Restrictions sinking sea gypsies

As their traditional fishing areas are declared national parks and closed off to them, members of the group fight to survive. But recent policy moves could help preserve their culture

Sanit tried to maintain his stride while walking towards the sea, but everybody knew that he was sick.

ADAPTING TO A NEW AGE: This sea gypsy fishing off Phuket’s Rawai beach has seen many restrictions imposed on his lifestyle over the last 20 years.

A while ago, Sanit, who is 36, was diving down more than 20m to collect fish from traps on the seabed and rose to the surface too quickly. That caused him to suffer decompression sickness, commonly known as the bends.

This occurs when divers surface too quickly and bubbles of nitrogen form in the body's tissues, causing localised damage and often severe pain in joints.

Sanit's sickness worried his family because of what happened to another sea gypsy who had suffered from the bends.

A few days earlier, a young sea gypsy from Koh Sireh village at Lam Tukkae Cape in Phuket province, died as a result of the bends after surfacing too quickly. This sent shockwaves throughout sea gypsy communities along the Andaman shores, including on Rawai beach where Sanit lived.

Following the news, Sanit's family did not want him to go back into the sea after suffering from the bends.

GRABBING OPPORTUNITY: Nui fuels the boat he uses to earn extra income by taking tourists fishing.

Early one morning on the beach recently they pleaded with him not to.  They told him that he had already suffered decompression sickness and going back into the water wasn't worth the risk.

"I have to," he told them. "We have to feed the family." He busied himself putting fishing gear, air pumps and masks into a wooden boat that was about to take him and other fishermen to their traps the other side of  Koh Bon, 10km away.

Sanit and the other sea gypsies  would not have to fish in deep water if they were not barred from approaching and accessing the shallow waters around many islands in the Andaman.

Starting more than 20 years ago, these islands have been declared part of various national parks, and as a result, sea gypsies like Sanit have found it more and more difficult to make a living.

OCEAN BOUNTY: A sea gypsy catches fish, top, to sell in the village market, above.

Shallow waters are crucial to the survival of sea gypsies, being fruitful hunting grounds for the sea gypsies' simple fishing methods.

But since some areas, including Mu Koh Surin, have been declared marine national parks, much of these shallow waters have been designated as protected areas. As a result, sea gypsies are barred from fishing in them, making life increasingly difficult.

The Community Network for Political and Social Reform,  which encompasses ethnic groups nationwide, says there are 41 sea gypsy communities on the Andaman's shores with an estimated population of 17,400, and they are suffering under the conservation regulations, especially those of the National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation Department.

``The sea looks borderless but there is no longer freedom for us to roam freely,'' said Nui, a 49-year-old sea gypsy.

Nui still remembers when the sea was truly borderless for his people. With his father and family, Nui sailed north to Koh Payam in Ranong, and south as far as Lang Kawi in Malaysia, with no concern about where they would sleep  _ every beach and island was the sea gypsies' home, he said.

It was a little more than 20 years ago that things started to change. One day Nui sailed to Koh Surin, where he was told by officials that he could not fish in the shallow waters any more because it was now a national park. If he insisted on fishing there, he would be arrested.

Scared, Nui sailed to nearby Koh Similan. There he saw some huts being used as officials' shelters, and realised that he may not be able to fish there either. He heard that several sea gypsies who had landed there before him were chased off. Nui was also chased away and realised that he could no longer roam freely in the north.

And there have been more restrictions since the arrival of large numbers of tourists. Clashes between sea gypsies who try to sneak into shallow waters and officials who try to keep the beaches for tourists are occurring more frequently.

Over the last two years, more than 30 sea gypsies have been arrested and charged under the National Parks Act for illegal possession of protected animals.

GYPSY NO MORE: Nui remembers vividly the day officials told him he could no longer fish off Koh Surin.

The latest incident was on Oct 12, when Mu Koh Similan national park officials arrested nine young sea gypsies from Rawai who had allegedly fished there.

Some sea gypsies try to survive by finding jobs, but few have managed to succeed. Nui has become a guide for amateur fishermen. Others still risk sailing into shallow waters, and some like Sanit, are forced to dive deeper to find fish.

For Nui, the sea gypsies appear doomed. ``Sea gypsies spend all their lives with the sea, so where else can they live?'' he said. ``I think life will become more and more difficult for sea gypsies because we are being forced from the sea.''

HOME TAKEN AWAY

The soft golden sunshine became a little harsh around 7am, and it was already late for Sanit as his boat headed out. The men were busy preparing their gear for diving.

On the way, Sanit's worries grew. Since tourism has boomed in the Andaman, it is not only shallow waters and beaches that have been seized to serve tourists, but plots of land on which sea gypsies have lived for generations have also been taken away.

Sea gypsies used to live aboard their boats before they landed on unsettled islands. but over time, these plots of land have been claimed by either government agencies or private entities.

According to the Community Network for Political and Social Reform, 28 out of 41 sea gypsy communities face the threat of having their land seized, and it is almost impossible for them to stop it because those doing the land grabbing hold land right documents.

