The Sea Gypsies of Surin Island

One of the smallest ethnic minorities in Asia, Thailand’s sea gypsies were virtually unknown to the outside world until the massive 2004 tsunami that ravaged Southeast Asia. One of the most amazing stories reported by the international press was that not one of the sea gypsies died.

Having lived in communion with the sea for centuries, the sea gypsies apparently knew well in advance how to cope with the tsunami, and they all took refuge in the mountains. Asked how they survived, several said “the fish told us about the tsunami.”

Soon after the story broke, international attention focused on a people who would have preferred to remain anonymous. Aid began pouring in, changing the economic dynamic, as well as their diet. The press came. Tourists came. And soon government regulations came, which altered their way of life, apparently forever.

The sea gypsies are a nomadic people who traditionally spend much or all of their lives on boats. They inhabit the waters off of Burma, Thailand, Malaysia and Borneo. Called Chao Lei (or sea people) by the Thais, the sea gypsies refer to themselves as the Moken. Since the tsunami, there has been some movement on the part of the Thai government to issue citizenship to them. As a result, the politically correct name for the Moken has been changed to Thai Mai, or new Thai.

Thailand’s Moken are centered around three settlements near Phuket Island. Their history is a bit of a mystery. It is generally accepted that they came originally from Indonesia, although many scholars believe they came from India. They speak a unique language that borrows heavily from both Malay and Thai but they have no written language and no recorded history. The Moken themselves don’t know the story of their origin.

On Surin Island, near Phuket, there is a village of 59 Moken families. The island has been declared a national park and has a tourist resort at one end. The Moken area, while not off limits, is not part of any package tours and is accessible only by longtail boat. The Thai government is trying to prevent the village from turning into a human zoo, like the artificial hill tribe villages near the Burma border.

Although about 20 percent of the villagers have converted to Buddhism, the Moken traditionally follow an animistic belief system centered on ancestor worship. They have two important festivals each year to pay respect to their ancestral dead. They also float a traditional boat, called a gabong, in the hopes of washing off their sins, illness, and bad luck with the purity of the sea water.

The 62-year-old village headman, Suarama Moken, told visitors their animist lore had warned them of the tsunami, so when they saw the sea recede they knew what was coming. Many got into their boats and paddled to the other side of the island, rescuing tourists. Some, out at sea, actually rode it out. They knew how to paddle out beyond the wave and negotiate the whirlpools that followed.

The village entrance is adorned with lobong, or spirit poles bearing the faces of supernatural beings who protect the village. The Moken live in single-room houses on stilts, made of woven bamboo. The family’s most important possession, the traditional gabong, is made from a hollowed tree. In former times they were rowed, but now they have engines. The boat is like a floating house with everything necessary for daily life including cooking.

The Moken traditionally made their living by fishing and harvesting sea products. The men and boys practice plunging to great depths to forage for sea cucumbers, oysters, pearls, and shell fish. Their lifestyle and behavior depend on the monsoon season. If the wind is from the northeast, they go to the deep sea for fishing. From the northwest, they build temporary communal huts to escape the bad weather. During the rainy season, they forage in the jungle for wild sweet potatoes which are an important staple of their diet, particularly when fish is unavailable.

They sell pearls and certain valuable shells to get money to buy those things which they can’t make themselves. In the past, they sold these trade goods through Chinese middlemen who often took advantage of them.

Although every Moken, regardless of sex, is capable of doing every job in the village, in general men dive, fish and forage. Women care for children and home, as well as cooking and repairing fishing gear. Now, because of post-tsunami tourism, the families also produce handicrafts to sell to visitors.

Drawings made by children, hanging in the visitor center, show just how close the Moken are to the sea. Every picture contains at least one boat. Even more noteworthy is the fact that the pictures seemingly show every fish under the sea ‑ squid, jellyfish, blowfish, crabs. At a young age, the children learned to appreciate and identify marine life.

Before the tsunami there was a small government school on the island, which ran through grade four. The school’s funding had just ended and the school would have closed. But now, because of direct aid from the Royal Princess Foundation sponsored by Thai princess Maha Chakri Sirindhorn, two full-time Thai teachers live in the village, and all 25 of the village children attend school five days per week.

But the tsunami has been a double-edged blessing for the Moken. The Moken never ate rice until the tsunami relief rations arrived. Now rice has become part of their diet, so they have to find more ways to obtain cash to exchange for rice. They have a school; they have additional income from selling handcrafts. They are covered under a medical project, also through the influence of the princess, which brings doctors to the village to see after the children.

The downside is that they are no longer self-sufficient. Historically, the Moken way of life did not include financial aid. As they derive more and more of their income from sources on land they lose their spiritual connection with the sea that was the central tenet of their lives.

The Moken were previously nomadic because they would move in order to avoid depleting the fish population in a given area. Now, because they no longer move around, they have become an environmental hazard to the very sea which gave them life. To conserve the diversity of aquatic life, the government has imposed fishing restrictions, limiting them to fishing during the monsoon season. During the dry season many of the men go to work as boat-handlers in the national park. The women work as cooks and housekeepers. A number have been traveling to the mainland seeking work as laborers. They have lost the freedom of the sea and exchanged it for wage labor.

