Indigenous groups

Grounding of the sea nomads: Virus allows Moken to return to the water

The nomadic lifestyle of the Moken people and their unique relationship with the environment has been encroached upon by governments and the modern world. But as the pandemic has taken hold, space has opened for these seafarers to return to the water

Written By:
June 9, 2020
Grounding of the sea nomads: Virus allows Moken to return to the water
Moken children playing in shallow waters in front of their home in Nyaung Wee village off the coast of southern Myanmar. Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP

Each day at the break of dawn, Hook and his family wake to the gentle rocking of the waves. Another new adventure beckons from where they left off the night before when they dropped their anchor under a sea of stars. 

The motley crew of three will sally forth on their mobile home towards a morning spent atop the Andaman Seas off the coast of Myanmar and Thailand. When noon draws closer, their 11-metre-long Kabang (house-boat) comes to a rocking lull. Hook will then free-dive into the depths of the waters with nothing but a spear, and before long lunch will be served on the boat itself.

Hook, whose full name goes by Suriyan Klathale, belongs to a community of people called the Moken. Colloquially known as sea gypsies or Chao Lay in Thai (people of the sea), the Moken are an Austronesian people who earned their namesake from their nomadic lifestyle on the ocean. They typically live on Andaman waters for six to seven months a year during the dry season, temporarily returning to settlements on Thailand’s Surin islands, south of the Mergui Archipelago, in the monsoon months. 

But with ever-increasing government controls over their community, the Moken have been penned into smaller spaces in the ocean for many years, restricting how far they are allowed to travel with their traditional waterborne nomadic lifestyle. 

That is, until recently. While the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic has led to the confinement of many communities on land, it has helped turn the tides in favour of the Moken. 

The viral outbreak, and social distancing measures put in place by governments in response, has opened the space for some Sea Gypsies to more freely roam the seas once again, with a gradual increase in families retrieving their boats from the berths and heading for the brines. 

Thiha Thway, a Moken fisherman, holds a spear from a spear gun as he dives to hunt for fish in waters in the Description
Mergui Archipelago, off the coast of southern Myanmar in 2017. Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP

The government won’t recognise their identities unless their name is registered to a place on land. So that makes it really difficult for sea nomads

While the indigenous knowledge of the Moken and their use of natural resources, at the core of their culture, has historically gained attention from conservationists amidst increasingly urgent calls for protecting ecological biodiversity in the area, the sea nomads have faced threats to their way of life for decades.

Today, the Moken community is largely confined to the Mergui Archipelago near Myanmar and Ko Surin, an island 60km west of the Thai mainland, when their villages were destroyed by the 2004 Tsunami that devastated much of Southeast Asia’s coastal communities. 

Fishing and freely setting out to sea, the staples of their culture, have also been restricted by the Thai government, with the space that the Moken are allowed to utilise within the bay area restricted by protection of the National Park. As a result of this overcrowding, a fire in the community in 2019 razed many of their huts to the ground.

The nomads are further confined by one thing – to this day, many Moken do not have passports. 

“The government won’t recognise their identities unless their name is registered to a place on land. So that makes it really difficult for sea nomads … caught in between Thailand and Burma. And the modern world doesn’t know what to do with them – they don’t like people they cannot control,” says Runar Jarle Wiik, spearheader of the non-profit organisation Project Moken, which has worked with Hook and his community for decades. 

“The fact that everyone needs to register an address on land is how the world works, which makes it impossible to go half way with a nomadic lifestyle.”

A village of settled Moken, where they will dock during the monsoon seasons. Photo: The Moken Islands

With the demolition of their habitats during the 2004 Tsunami that ravaged much of Southeast Asia, and as one single bay on Surin became too small to accommodate all the villages that were ruined during the Tsunami, over the years some Moken have given up their proximity to the seas for a life on the Thai mainland.

A few years after the disaster, a relocated Moken child might be seen playing with a fishing pole once used by his father, acting as a mere ornament of their previous life. Occasionally, some of these mainland Moken will also bring their children to the sea during weekends or school vacations – the last threads of their previous home and culture.