At Rawai beach, at least 10 sea gypsy families are being sued by private land owners. Nui's family is one of them, and he has vowed to fight to the end to keep the land he lives on, just as his ancestors did.

SERENITY AT SUNSET: Left, fishing boats on Rawai Beach at dusk.

Off Rawai beach are Koh Bon and Koh He, where resorts have sprung up, much to the shock of the sea gypsies.

``How can they build such resorts on the islands where we used to live and fish?'' asked Nui.

But land grabs are not confined to the  sea gypsies' residential areas. Several spiritual areas, including cemeteries, have been the subject of land grab attempts too.

At Rawai, a private land owner was trying to close an entrance leading to Toh Ba Lai, where sea gypsies there hold rituals. The incident sparked much anger among the sea gypsies. Sanit and his family led a protest and finally managed to retake the entrance. However, he has no idea how long the villagers can stand up against such threats. The land's owner has already built a high cement wall to separate Toh Ba Lai and the village, leaving only a small entrance, through which the villagers can walk to Toh Ba Lai.

At Sireh, a village cemetery on a mountain, is almost closed as well. The land's  owner has built a high wall enclosing the foot of the mountain, and the entrance to the cemetery is locked. The villagers have to ask for a key to bury their dead. The family of the young man who died from the bends faced similar problems before he was laid to rest.

At Koh Phi Phi, a few hotels have already been built on sea gypsy cemeteries and at Lan Ta in Krabi province, the sea gypsies are being told to remove their loved ones' remains from Bor Nae cemetery or see them destroyed by land developers.

CABINET RESOLUTION _ A RAY OF HOPE?

RELIC OF THE PAST: A sea gypsy with a traditional handmade fishing kit. Below, a child plays inside a large fishing basket.

Since the tsunami struck in 2004, the plight of the sea gypsies has become increasingly publicised. On June 2, 2010, the cabinet came up with a resolution laying down both short- and long-term measures to address the sea gypsies' problems.

In the short term, the cabinet proposed greater land security via various measures including land right verifications and community land title deeds. It also proposed that regulations preventing sea gypsies from fishing in protected areas be relaxed, that they be provided with health care,  education and ID cards and that their culture be promoted, including a sea gypsy cultural promotion day.

Over the longer term, within three years, it was proposed that special cultural zones for ethnic groups, including sea gypsies, be created.

Following the cabinet resolution, the Culture Ministry chaired a newly set up sea gypsy livelihood restoration committee to supervise the implementation of the resolution.

The initiative has garnered both praise and criticism.

Maitree Jongkraijak, a leading member of the Community Network for Political and Social Reform, said the problems of the sea gypsies have grown over time and first received widespread public attention following the 2004 tsunami, which destroyed their homes and saw their ancestral land subject to land grabs.

NOTHING’S SACRED: Below left, a ‘no trespassing’ sign on land that used to be a gypsies’ cemetery.

The sea gypsies' problems reflect their different concept of land rights, and officials and regulations do not take that difference into account. The situation is exacerbated by prejudice against sea gypsies, he said.

``Sea gypsies do not have the concept of occupying and possessing things or land, and that is one reason why they have problems fighting claims to their land,'' said Mr Maitree.

``But what is clear in their case is that the present administration and regulations are very fixed and narrow _ they do not embrace those who have different lifestyles, especially traditional ones that may be out of the context of the present administration and regulations. They just do not embrace diverse cultures and societies.''

Mr Maitree said he agreed with the idea of creating a special cultural zone which may be able to provide some room for sea gypsies to continue on with their traditional way of life. However, as the cabinet proposals are not law, their enforcement is weak, he said.

``Sea gypsies are a group of people who discovered pristine islands but are now seeing them being taken away one by one as they are being chased from one place to another,'' said Mr Maitree. ``The fact is the sea gypsies still exist and the problem is how we can make the public understand that they too should be protected and allowed to live their lives in this multicultural society.''

Narumon Arunotai, a lead researcher at Chulalongkorn University's Social Research Institute, and vice-chairwoman of a subcommittee following up the progress of the cabinet resolution, said the principal problem concerning sea gypsies may be the public prejudice against them.

Ms Narumon agreed with Mr Maitree that sea gypsies have very different values and lifestyles. This has been reflected in land conflicts. Most people think of land as being owned by individuals, while sea gypsies think of it as communal. In fact, they hardly have a concept of possession, which is in keeping with the sufficiency economy theory.

Instead of learning from them, people view them as strange and try to compel them to become part of ``normal'' society.

Ms Narumon said such attitudes are wrong and people need to be more open to different cultures and a more diverse society.

The cabinet resolution, she said, is progress, since it acknowledges the sea gypsies' problems, which have at least been addressed at a policy level. Implementation is what is required now, she said.

``At least the cabinet resolution has shown that there is room to embrace others, although it may mean the creation of a special cultural zone to facilitate it,'' said Ms Narumon. ``I call it progress as it embraces the principle of coexistence. We live in the same world, so we must acknowledge others, not marginalise them.''

About the author

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Writer: Piyaporn Wongruang
Position: Reporter