Listen to needs of Moken sea gypsies
text size

Listen to needs of Moken sea gypsies

Fire completely wiped out the 67-home Moken community at Moo Koh Surin but there are serious questions about the rebuilding effort. (Photo via FB)
Fire completely wiped out the 67-home Moken community at Moo Koh Surin but there are serious questions about the rebuilding effort. (Photo via FB)

While the state deserves praises for swiftly acting to rebuild the Moken community in Ao Bon Yai on the Surin Islands that was devastated by a recent fire, the government should try to move beyond "conventional" charity affairs and focus on the dignity, the quality of lives, and the actual needs of indigenous communities.

The Department of National Parks, Wildlife, and Plants (DNP) should also think big, as it has to rebuild more than 60 homes that were destroyed in the Feb 3 fire -- which it aim to rebuild within two months.

Community members have told me that they wish park officials would enlarge the size of the houses as overcrowding has become an issue. Prior to the fire, they said, it was not unusual to find more than 10 family members living under one roof.

But their hopes for larger dwellings remains dim.

As authorities rebuild the houses, it becomes apparent that no attention has been paid to the community's real needs. On the contrary, it seems as if the authorities simply want to get the task over and done with, without making any fuss about the details.

Take, for example, the location of the new houses. The department chose to simply rebuild the homes on the same 6.1-rai plot of land, which is a part of a national park.

The community said they were never consulted by the department about their needs. For instance, they were never asked if they need some free space in front of their houses, which they frequently use to dock and repair their gaa-bang -- traditional Moken wooden boats -- and/or tools.

In fact, they were only consulted when officials told them that the new houses will have thatched roofs made out of natural materials.

The community hasn't built any new gaa-bang to replace the aging ones for a long time, as current laws prohibit the Moken from cutting down trees in the forest that surrounds their community. Because of this, the gaa-bang -- a part of the Moken's heritage -- is slowly disappearing.

The Moken are "sea gypsies" who spend much of the year navigating the seas. They would return during the monsoon season to take shelter in the Surin Islands, which provides ample shelter and fresh water supplies for the community.

Back in the day, the Moken would set out to sea as soon as the monsoon ends. Their gaa-bang served as both their means of transport, and their homes -- to be shared with their seafaring relatives.

Other well-known Moken communities are spread along the coast, including Koh Yan Cheuk in Myanmar, Koh Pra Thong, Ban Nam Khem, and Thung Wa in Phangnga, Rawai in Phuket, Koh Phi Phi and Lanta in Krabi, and Koh Lipe in Satun.

"With a sack of rice and some shrimp paste, we can roam the seas for months to catch seafood," said 73-year-old Meesia Klatalae. "We only come back to the islands when the rainy season comes."

Research studies indicates that Surin -- which has more than 10 known Moken shelters -- has been the home of the sea gypsies for over a century.

The Moken originally inhabited the site where the DNP's office is currently located on the islands. When state officials arrived to explore and chart the area, the community voluntarily gave up the area, which has a fresh water supply and scenic views, so the agency could build its office.

It was a good relationship at the start, as the officers would depend on the Moken for topographic information. The department then declared the Surin Islands a marine forest in 1971, before upgrading the islands to a marine national park in 1981. The new legal status puts the Moken in limbo -- while they are not required to leave, they cannot pursue activities that go against the state's regulations.

Fishing, their traditional source of livelihood, was banned. The government turned down their requests to set out to sea, as the state would rather see them stay put, so they would be easier to control. The Moken, once a free community, were also restricted to living in Ao Bon Yai.

Last but not least, the Moken were forbidden to build new gaa-bang boats.

Life has become almost impossible without the boats. As such, many Moken now make a living by selling souvenirs to tourists. Others were hired by the department as boat drivers. With fishing out of the question, the Moken now only catch seafood for sustenance.

After the 2004 tsunami ravaged the Moken settlements in Ao Bon Lek and Ao Sai Ain, the state stepped in to help by relocating affected members of the community to Ao Bon Yai, which was already crowded to begin with.

The Moken, however, were forced to accept the state's arrangement, as their previous requests to set sail and establish shelters in other areas were not granted.

On the surface, the Moken community in Ao Bon Yai represents an ideal model for coexistence. But upon closer examination, the sea gypsies were forced to give up their traditional way of life to become obedient citizens over the past few decades.

Even though they have been living on the islands for generations, they cannot keep their way of living after the state stepped in with new laws. Development and conservation should respect their traditional rights. How could the state take away a tradition and lifestyle that has sustained the Moken for generations?

The Moken need more than just houses. Indeed, the state should respect their rights by allowing them to live with dignity.

Paskorn Jumlongrach is the founder of

Paskorn Jumlongrach

Founder and reporter of

Passakorn Jumlongrach is founder and reporter of

Do you like the content of this article?