On the Road to Meet the Andaman Sea Gypsies. Part III: The Shorebound Moken and the Plight of the Andaman Sea Gypsy.

by Owen James Burke

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Photo: Owen James Burke.

After over a week of dead-end slogging from port to port in Burma, I finally found a group of Moken living on an island near the Thai border. There were less than a hundred of them at the time of my visit, and though they were so close to shore and its modern facilities, they remained nationless with no political representation, no identification–that means no healthcare. Apart from generators and cisterns, they had gained none of the societal comforts that might be associated with moving ashore–and, in doing so, seem to have been forced to abandon old ways. This small village, for example, no longer has any of their traditional kabangs, the beautiful teak longboats designed for offshore sailing in which the Moken have been living and roaming in flotillas for centuries. The vessel above is a scaled down version of the kabang, the stone-aged Andaman Sea dugout longboat.

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A traditional Moken kabang, or houseboat. Image via Indigenous Boats.

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Fishing, like in other Andaman Sea communities during the monsoon season, is largely restricted to the tidal flats where crabs, small fish, sharks and bivalves are collected. Despite political oppression–or what may better be described as abandonment–these Moken seem to make out alright. Photo: Owen James Burke.

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The elders of this village–formerly a flotilla–decided to move ashore about 15 years ago for healthcare and education, if not for themselves, then for their children. Photo: Owen James Burke.

Why move ashore? That was the first question I had. The general consensus among the handful of village elders I interviewed (with a translator) seemed to be opportunities like healthcare and schooling for children. The Thai government have begun to issue Thai identity cards, but unlike full-blown citizenship, they offer marginal access to state-run schools and hospitals. Further, the process is slow-going for any number of reasons; the Thai government, if asked, would state that it has much larger, more pressing matters to face, and tracking down the small but scattered population of Moken (estimated at around 2,000) living in and around Thailand and Burma is no small chore–to that, I can surely attest.

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‘We can fish, we can grow gardens, we can eat. But we can’t go to the hospital. We need identification.’ Photo: Owen James Burke.

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Above: Fishing skiffs lie in the mudflats at low tide beside the newly erected school–a major point of pride for this small seaside community. Some of the children attending this small, newly erected schoolhouse on stilts, their parents hope, will attend university on the mainland. Photo: Owen James Burke.

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This diesel generator (red, just left of center) is what these Moken depend on to make up for slow months during monsoon season. When the wind and rain abates sometime at the end of the western calendar year, plastic tubes are attached to the machine which supply surface air to divers who reach depths of up to 100 feet while relying on this rusty steel contraption. Photo: Owen James Burke.

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Women don’t generally go out on excursions, though, traditionally, they would tend to the boats and children while the men were subsurface. In this community, which has been shorebound for about 15 years, women wait ashore for the fishing boats to return, at which point it is their duty to offload the boats and sort the fish. Children, generally, help. Photo: Owen James Burke.

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Old and new. Above is a modern interpretation of a kabang, the traditional boat which at one point in time men were (and still, even, in some communities, I hear) required to build in order to prove that they were spouse-worthy. These days the boats are tied up to stilted houses just offshore of Ranong, Thailand. Photo: Owen James Burke.

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My ride both to and fro this island was dodgy. Squalls came and went without warning or mercy. We hit two within two hours, and shipped more water than I’m comfortable divulging, if only for the sake of my poor mother, but this is the only tangible reality for people living and depending on the Andaman Sea. Photo: Owen James Burke.

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It would be impossible to bear any more respect or admiration for any peoples or cultures on this earth than the Andaman seafarers; their resilience is both inspirational and astounding. I only hope that in some way, somewhere down the line, I can return the kindness and hospitality they showed my during my brief but metamorphic time with them, their culture, their island, and their sea. Photo: Owen James Burke.

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Photo: Owen James Burke.

But not all of the Moken are ashore, or even near the mainland–at least not yet. Many are still roaming the high seas, probing the ever-depleting reefs of the Mergui Archipelago deeper and deeper (sans mask, fins or aqualungs), trading their catch with navy personnel for precious dry goods like rice and petrol. Many haven’t ever held a single note of Burmese Kyat or Thai Baht in their palms. They, perhaps by equal measures of grace and misfortune, have no need for engaging in monetary matters, yet. They remain, in every sense, the outsiders.

And somewhere out there, all alone on the seaward side of some government-restricted, navy-occupied island, a procession of Moken in kabangs is lashing down their sailing houses, pointing to windward, and awaiting the next gale.

OJB

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