Forced to live on dry land, the Moken (people of the sea) are excluded from society and often their rights are violated.
Bangkok (AsiaNews) – The Moken* (also known as Chao Ley or people of the sea) are an ethnic group of about 2,000 people speaking an Austronesian language. They live along the coastline of the Andaman Sea from the provinces of Trang, Krabi, Phuket, Phang-Nga and Ranong in western Thailand to Myanmar. Their way of life is gradually disappearing as they come into contact with Thailand’s dominant culture.
The Moken lead a simple life, using nets and spears to take food for personal use, which they also sell in local markets. For more than 100 years, they lived sailing around the southern Andaman Sea, except during the monsoon season, until 26 December 2004 when a tsunami killed hundreds of thousands of people.
The community has its own identity that expresses its own way of life, culture and wisdom. These elements are disappearing due to the "intervention" of an outside society that has intruded into their traditions, including religion. Unlike the dominant religion for example, Moken used to venerate statues.
Father Suwat Luangsa-ard, director of the commission for Social Affairs, Relief and Refugee at the Surat Thani Foundation in the diocese of Surat Thani, is responsible for the Moken’s pastoral care. He is a supporter of their personal status, quality of life and work on Chang and Phayam Islands.
"The Moken’s happy life is disappearing,” the clergyman said, “because of society’s ‘good intentions’. The most important assistance concerns identity papers, which are necessary to achieve a good quality of life and meet basic needs, including education."
"In caring for the Moken for nearly a decade,” noted Father Suwat, “I sometimes look back and see that their way of life is fading away, going from simplicity to the denial of the true value of their culture. Today, when talking with the Moken, I see that their way of thinking is becoming like the Catholic one, different from their original faith. Some are not proud of themselves as before. It is sad to say that some dare not acknowledge that they are Moken".
Koy Talayluuk, a 35-year-old Moken whose family lives on Phayam Island, has looked at how he feels after moving from his home on the boat to the shore.
"I’d rather be on the boat,” he said. “I’d like to live like the first Moken because it was more fun and comfortable. I feel exhausted staying ashore. It is unfamiliar. Staying on a boat satisfies me. We can go and do whatever we like. Staying onshore has changed my life dramatically."
Koy is especially concerned about one of his five children, an eight-year-old boy who still does not have his identity papers and was not registered at birth. Three others go to school. It is very difficult for those who do not have an identity card. They face problems with school and the right to basic health care.
"In the past, my family followed the Moken lifestyle. All my children grew up on a boat,” Koy said. "I still remember that five years ago my family went to Myanmar spending out time on a boat.”
“We had no land on which to build our house. Our boat was our home. That is where we ate, where we slept. My wife gave birth on the boat since my mother is a midwife. Today there is not a lifestyle like that – everything has changed.”
“My dream is to build a boat and lead a life as I did with my grandparents. Modern Moken know nothing about it. They live like any other Thai. Things have changed a lot for me. "
Comparatively, the “45 Moken families or 247 individuals on Chang Island lead a simple life in their tribe,” Father Luangsa-ard explained. “All the children play together in the open spaces of the community’s village. Men mend fishing net for the next day. They have changed their lifestyle by going to Mass every Sunday, reading the Bible and participating in study groups. They have a new life by learning the word of God. But they continue to preserve their culture by paying respect to their parents and taking care of their family.”
Still, on Chang Island (which is part of Ranong province), the Moken face misunderstandings with outsiders who treat them as a minority subordinate to other Thais. Some people acquire advantages by subjugating them. This is why they would like to be left alone in their own tribe.”
Although, according to Father Luangsa-ard, “Such disputes are gradually waning and this has helped lessen their problems, I am starting to see that the Moken are not proud of their tribal character. They don’t want to be called Chao Ley and prefer to be known as Thai Mai, New Thais”.
“I’d like to find a place for the Moken where they are not forced by modern society or a new faith, a special place for those who would like to start anew on the ancient path and culture, and feel proud to be true Moken. Human dignity should start with being a brave Moken.”
(Weena Kowitwanij contributed to this article)
* Also spelled Mwaken or Morgan.