Troubled water

The high-pitched wail of a shaman, accompanied by the steady beat of drums, echoes across the still waters of the Andaman Sea as Thailand's Moken sea gypsies call to their ancestral spirits. A potent mix of home-brewed alcohol and supernatural beliefs adds to the eeriness of the full-moon lobong ceremony, which marks the ethnic minority's annual worshipping of their male and female ancestors on Surin Island, north of Phuket.

The celebration is a happy reunion for the Moken. It's also a chance to reflect on events of the past and to talk about what lies ahead for this unique and slowly dwindling tribe of indigenous people, who are struggling to retain their rights and Thai citizenship.

The ocean-faring gypsies have been navigating the Andaman Sea for centuries, having most likely migrated from Indonesia to live along Thailand's southwest coast. By diving for aquatic life and fishing with nets and spears, Moken families live on the high seas aboard traditional houseboats called kabangs for months at a time, surviving on a diet of sea urchins, shellfish, lobster and other ocean inhabitants. When not at sea, they live in a beachfront village on the main island in the Surin archipelago. It is here they have lived since the events of December 26 devastated their fleet.

The Moken, who number about 3,000, were thrust into the spotlight after their miraculous escape from the tsunami, when village elders recognised the strange retreat of the sea and warned their people to avoid the subsequent killer waves. 'I had been told by my grandparents years ago that if the water went back quickly into the sea, then the laboon [a wave that eats people] was coming soon,' says Jebae Klatalay, an elderly villager who was carried to higher ground when the tsunami struck. Thanks to the Moken's instinct for self-preservation, the village lost only one person in the tragedy.

For Narumon Arunothai, of Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, the preservation of Moken culture is an ongoing concern. The social scientist has studied the nomads for the past decade. 'People were saved from the tsunami because these elders know the sea. We should encourage the young to have pride in their [traditional] wisdom, which is bound to be forgotten one day,' he says. 'They have this wealth of knowledge from the sea and the forest. This knowledge is not recognised, probably by the Moken themselves, as being valuable. [But] we have to recognise this asset that could help keep the Surin islands as a protected area.'

The Thai government declared the islands a national park in 1981, but with the official title came restrictions on where the Moken could fish and gather shells. Menial jobs, such as working as park staff, were offered as consolation and a fund was set up to employ the adult Moken for about 80 baht ($16) a day. Thailand's fisheries conservation unit also established Suraswadee, a one-room school, in 1996 to help Moken children obtain a basic education about the importance of marine conservation.

'Now, the renewed attention is worthwhile,' Narumon says. 'The interest is back on the issue of education. Now, cultural diversity is important again.'

Chulalongkorn University, with the assistance of Unesco, has produced a book, We, The Sea People, for elementary-school children. Written in Thai, English and Moken, it describes the gypsies as skilful gatherers who maintain a sustain-able livelihood because of their small population and rotation of their foraging territory. The book contains folklore about the superstitions and beliefs of the Chao Lae (the Thai name for sea gypsies), as well as natural remedies and their care for the environment.

Unlike the large-scale industrial - and environ-mentally damaging - methods of Thai fishing trawlers, the Moken use non-destructive techniques such as free-dive gathering with large fish traps, which allow small fish to escape. Their legends suggest some Moken are able to listen to fish underwater and locate large schools, which they hunt. The myths are not far from the truth. A scientific study, conducted by Anna Gislen of Sweden's Lund University and published in Current Biology in May 2003, described how Moken children, by constricting the pupils in their eyes, could see twice as well underwater as European children - a handy adaptation when diving for shells.

'Without masks or scuba gear, they are able to gather tiny shellfish and other food on the ocean floor at depths as low as 23 metres. Their constricting pupils improve vision further,' Gislen wrote. 'It's the same process that improves focal depth if using a camera with a smaller aperture. It seems they have learned to control their accommodative response, such that they can voluntarily accommodate even in the blurry underwater environment.' Gislen added that it was still unclear if it was a hereditary trait or not.

But with these inherent abilities also come problems associated with a nomadic lifestyle. 'Many of the Moken have problems with land-rights issues because they move around a lot; they don't know how to lay claim to the land,' Narumon says. 'Many of them were fooled into signing and giving up their land.'

After the tsunami, the department of local administration in Phang-Nga province turned its attention to the gypsies, sending representatives to the main island to document their status, obtain fingerprints and take individual photos.

The disaster and subsequent media coverage also brought them to the attention of Thailand's National Security Council (NSC). In January, the council set up a committee to identify which Moken qualify for Thai citizenship. The sea gypsies will have to prove they were either born in Thailand or have been residents in the country for at least 10 years.

