101 East

The vanishing sea tribe

Thailand’s Moken tribe foresaw and survived the 2004 tsunami, but are the traditions that saved them being abandoned?

On Thailand’s tropical Surin Islands lies one of the world’s fastest disappearing cultures.

The Moken, a nomadic sea tribe that has roamed the Andaman sea for centuries, are in a desperate fight to keep their traditions alive. Having survived the 2004 tsunami by recalling their ancestors’ cautionary tales, the winds of modernity are now proving a greater threat to their way of life.

Two hundred Moken gypsies live on the Surin Islands, as part of one of the only communities where children still speak fluent Moken and young men spear fish the traditional way, by holding their breath and diving to great depths.

But the islands are part of a national park, so the Moken are prohibited from cutting down trees to make their traditional boat, the kabang.

During the dry season, Mokens would spend months at sea aboard their wooden kabangs, only living on land during the rainy season when the seas were menaced by monsoon storms. Just a few generations ago, most nomadic Mokens were born on kabangs. But today, there are hardly any left in Thailand. The only kabang 101 East could find was built specifically for tourists.

Spearfishing has long been integral to the Moken way of life, but overfishing has emptied nearby seas. Moken divers now have to dive deeper and go further out to sea to find fish. Many have died from decompression sickness.

Today, many Mokens have abandoned their nomadic ways, and live where their ancestors spent monsoon seasons. Those stretches of shoreline are now greatly sought after by developers, eager to cash in on the growing tourist demand for tropical beaches. As property values skyrocket, fiercely contested land battles are playing out, with the Moken often on the losing side.

One such community can be found on Rawai beach, on Thailand’s Phuket island. More than a dozen lawsuits have been filed by a deed owner against residents of Rawai. To investigate the Mokens’ claim to the land, the government has dug up old Moken graves in the area. Businessman and deed owner Piyawat says he legally purchased the land in 2008, not knowing that so many Moken were already living there. Since then, he says he has not been able to use his land because local residents chase him out. After years of legal battles, there is still no resolution in sight.

While the post-tsunami aid has brought education and healthcare to the Moken, it has also left many on the fringes of society.

Now, as the Mokens attempt to strike a balance between tradition and modernity, can they maintain their life when the ocean resources they depend on are fast depleting? Will they be able to preserve their traditions while adapting to modern Thai life? And can they survive a cultural crisis that may be a greater threat than any tsunami?

Thailand’s sea gypsies, the #Moken, survived the Asian tsunami. But will they survive the modern world? #vanishingseatribe 

Producer’s blog

By Pailin Wedel

In 2004, just days after the tsunami, I rushed to Thailand’s coast to cover the disaster as a young, freelance photographer. The destruction was unlike anything I had ever seen. The scent of death in the air during those weeks still haunts me. Many tourists – relatively educated and wealthy people – died that day; their worldly status could not save them during those last moments.

It was not until much later that I heard about the Moken sea gypsies and their tsunami survival tale. The Moken on the Surin Islands were blessed with life-saving institutional memory: folk tales passed down by elders warned of “laboon” or massive waves seen by past generations. The stories suggest that tsunamis often come right after the ocean suddenly recedes.

No one on the Surin Islands perished from the wave that day. All saw the signs and fled to higher ground.

Modern society tends to discriminate against nomadic peoples. Their value systems are often out of synch with our aggressive pursuit of land ownership, formal education, advanced technology and material wealth. But on the day of the tsunami, it was the Mokens’ ancient wisdom that saved them. And that wisdom, transferred from one generation to another by oral storytelling, is fast disappearing.

After the tsunami, international media descended on the Moken. America’s “60 Minutes” investigative unit devoted an entire programme to the tribe. Millions of aid dollars rolled in for Moken and others affected along Thailand’s Andaman coast. Almost overnight, new houses, schools and even a Moken museum appeared.

But this sudden injection of modernity has brought both promise and peril.

For centuries, Mokens were nomadic, roaming the Andaman sea around Thailand and Myanmar. Today, about 900 more traditional Mokens are left in Thailand. Over the years some communities have moved to the mainland forming a group called the Moklen or “Land Moken.” There are 4,000 land Mokens in Thailand and their culture is disappearing even faster than their seafaring kin.

Outside the Surin Islands’ Moken community, there are few Moken left who can recite their traditional tales. While everyone on the Surin Islands can speak fluent Moken, less than half of the Moken on the mainland can speak the language.

This puts the Moken language, with its epic poetry, songs and tales of the sea, at risk of disappearing within a couple of generations.

The bounty of the sea

At the heart of the Mokens’ ability to safeguard their traditions is their freedom to secure food and shelter in the traditional manner. During the dry season, the Moken used to live in kabangs: wooden boats crafted to bob atop the ocean and serve as long-term shelter, not just transport. They lived on land only during the rainy season when the seas are menaced by monsoon storms.

Just a few generations ago, most nomadic Moken were actually born on kabangs. Today, however, there is only one functional kabang left in Thailand. It is brand new, funded privately and built to serve tourists in the Surin Islands.

The Moken depend on the bounty of the sea. They fish, catch squid and free dive up to 30m deep to spear fish, collect sea cucumbers and shellfish. Sadly, however, overfishing has depleted nearby seas. They have had to dive deeper and go further out to sea to collect shellfish. On the mainland, Moken fishermen can no longer hold their breaths long enough to free dive for spear fishing.

They instead rely on rubber hoses attached to air compressors that feed them air and allow them to stay underwater longer. Many using this method have died from accidents or decompression sickness.

Because they are nomadic, the Moken have never legally owned the waters they fish or the land they inhabit during monsoon season. 

Today, many Moken live in the spots where, for generations, their ancestors have spent monsoon seasons ashore. Once neglected, those isolated stretches of shoreline are now in great demand as tourism operators seek to satisfy growing demand for tropical beach holidays.

The land beneath many Moken communities is highly valued and fiercely contested. In one community on pricey Phuket, legal battles have dragged on for five years.

More than 20 Moken homeowners have been sued and there is no end in sight. The Thai government has assigned a special forensic unit to dig up and date old graves in the area to investigate Mokens’ historical claims. But Thailand’s current political turmoil has stalled their work.

While the post-tsunami climate brought aid, education, healthcare and certain amenities to the Moken, it has also pushed many to society’s fringes. Like traditional peoples from Africa to Alaska, the Moken are attempting to strike a balance between prideful tradition and co-existence with the modern world.

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