders took claims to their islands, Sea Nomad patterns of migration were dispersed and they took on the role of second class citizens when they shared the islands with outsiders. As their roaming stopped they turned to alcohol and to lesser degree opium and marijuana as something to do and had more children. To pay of their habits they did low skill wage labor. Many were became ill or were killed by diseases brought by outsiders.

For a while teenagers enjoyed set off in their boats and enjoy the freedom of the sea but after awhile thse desires became secondary to desires for money. Teenage girls became more cloistered as they adopted Muslim mores and teenager boys became sort of homeless people with boats. These days many Moken are Moken in name only. They now work at jobs, raise crops and watch television like everyone else. Many live a life shaped more by Islam and tourism than their traditional way of life.

Moken and the Great Tsunami in 2004

The 200 Moken that live on South Surin Island, 65 kilometers off the west coast of Thailand, all survived but one even though the island was hard hit by the tsunami waves and the flimsy thatched huts that they live in are all located next to sea. They have traditionally called tsunamis “waves that eat people.” Closely in tune with the sea they knew that an earthquake followed by a retreating sea meant only one thing. Salama, a 60-something Moken chief told the New York Times, “I had never seen such as low tide. I started telling people that a wave was coming.” The chief said he that he had been told about such thing by his elders. By the time the wave arrived all the Moken on the island had safely reached high ground. The one man who was killed was elderly and disabled and had accidently been left behind. [Source: Abby Goodnough, New York Times, January 24, 2005]

Abby Goodnough wrote in the New York Times: “After the tsunami, rescue boats took the Moken to a Buddhist temple on the mainland, where they stayed about 10 days before restlessness overwhelmed them. They returned to their island two weekends ago and started building homes with donated bamboo and palm fronds. Park rangers are helping them build 54 homes, and perhaps a small school and souvenir shop for tourists. The Moken rebuilt their village to avoid bad luck associated with the man who died. They could avoid future tsunamis by moving to the hills, Salama said, but they fear the snakes that live there... Salama, whose father was the chief here before him, said his people believed that tsunamis came because the sea was angry. "We didn't do anything bad, but maybe somebody else did," he said. "The wave has cleaned out the bad things." [Ibid]

“The Moken have been little more than an oddity for tourist guidebooks and a nuisance for the Thai government, which has chastised them for fishing and foraging on environmentally sensitive water and land. But now, because of their agile escape from the tsunami, these people who live without electricity or schooling are celebrities. The Thai news media have painted them as heroes, and politicians have called for preserving their way of life and spreading their long-held wisdom. [Ibid]

No sea gypsies died in the village of Ta Pae Yoi on Golden Buddha Island (Koh Phra Thong) in Thailand. . About 300 of the 500 people in the village are sea gypsies. They attributed their survival to the food and homemade alcohol they offered the spirits of their ancestors at their full moon festival the previous November. But,Ellen Nakashima wrote in the Washington Post, “the waves wrecked fleets of boats, destroyed two other villages and killed more than 100 people elsewhere on the island. The sea gypsies lost their boats, nets and squid traps, and with them, their livelihoods. After that, some members of the community fled to the mainland, an hour away, where they sought shelter with local Buddhist monks. [Source: Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, August 5, 2005]

Sea Gypsy Activism After the 2004 Tsunami

In 2005, Arun Khlatalay, a 24-year-old fisherman, made history when he became the first of the sea gypsies, elected to a village council on Golden Buddha Island, also called Koh Phra Thong, in Thailand. The great tsunami that struck Thailand in December 2004 is what prompted him to take action? [Source: Ellen Nakashima, Washington Post, August 5, 2005]

Ellen Nakashima wrote in the Washington Post, “Before the disaster, Arun said he never would have thought to run for office. But, he added, he was angered at learning from aid workers and others that tsunami relief intended for his people was being diverted by greedy businessmen. Arun said he found out in March that village leaders were skimming government funds intended to compensate the sea gypsies for their damaged and destroyed boats.It was the ultimate injustice to the sea gypsies, Arun said. They had suffered years of exploitation by the island elite, who paid the gypsies a pittance for their fish and made usurious loans when they wanted to buy their own boats. "It made me realize that we had to change," said Arun, whose surname means bravery at sea. "We cannot be enslaved anymore."

Relief workers said there was evidence of corruption. The chief of the village, Yosapon Sae-Daeng, "directly admitted to me taking a 20 percent commission from government tsunami aid meant for the villagers," said Bodhi Garrett, director of North Andaman Tsunami Relief, who had lived on the island. "And he was laughing as he said it, pointing to his new gold chain."In an interview, Yosapon, 34, a local businessman and the village chief, denied that he cheated the sea gypsies but implied that some money was diverted. "I didn't take compensation for myself," he said, barefoot and smoking a cigarette on the breezy verandah of his beachfront house. "But I needed money to lobby other people to pay compensations to the villagers."

Arun was nudged along in his new political career by the monks. "You have to teach them that they have rights as Thai citizens and they have to use and preserve them," said the abbot who blessed him, Phrakru Suwatthithammarat, 44, whose shaved head and gaunt frame belie his past as a civil engineer and self-described playboy. Arun also recalled the inspiration of Mae Chee Wan, a nun who came to volunteer after the tsunami. She had urged Arun and his friends to stop sitting around drinking, cease whining, and start to organize themselves. Her words stung, but they moved him to act, Arun recalled. "She told us, 'You have to have pride. Otherwise people will say the Moken are dummies who can do nothing but fish. They'll say you're stupid, stupid, stupid!' "

Arun got 114 votes in the July 31 election, winning one of two council seats from candidates supported by Yosapon. Despite Arun's victory, however, the sea gypsies' future is far from certain. Half of the sea gypsies in Arun's village have taken shelter at the Buddhist temple in Phang Nga province, on the Thai mainland an hour's boat ride away. They fear another tsunami and worry that if they return, they would be further exploited by the island's businessmen and political leaders, whom they call "the capitalists."

The monks have promised to help some of them build houses on the mainland, but they would continue to fish and maintain their huts on the island. The process could take years. Arun said he was determined to give the sea gypsies a voice. He pledged to protect the rights of the members of his community who remain on the island, as well as those at the temple.

On the morning of the village elections, Arun clipped the amulet he received from the monk to the inside of his blue soccer jersey, strode into an open-air pavilion that served as the village polling station and cast his ballot. Each of the four candidates was identified by a number. He was so nervous, he said, he almost forgot his: 3. As he walked back toward the village center, greeting friends with blue-inked thumbs who had just voted, he pointed at the creaky huts, some of rusty, corrugated tin, some of rotting wood, where the sea gypsies live when they're not on their boats. He said he was glad that the huts survived the tsunami, but "at the same time," he said, softly, "I feel sad because our life conditions are the same. Nothing has improved."

Most of all, Arun said, he wanted to protect the ability of the sea gypsies to control their own future. Independence was a simpler concept when his ancestors roamed the seas and moved from fishing ground to fishing ground according to the moon phases, he said. Now his goals are different. Arun, a ninth grade dropout, said he wants his two young daughters to have a full education. The local school has been rebuilt and enlarged, but he said he does not trust that the education on the island will be as good as on the mainland. Arun said his priority would be to ensure the housing project at the new community went forward. But first, he said, he had a more pressing task, fit for a successful politician. "I have to walk around to all the houses and thank people for their support," he said. "And I'll promise to carry out my plans."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Encyclopedia of World Cultures: East and Southeast Asia, edited by Paul Hockings (C.K. Hall & Company); New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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