YANGON — Union Minister for Ethnic Affairs U Naing Thet Lwin has called for the creation of a special committee to save the Moken, who now number fewer than 1,000 people.
In response to a question by Upper House lawmaker Dr. Khin Maung Win on Friday, the minister suggested raising funds and establishing an official committee with anthropologists to prevent the Moken from going extinct.
“It is a long-term process and needs the cooperation of concerned authorities and experts like anthropologists as well as sufficient funds,” the minister told Parliament.
The Moken, generically referred to as sea gypsies, are called ‘Salone’ in Burmese. They lead a nomadic life in the waters off the Tanintharyi coast of southern Myanmar, roaming the sea most of their lives in small handcrafted wooden boats that serve as their homes except for during the monsoon season.
The Tanintharyi regional government has opened basic education schools and a boarding school for Moken children, said U Naing Thet Lwin. Since 2016, the regional government has also funded Moken festivals and provided a certain amount of money for Moken families to buy rice, he added.
In the past, Moken people wandered from one island to another, leading a nomadic life, but these days, most of them are settled on the land, and some of them do not even know how to build canoes as their ancestors did, said Kawthaung local Ko Maw Kin, an expert on the Moken.
The Moken have no institutionalized religion, but believe in sea deities, he added.
U Naing Thet Lwin said the government allows Moken people to fish in the sea, and also has also sought combat drug trafficking at sea to help save them.
“Taking a look back at the history of the Salone people, Chinese and Malay people would buy sea products from them in exchange for clothes and drugs. In the last decade, drugs have nearly killed all the Moken male adults,” said Ko Maw Kin.
The Ethnic Affairs Ministry has opened an ethnic literature and culture department, and an ethnic rights protection department in Dawei, the capital of Tanintharyi Region, and will cooperate with the regional government to conserve the customs and traditions of the Moken and protect their rights, said U Naing Thet Lwin.
According to the minister, there are only 635 full-blooded Moken people living in 145 households — 204 in Kawthoung and 431 in Myeik.
However, there still remain 1,819 mixed-blood Moken people — Bamar-Moken, Karen-Moken, Mon-Moken and Pa-O-Moken — living in 440 households in the Tanintharyi Region.
Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.