Hook also explained how restrictions on voyaging and staying put also ensured the Moken entered the monetary system. 

“Without the option of foraging whatever they need, the Moken take jobs. So they work for other people, they work for money.” 

The Kabang – A family unit, an adobe atop the waves

The Surin islands are one of the few archipelagos where the Moken are now established. Their communities are spread all the way from Surin to further northeast on Koh Phayam, and west to islands that are part of Myanmar. Rows of huts on stilts are lined along the shores of these archipelagos, but where the Moken historically called home is not any place on land, but upon the water, as well as on the vessels with which they traverse the choppy seas. 

A traditional Kabang is equipped with everything it needs to house the average wayfaring family, with author Tom Vater describing the Kabang as “an independent economic unit”. 

Vater spent considerable time with the Moken community of Ko Surin in the 1990s and more recently again in 2016. He describes the boats as no longer than eleven metres and no wider than two metres, with a collapsible roof made of leaves that grants the family protection from the elements. 

He also observed that cooking was done on the boat itself as well, with sand first scattered across the boat deck, which is made from split bamboo to ensure it doesn’t catch alight.

But the Kabang is not the only compass the Moken had to help them navigate life on the seas. In the past, their lifestyles depended a lot on mother nature itself, but it was guided with the conscious choice to also respect and protect what she had to offer.

Food gathering from nature’s reserves, such as spear fishing, was a fundamental activity for the Moken. While they depended on it for sustenance, it was also a central element of their culture.

Hook explained that the old Moken lifestyle was based on rotation, in taking just what was needed. 

“When stopping somewhere to collect sea cucumber, we would take only the adult ones,” he told the Globe through a translator. “So when they return three to five years later, all the young sea cucumbers that were left then had grown up and reproduced themselves.”

The same notion was applied to their forest forages on land – if the Moken needed a part of a trunk to make a boat rudder, they would only cut the piece required and leave the rest of the tree to grow. 

“When you just take what you need you will never deplete an abundant ecosystem,” Hook explained.

A female member of the Moken tribe dislodging barnacles from stones in Nyaung Wee island in the Mergui Archipelago in 2017. Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP
Female members of the Moken tribe sit with children near the wooden spirit statues in Nyaung Wee village in the Mergui Archipelago. Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP
Anticipating the Tsunami – Tales of the Laboon

In 2004, the waves on which the Moken made their homes claimed the lives of many. Their knowledge of the incoming tsunami had spared them the full brunt of her fury, but only barely.

“I know the ocean, she has been my teacher since I was young,” Hook said.

Tales and knowledge of the tsunami, what they termed as the Laboon (or “Seventh Wave”), and how to anticipate it have been passed down for thousands of years within the Moken. Its arrival is usually marked by a sharp receding of the waters followed by a small wave. For these Sea Gypsies, it was not normal.

Runar explained how a safety manoeuvre used by the Moken is to always face their boats’ sterns out to sea, so they can swiftly push it out and ride a large wave before it hits land. Once out at sea, a Tsunami wave is a comparably short rising under the boat. 

“Also, the Moken will never establish a camp or a village on an island or place where there is no hill they can go up to,” Runar added. And, when the tsunami hit in 2004, that was precisely what they did – putting as much distance between them and the impending Laboon by taking cover in the hills across the archipelago in their village enclaves.

In December 2004, the Moken watched as what they had known as a cautionary legend materialised right in front of their eyes, and witnessed how the very waves they depended on their whole lives claimed everything they had.

While their lives were spared, things have not been the same since.

Anecdotes of how they survived the ‘Seventh Wave’ had put the Moken on the map. So too had narratives from Thai media, explains Lindsey Reding, a representative of tour operator Andaman Discoveries.

“The 2004 tsunami brought media attention, [it] brought journalists’ attention and then all of a sudden you have this small nomadic tribe being broadcasted to the world,” she said, adding that their home waters were also shown as a “paradise” to curious viewers.

Ever since, the Surin Islands have been marked by the Thai government as a national park and tourist attraction. But along with such a distinction have come rules and obligations that the Moken must follow.

