The Sea Gypsies are dying. On the island of Koh Lao they are dying at the rate of one a week, mainly from childbirth and starvation. According to Father Joe Maier of the Mercy Centre, “They don’t even recognize basic foods such as bananas. They have no concept of how to live on dry land.”
The Moken, which is the name they use to refer to themselves, thought only about the colour of the sea or sky, the moon and sunset so they would know where to find the best fishing. The sea spirits would show them signs of approaching storms. They resided on land only during monsoons or when they buried their dead.
During the 2004 tsunami the boats belonging to the Moken Sea Gypsies were destroyed. The tsunami also depleted the oceans of seafood in the areas where the Moken once fished from their Kabang – small handcrafted wooden boats carved from a single tree trunk. Thai Moken have now been permanently settled in villages. They are stateless and have no official papers. Consequently, any Moken fishermen who do manage to get to sea are pursued and put in jail by Burmese or Thai officials.
There are approximately sixty Moken Gypsy families living on Koh Lao. It’s a short ride to this island on a long-tail boat from Thailand’s mainland.
The village houses are built on stilts. Under these shacks are piles of oyster shells, bottles and all forms of garbage. The women sit amongst the garbage smoking, playing cards and breastfeeding their children. The men struggle to find work and what they do find is low paying jobs or illegal fishing, which lands them in jail.
If I had encountered the Moken few years ago it would have been impossible to photograph them because the people then believed that if they had their picture taken they would become trapped inside the camera. The Mercy Centre, an organisation established to support the Mokens,has built a school on the island where the children are taught Thai, English and Moken. They are also taught their traditional spiritual beliefs and practices, and learn to value their culture.
Fr Joe Maier says, “The Moken people might struggle to eke out a living, but their spirit, like that of the sea, endures”