As the world progresses into modernity, cultures of our past struggle to maintain their identities. For many tribes, this can mean loss of ancestral lands and traditional ways of life and trying to fit into a society they know nothing about. Along the western coast of Thailand and Myanmar, resides a small tribe of about two to three thousand people called Moken. The group is clinging to their identity as globalization and expansion take hold, and their tribal ties slowly fade away.
The Moken are a peaceful people. They are thought to have arrived on the Andaman coasts of Thailand and Burma around four thousand years ago, traveling from Southeast China. They have a unique language and live a hunter gatherer lifestyle. What makes the Moken especially unique is that they are seafarers. They traditionally live upon boats called kabang—made from hardwoods of the forests on the islands—that they occasionally dock. They live mostly on the sea and are excellent spear fishermen and divers. Moken children can see twice as well underwater as European children can, making it far easier for them to see clams, turtles, and fish, which are staples of their diet. They can see clearly at depths of up to 75 feet. They also harvest seasonal plants and are exceptional at respecting nature and the land and not overusing resources.
Things became unsettling for the Moken after the tsunami of 2004 hit Southeast Asia claiming hundreds of thousands of lives. Attention was drawn to the people, who, being so in tune with the ocean, were able to make it to high ground before the devastating wave came crashing upon shore. The world wondered how this was possible. The Moken elders explained that through their legends—which are told all through spoken word as nothing is written—they had heard of the laboon. If the waves retreat, one should know you must immediately climb to higher ground, and so they did. While attention was brought to the Moken people, the aftermath of the tsunami is what truly impacted them.
Most of the Moken boats were devastated during the tsunami, and the people built traditional Thai style housing in the Surin Islands, which is one of the areas they frequented during their nomadic travels through the Andaman Sea. While they know the area well, the people are not used to being stagnant, and new laws did not allow the Moken to fish in the waters surrounding the island because it had been declared a National Park in Thailand. They were also forbidden to cut down the trees that they use to make their kabang, because the trees are in the national park as well. When the Moken do leave the islands on their boats, they are often harassed by patrols on the water. They are typically unable to prove their citizenship and status because they are not legal citizens of any country, and just believe they are people of the Sea. While the Thai government insists that they are doing everything they can for the ethnic minorities of their country, it seems that the Moken are being left behind.
Moken are considered third class citizens in Thailand. They cannot read or write, so they are thought of as inferior, and as they try to make their way into Thai society, their traditional ways of life are being left behind. Many of the younger generations no longer know how to speak the traditional language, as they want to fit in with their Thai counterparts. The elders are fighting to keep the language and way of life alive among the communities.
A slight glimmer of hope has struck for some Moken as they try to lay claim to some of their traditional lands. Ancient grave sites have recently been dug up by archaeologists so that DNA samples can be taken, and the Moken can finally have a place to call their own. Unfortunately, as I wrote this article, the Moken community in the Surin Islands burned down due to an engine explosion on one of their long tail boats. The fire left close to 300 people homeless. While the devastation is clear, some anthropologists have posed the idea that this could be the time for the Moken people to retrieve their traditional way of life. Activists have come forth to show their support in getting the Moken their boats back and giving them the opportunity to reclaim the only way of life that they know—how to live and die by the sea.
While I realize that this is not the most optimistic of pieces, I believe it is crucial to get the word out about vanishing cultures like this one, because we must come together to help one another. We must support and uplift one another, and we must not let one another go extinct. Let us celebrate each other’s uniqueness and share in the cultures of others. Let us join together in times of need and overcome these times with the strong bond we all share as people of this Earth, and let us not take it for granted.
To learn more about the Moken people, or to help, please visit projectmoken.com.
Do you have any ideas that could help both the environment and groups of people like the Moken without causing harming to either?
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