Nomads of the sea: the Moken, an Asian tribe threatened by tourism and the modern world


There is no future verb in his vocabulary, nor in his future any certainty of survival. In the Andaman Sea, Come in Myanmar (ex Burma) Yes Thailand, lives a tribe threatened by the modern world.

The Moken are children of the sea, grandchildren of an ancient culture with Austronesian roots, whose the nomadic tradition is 3,500 years old.

State control, land privatization and tourist pressure are erasing their customs, in a process of assimilation that seems to have no brakes.

But the global coronavirus pandemic has given them a break and many have decided to return to their old way of life.

No permanent establishments, years ago They lived on the high seas, in small boats, hopping from island to island, guided by their spiritual beliefs.

They gathered what the ocean gave them: they found food and protection there, cooked, slept and gave birth. When the monsoon arrived, their natural home became uninhabitable and they sought refuge on a nearby island, where they built temporary houses until calm returned to the sea.

Privatizations and natural parks

“The main aspect of their culture is freedom of movement and interaction with the environment,” says Lena Bumiller, founder of Moken Islands, a platform that fights for the preservation of this ancient people.

“That started to change 50 years ago,” he says, “when the Thai government privatized the land on the islands, the Moken were not welcomed by the new owners.”

What else, Cutting down trees, the raw material for their traditional boats, was prohibited, and the few remaining places to eat on earth have become natural parks.

At the same time, border controls between Thailand and Myanmar have become more stringent. They had fewer and fewer places to go and “were constantly harassed by the patrols,” Bumiller explains, so their nomadic life was restricted.

Many are stateless, making them vulnerable to human rights violations. There is no birth registration for people born at sea and this makes their citizenship difficult.

The 2004 tsunami

Without a written language, their knowledge has been passed down from generation to generation through song and legend.

Yes it was a fable that saved them from a catastrophe, the tsunami which affected 14 countries in 2004 and killed more than 250,000 people.

The low tide anticipated the arrival of lab, the seventh wave, a divine retribution sent by the ocean when the people have done wrong. As the wave destroyed their boats, they ran to the hills in time to take refuge from the disaster.

It was then that the pressure on their nomadic way of life increased. The Thai government hosted them on Surin Island, in a natural park open to tourism.

The end of the fable

They have been reduced to an exotic relic, another attraction of the overcrowded Thai tourism industry. They abandoned self-sufficiency to be hired – well below minimum wage – in park facilities, as cleaners, cooks and tour guides.

An assimilation began which almost completely ended their nomadic ways.

“The biggest change in his lifestyle has been his dependence on the monetary system,” according to Bumiller. Then education.

Authorities appointed teachers who taught a foreign language and culture, Thai. “When this happened, the Moken were unable to express their needs,” he explains.

“70 million people live in Thailand, but only 3,000 are Moken. What government in this world would put the interests of such a small people first?

“Fifteen years have passed since the tsunami and most are still stateless,” says Christoph Sperfeldt, a researcher at the McMullin Center, who studies the many stateless people who inhabit Southeast Asia.

The government gave special identity documents some of them, “but that’s not enough. They only allow them to move in the province in which they are registered, ”explains the expert.

The pandemic and a return to the past

While the abandonment of nomadism seemed irremediable, a global pandemic closed state borders and, with them, international tourism.

Deprived of their source of income, some Moken have once again ventured out into the vast ocean and into self-reliance.

The authorities, who had reduced the living space of the Moken, are relaxing their control.

But this pandemic respite is coming to an end: Thailand is preparing for the arrival of international visitors, a gesture that will once again confine the nomads of the sea to land.

Source: La Vanguardia

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