Thailand and Myanmar’s regulations systematically deny the rights to movement, health, and culture of the nomadic sea gypsy ethnic Moken people, according to a Human Rights Watch report
released this week.
The Moken people are one of the last hunter-gatherer groups in Southeast Asia. Approximately 3,000 Moken live in the Mergui Archipelago off the coast of Myanmar, while 800 live in Thailand, mainly in Ranong and surrounding islands. In the report “Stateless at Sea: The Moken of Myanmar and Thailand,” HRW said traditional Moken fishing nomadism is threatened by both Thai and Myanmar government regulations.
The report was launched on 25 June at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand (FCCT), Bangkok.
The stateless Moken people are restricted from travelling outside of their district, cannot obtain legal work permits, and are prevented from becoming citizens by both Thailand and Myanmar. While the Myanmar navy intimidate and harass Moken boats, Thai authorities block Moken citizenship.
Surapong Kongchantuk, chairman of the Human Rights Subcommittee on Ethnic Minorities of the Lawyers Council of Thailand, states that the Thai national verification process for Moken requires a Thai citizen to verify their citizenship as a witness. The witness cannot be a Moken with Thai citizenship, thus it is virtually impossible for Moken to gain a national ID card. Furthermore, Surapong says authorities often claim that Moken citizenship is impossible due to their nomadism, although in truth most Moken have settled down in stable communities due to restrictions on their traditional livelihood.
Conservation laws also bar Moken from their traditional livelihood of fishing, foraging, and building shelters from surrounding natural resources. According to the report, the Surin Islands Marine National Park regulations prohibit Moken from taking wood for huts or their kabang boats and from catching protected animals including fish, turtles, sea cucumber, and giant clams.
When they cannot maintain their traditional livelihood, Moken have been forced to find other sources of income, and many survive on begging, garbage collecting, or diving for sea animals. Moken divers risk their lives with every dive due to decompression sickness and dynamite fishing bombs. Surapong says “current society exerts pressure” on the Moken, causing many Moken men to become alcoholics and women to become indebted gamblers.
Moken statelessness makes them vulnerable to land-grabbing by local corporations and businessmen. As such, Moken are often evicted from land they have inhabited for generations. Dr Niran Pitakwachara, National Human Rights Commissioner, says than on Li Pe Island, 95 per cent of the land is owned by “influential people” who are not only charged with Rohingya human trafficking, but forge illegal land titles to local Moken. On Phi Phi, the so-called tourist paradise, 40 sea gypsy families are crammed into 2 rai of land, where Sunai says the HRW investigation revealed “350 families face eviction from local influential figures” who have filed approximately 100 cases, resulting in 20 arrest warrants.
The Moken have been subject to “violations of their right to culture,” which is tantamount to “a second tsunami wave” that washes over unnoticed, says Niran. “Despite the fact that they have been living in this area longer than the Rattanakosin era itself,” they are still “not allowed to dock their boats” on Thai shores or to access their traditional cemetery grounds. Moken cemeteries are violated by resorts and hotels, and the people are fenced off from performing their cultural ceremonies there. Fifty cemeteries in 5 provinces have been violated, and 70–80% of Moken cannot access their cemeteries.
“They are losing their human dignity and cultural identity,” says Surapong.
Against the rising tide of ultranationalist and authoritarian sentiment that excludes the idea of a multi-ethnic Thailand, Surapong emphasizes the value of the Moken people. Ethnic minorities’ value must be emphasized in response to such anti-Thai sentiments, such as those expressed by Thai citizens over the Rohingya boat crisis, he says. The Moken, he says are an “irreplaceable, unique treasure of the world.” Having resided on the Western border of Thailand for thousands of years, they have their own unique culture, language, accumulated body of knowledge, and even physical evolutionary characteristics. The Moken possess extraordinary diving abilities, and can dive for tens of minutes and can open their eyes in seawater without difficulty. They also possess valuable knowledge of the sea. Not one Moken died in the 2004 tsunami, since they were able to predict the disaster.
Surapong pinpoints the root of the problem in the current Constitution as well as the “mishandling of state policies.” The current draft omits the issue of cultural rights altogether while extending state protection only to “citizens,” rather than “persons,” therefore putting emphasis on state authority rather than protection of people. “Such regressive thinking is tragic. It’s as if the lyrics of the national anthem, ‘Thai blood and flesh’ are being followed to the letter,” adds Niran. According to him, the 1997 and 2007 constitutions offered more protection of human rights, and this period “enshrined the non-discriminatory approach,” and the National Human Rights Commission was free to investigate ethnic minority issues. Those “eighteen years of progressive constitution” however, shook up the current state of ultranationalism, so now they are refusing the previously-fulfilled obligation to protect ethnic minorities.
Surapong also claims the Thai government operates on a false dichotomy regarding national security and human rights -- that it is impossible to have one without undermining the other. Therefore human rights issues have been “sacrificed” for national security.
Surapong, however, claims these two issues go hand-in-hand: developed countries often have high standards on both issues.
The current mentality of excluding non-Thai from Constitutional protection is against what Surapong calls the “internationally recognized principle that everyone should have at least a state’s protection upon birth -- in other words, a nationality. A state’s obligation is to provide a nationality not only to people residing in its jurisdiction, but also the people nearest to it.” Part of the solution Surapong suggests is that Thailand must recognize Moken as an indigenous group, protect them in the Constitution, and “stipulate that Thailand is a multicultural society. The state should assume that all Moken in Thailand are Thai, and support their traditional livelihood.