Among the Moken, the Sea Gypsies of Myeik

By Jacques Maudy-2 28 June 2013

It’s 3 am, and I’m sitting on a freight boat off the shore of an island in the Myeik Archipelago as the crew sends signals to shore with a flashlight. Around five hours earlier, my guide and friend U Soe Khai (not his real name) smuggled me aboard, avoiding the watchful gaze of immigration officials at the Myeik Jetty. When I ask him why we had to do this, since my media permit gave me unrestricted access to the islands, he says: “This way immigration has no eyes and no ears.”

So began my six-day journey in search of the Moken, the elusive sea gypsies of Myanmar’s far south. The island, I later learned, is called Kristiang, and it is one of some 800 unspoiled islands extending from the town of Myeik all the way to Myanmar’s southernmost point, Kawthaung. The Moken, or Selung, as they are officially known, have lived among these islands and others farther to the south off the coast of Thailand for 3,500 years.

Despite their long presence in this area, however, the Moken are rapidly losing their way of life under pressure from the environmental impact of fishing and logging. To survive, they have had to adapt to modern life while still clinging to what’s left of their culture.

For most of the year, the Moken live at sea, on boats known as kabang that are carved from a single tree. Their entire lives revolve around these hand-hewn vessels, which are not only a means of transportation, but also their homes. And as the terms for describing the parts of these boats attest, they are seen almost as living things, complete with a mouth, cheeks, neck, shoulders, ribs and even anus.

Traditionally, when a couple decides to make a life together, the man was expected to build a suitable kabang and present it the father of his would-be wife. These days, however, there are few kabang left. The Moken no longer have access to the trees they need to build them, and they also lack the skills that were once their most important inheritance.

If the kabang is their home, then their backyard is the sea. The Moken are expert free divers, capable of remaining beneath the water’s surface for extended periods of time. By contracting the irises of their eyes, much like a camera lens, they also have a unique ability to double the accuracy of their underwater vision.

In the past, pearl farmers used the Moken’s diving skills to collect the rare gold-lipped oysters now raised in hatcheries. Reaching the wild oysters required the Moken to dive at deadly depths of up to 80 meters without proper equipment. Decompression sickness claimed many casualties among the Moken. These days, however, their services are no longer required. According to U Myint Lwin, a marine biologist and owner of the Orient Pearl Co., most people employed in this industry today are mainland Burmese.

U Myint Lwin (who also owns shares in a number of fishing companies) said that the degradation of the marine environment has hurt his pearl farms and depleted fishing stocks. But for the Moken, it has meant not the loss not just of profits, but of a culture that has supported them for thousands of years.

The morning before I was smuggled out of Myeik, I saw the effects of this steady erosion of traditional Moken values. A Moken family, waiting for high tide at the dock, invited me onto their boat and offered me beer and whiskey at 7 o’clock in the morning. The men were already drunk.

Ten years ago, 12,000 Moken roamed the Myeik Archipelago; now there are only around 2,000. One person I spoke to described the Moken as “useless,” and described them as “amphetamine users smuggled from Thailand.”

The shrinking number of Moken still living among the Myeik islands, and the decline of their culture, is inextricably related to the ever-worsening condition of the environment, which has been subjected to excessive logging and dynamite fishing, and to the pressure of resettlement and modern society.

As animists, the Moken have a deep respect for the ocean. During the monsoon season, they gather mainly on three islands for their annual celebrations. Traditionally, their spiritual life is led by shamans, but according to U Soe Khai, many have converted to Buddhism over the past 10 years. In their own language, they have no word for “worry,” but these days, they have good reason to worry if their culture will survive another generation.

U Soe Khai, who has worked with the Moken for 18 years and speaks their language fluently, called out a greeting as we approached Annawa Island, where some Moken have settled in a village called Langon. Usually shy and defiant, the Moken came out to welcome us in a couple of small canoes, each big enough for just one adult. They used plastic lids instead of proper oars.

Langon is nestled on a small beach of pure white sand, surrounded by pristine jade waters. The shore is lined with fishing boats, and there’s a small jetty. The island is mountainous and green and the houses are built upon the beach on stilts that are five to six meters high to allow for tidal influx. The entrances of the houses face out to the sea. A Buddhist temple dominates the village, but coexists with traditional Moken totems. The matriarch of the village, a cheerful 93-year-old woman, welcomed us to the village and the shy children followed us around, curious about our appearance. Like everywhere else we went around the Myeik Archipelago, the locals refused payment for anything, and we were treated to coffee, cigarettes, dried fish and fresh squid and oysters.

Despite the idyllic setting and the gracious welcome we received, however, it was clear that the island was no paradise. As I made my way down to the beach from the houses by the shore, I noticed that there was no waste or sanitation system in the village. There was garbage and human waste everywhere: the only garbage collector here is the tide.

People living in these island villages believe that the sea can absorb everything. Even though they tell us that turtles sometimes mistake plastic bags for jellyfish, contributing to the dramatic decline in the turtle population, no one here—Burmese or Moken—seems to understand the need to change their behavior or way of thinking.

With the destruction of coral reefs by dynamite fishing and the development of offshore gas fields, the sea that once provided so abundantly for the needs of the Moken is losing its ability to support life. This means that the Moken way of life is also in grave danger of vanishing forever. As the bad habits of “civilization” take hold among the Moken, that process can only accelerate, depriving the world of yet another culture that was once far more attuned to nature than our own.