Upon traveling down to post-tsunami Ko Surin, Sunmee Lee saw an old Moken lady selling hand-made small boxes and accessories made with dried plants – souvenirs for curious tourists. Lee did a thesis on how the Moken identity and way of life have changed post 2004-tsunami. 

“One of my interviewees told me that Moken on the island opened shops to sell limited products which are only allowed by the national park,” she said.

With each passing day, the modern world and its habits encroach upon the shores of the Moken islands. On one of his trips, Vater noted how some Moken youth would head to the National Park headquarters every night to watch the only TV on the island.

“The park authorities encourage this slow process of assimilation, an opening-up and slipping away from their own culture,” he said. “Some of the Moken now want to be Thai. Others don’t see the use in relinquishing their identity.” 

Vater said that for the Moken, the loss of this identity would end their special relationship with the sea, with many young not able to properly dive now, or arrested for just picking shells.

At present, the number of Kabang houseboats in the Moken community of Surin, a flagship of the nuclear family unit and symbol of their nomadic lives, amounts to only one – the one that Hook and his family have made their home.

Shoring up the past

However, in recent developments since the onset of the pandemic, more Moken have been getting back on their boats and heading out to sea again.

“Now that there’s the pandemic, the government knows that it’s not feasible for so many people to be staying in one small space,” Runar explained. “Now that the Moken are allowed to go back to the sea, many of them are going into their boats and living like before.”

In one of their recent Kabang voyages, Hook and his German wife, Lena Bumiller-Klathale, encountered four Moken families by the sea, who were fishing and foraging for their meals like they used to be able to.

“The parents were crab fishing and, since the schools were closed and there was a fear of infection on the mainland, they took their kids with them,” Hook said.

However, this journey back to the oceans is not guaranteed to stay. 

“I think it’s just because every government is doing these things around Covid-19, so Thailand feel they have to do it too. They will allow it for while and then try to get them back to what [life was like before],” says Runar.

“It’s very hard to live the indigenous life and go back entirely to the old ways. There is no middle ground for both, no half way mark,” Runar cautioned. “You cannot preserve the traditions from the Moken and then imbue them with the modern, because it’s all the way or nothing. Because for the modern masses, it is either you are ‘one of them’ or you aren’t.”

Indeed, such a view is echoed by some of the Moken themselves. At one point in time, when Hook worked on the mainland, his father had his concerns: “If Hook wants to be Thai, his Moken life is over. If he stays on the mainland, he will forget about the Kabang. He will be like a foreigner.”

When asked what their plans would be like in the long game, Hook and Lena said they are working on initiatives to preserve Moken traditions and cultural knowledge, which they are enlisting the assistance of the Moken elders to do so.

A woman washes her face shortly after waking up after sleeping on a wooden boat ashore at Makyone Galet village in the Mergui Archipelago. Photo: Ye Aung Thu/AFP

When asked where they were from, they’d answer ‘We are from the Moken’, as if they belong to a culture and way of life that has always been tied to the ocean, but never a specific place

Andaman Discoveries is also collaborating directly with the Moken in the hopes of giving them more control and autonomy over the tourism that’s going on in Ko Surin. Reding explained the Moken she works with want to build more activities that focus on their cultural heritage – not just to share them with guests, but also to keep them alive within the village. 

“They want to show the younger generations how to do things like they used to, and actively shared about how they used to live,” she said. Some of these initiatives involve a hike along the back of the village where tourists can stop and learn about traditional uses of herbs and how natural materials can be used to build houses and boats. 

These are the only Moken-led tours where the Moken work as guides and take their own group of tourists along with a translator around the islands. 

“It is the only job that actually supports their traditional lifestyle as tourists are invited to join their unique traditional activities,” added Lena. 

While it is uncertain whether this minor revival of their nomadic lifestyle provided by the pandemic will continue, or whether what is left of their culture can hold up against the waves of modernity, the Moken take heart from the fact that they will always have each other.

“To me, the Moken people embody the human connection to not just their environment but their people as well,” Lena said. “When asked where they were from, they’d answer ‘We are from the Moken’, as if they belong to a culture and way of life that has always been tied to the ocean, but never a specific place.

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