Citizenship is a highly contentious issue in Thailand, which struggles to cope with hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants every year. The Thai economy is nine times the size of its three neighbours - Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia - whose people flood across Thailand's porous borders in search of work and to avoid economic and political woes at home. Faced with a constant flood of foreign nationals, the NSC is notoriously tough on citizenship claims. More than 500,000 hilltribe people are yet to be granted Thai citizenship - despite living their whole lives in the country. This is partly because of the slow bureaucratic approval process and partly because of a nationalistic bias against them.

Phuntip Saisoonthorn, an associate professor at Bangkok's Thammasat University, who began assisting stateless people 11 years ago, believes the sea gypsies' case is strong. 'I am confident we can convince the NSC the Moken are Thai nationals, not aliens,' Phuntip says. But she is worried the Moken will continue to be taken advantage of by shrewd businessmen while they wait to attain identity cards and citizenship. Some Moken, she says, are working gruelling hours retrieving oysters for mainland Thai businessmen for just 38 baht a kilogram.

'My duty is to help people get their human rights. I am confident we can convince the NSC the Moken are Thai nationals according to the National Act, which was enacted in 1913 under King Rama V,' she says. 'With proper documentation, the Moken can at least get minimum health care and education. They will be guaranteed the right to work, to survive.'

Most of the Moken gypsies would like to continue their simple way of life, but realise societal changes require them to register with the government. Unfortunately, with the rules come regulations that curtail their sustainable lifestyle, which has forced many of them to seek new sources of income, with some resorting to dynamite fishing.

Meanwhile, Unesco has implemented the Andaman Pilot Project that concentrates on three groups of indigenous sea gypsies - the Moklen, the Urak Lawoi and the Moken. With the possibility of the Surin islands being designated a World Heritage site, the project aims to provide the Chao Lae with the knowledge and skills needed to share responsibility of the site's management and to guarantee their continued presence in and use of the area. It's an ambitious plan. 'At this stage the Moken are not organised at all. They are hunter gatherers and they do things on an individual basis,' Narumon says.

The Unesco project will also focus on maintaining the heritage value of the Surin islands and developing tourism potential through education and training in local handicrafts and public-awareness campaigns about the Andaman Sea region and its people. Phuntip hopes the Moken can avoid the exploitation by greedy businessmen that hilltribes in the north have endured for the sake of tourist dollars. She also believes they can benefit from greater exposure to the modern world. 'I would like to tell anthropologists that the Moken are not animals in a zoo,' she says. 'You can't expect them to remain primitive.'

While other islands and coastal areas have suffered because of human settlement, the Surin islands have remained relatively unaffected due to the indigenous people's unique lifestyle. The pristine white sand beaches and multitude of coral reefs lining the coast were largely undamaged by the tsunami, according to marine biologist Kongkiat Kittiwanttanawong, who, along with a team of environmentalists, is conducting an ecological assessment of the damage inflicted by tourism and the disaster.

Curiously, water quality has improved dramatically since the tsunami, the biologist says, 'especially around the shorelines of the Surin islands. The water transparency improved and the pollutants decreased.' And that is good news for the National Park, which attracts boatloads of tourists to snorkel and scuba-dive during the November to May tourist season.

Back at the lobong ceremony, the sea gypsies pay special homage to the tsunami victims, with two extra spirit poles to be erected to mark the disaster and protect the village. 'This year there are more sins to be sent out to sea because of the tsunami,' the head female shaman Meesua Keladat says. She believes 'the wave that eats people' came to the village because of the gambling, drinking and extramarital affairs of some villagers. The fishing vessels will take the miniature kabang boat out to sea in the morning after a night of spiritual calling and revelry. Strands of villagers' hair are placed in the boat along with offerings to the spirits. The kabang will be guided by the shaman and the 'direction of the wind'. A head boat will carry freshly carved spirit totem poles, wrapped with coloured cloth along with a small craft containing souls from the past. After the kabang is set adrift, the spirit poles will be returned to land and planted in the ground to protect the village from misfortune.

But on this night as the village leader raises his hands to the moon in a trance-like state, another mysterious new sound comes from the trees. Nearby, a government-sponsored television set that recently arrived blasts out the latest Asian karaoke tunes while children watch, oblivious to the shaman's cries. Village boatman Tatcha Keladat, his skin leathered and darkened by long days under the tropical sun, looks on wearily and says: 'It is a bit of good luck that we survived the tsunami and that help has come to our village ... but I am not sure that everything that has come is so good.'

'I had been told by my grandparents years ago that if the water went back quickly into the sea, then the laboon [a wave that eats people] was coming soon'