The majority of the Moken do not posses Thai ID cards so they have no legal right to work. As a result they are horribly underpaid and often exploited. When they don’t go to sea, they don’t have a lot to do. They spend much of the day sitting in the shade under their houses, playing games. The adults were playing western cards for money. Some children were playing a Chinese card game with tiny cards. Others where playing Asian varieties of chess and checkers on homemade boards.

At a pleasant-looking house, we stopped to talk to Kai Moken, who told us he wasn’t sure of his age. Checking his house registry, we ascertained he was 39 years old. Kai explained that he was lucky enough to possess a Thai ID card. Because of the fishing restrictions he can no longer make his living from the sea, so he supplements his income by carving wooden model boats and selling them to tourists. During tourist season he can earn more money with souvenirs than he used to with fishing. But tourists really only come six months out of the year.

Because the island is now a national park there are also restrictions on cutting wood from the forest which makes it difficult to build boats or make souvenirs. Now the Moken have to buy the wood they use to make boats and profit margins are low, especially considering the time it takes to do the painstaking craft work.

Kai tells us his family lived in the boat till he was seven. Later, after converting to Buddhism, he went to the mainland to become a monk. He received three years of primary school education. Now he can read and write Thai, and he helps the other villagers with their legal documents and paperwork. He tells us he is the only adult in the village who can read.

According to Kai, Moken girls and boys usually marry between age 13 and 15. Most families only have 2-3 children due to the high rate of infant mortality.

The most common justification that the Thai government gives for not issuing the Moken ID cards is that there is no way of proving which ones are from Thailand and which are illegal immigrants from Burma. In the case of rural Thai villages, where births and deaths happen at home and where people often lack documents, the word of the headman of the village is taken as law. The headman registers the names of each family member. In the case of the Moken, however, the government doesn’t allow this method of registration.

According to Kai, who has been in the village for 32 years, the only new families in the village were those transplanted by the government after the tsunami.

At the other end of the village in an open air school, beneath a bamboo roof we met 28 year-old Chanra, a Thai man employed by the Princess Foundation. For the last two years he has been a teacher in the village.

One of the many barriers in educating ethnic minority children is that they have never known the rigidity of the classroom, he says. They have absolute freedom apart from the work they do on the sea. “It was hard at first keeping the children in school,” he says. “The first day, I was writing something on the board. When I turned around, the children were all naked, playing in the sea.”

Recently, Chanra was recognized by the Thai press as being the first teacher to have success with the Moken children. Chanra said, “The parents have to trust you. If the parents trust you, then they will make the children go to school.” Chanra told us that when he first came to the village, many children came to school one day but were absent the next. On those days Chanra went to each house to follow up and find out why the children had missed class. With time, Chanra became a member of the community.

“I live and teach on their schedule,” he says. “During the monsoon season I go to sea with the fathers. I fish, I even dive for sea products.” Chanra says he had no knowledge of diving before but now he can do it quite well. “Of course I can only do half of what the Moken can do. Even the children are all expert divers.” This statement is even more amazing given that most Thai people can’t even swim.

“Most of the children have snorkeling gear now. They picked it up off of the sea bottom when it was lost by tourists. They use it when they forage for sea products.”

The villagers come to Chanra with all of their problems, whether it be dealing with the government, health problems, or trading. “They called me when an old woman was dying. I could do nothing,” Chanra said sadly. On the wall of his small hut next to the school is a large box of simple medicines he uses to treat the children when they are ill.

“Lack of knowledge is really the biggest health problem in the village. One man had two babies die because he fed them milk tablets,” he says.

In addition to teaching Thai literacy and basic math, Chanra also teaches the children about hygiene. When the children come to school in the morning, they have inspection, and Chanra makes sure they have showered, brushed their teeth, and cut their nails.

“A boat comes in around eleven o’clock with fresh fruit, vegetables, rice and meat from the mainland and I cook lunch for the children.” Chanra says many of the health problems including high infant mortality come from lack of sanitation. “There is an initiative now to teach the Moken to use the toilet. “Normally, they just go wherever they are.”

Before the tsunami there was no initiative to educate the adults. Now Chanra also runs an adult Thai language and literacy program during monsoon season. “Less than 10% of the people in the village know how to read,” he says

In the single classroom, the children range in age from 3 to 13. They can study until age 14. If a child misses school because the parents go out to sea for an extended period of time then they are welcomed back in the village school no matter what their age. “We study Monday to Friday, but I am never free, “Chanra laughs. “On weekends, the children come to visit me.”

The trust instilled in Chandra by the adults, speaks of the superb job he is doing with the children. The one major failing in the curriculum is that the children are only being taught to read and write in Thai. Normally, tribal education initiatives strive to create a writing system for the tribal language, so that the tribe can record its history.

Given the dramatic changes in their post-tsunami lives and their growing interaction with the broader world, if no writing system is developed for them, their language will be lost. The tsunami didn’t kill them, but it remains to be seen how much longer they can survive as a people.