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No When. No Want. No Worry.
Read about a certain nomadic tribe called the Moken people who live in the sea near Thailand and Burma. Despite their islands being directly hit by the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, they all survived (I don’t know if this is 100% true). It is because they are very intimate with the sea.
It is said that their language does not have the word “when”, and the concept of time does not exist in their daily living. They don’t have “goodbye” nor “hello”, and their life is a constant commingling in the “now”.
They don’t have a word for “want” either. They just “give” or “take”. “Wanting” just ties one down with baggage, which is not for nomadic people.
And so - no when, no want, no worry.
The Life Aquatic, as literally lived by Thailand's Moken people
One photographer documented the lives of a small Thai community trying to hold on to their underwater lives. She speaks to us here.
Growing up Moken
Moken Sea Gypsies in Thailand struggle to bridge the gap between preserving their unique sea-based culture and integrating into a mainland society that is notoriously unaccepting of ethnic minority groups. Many Moken children find themselves torn between the traditional ways of their parents and the seductive pull of towns, cities and technology, but playground taunts and discrimination mean they often drop out of school and fall into a cycle of poverty.
“Other children say the Moken people are dirty and uncivilised. If they do something, I just do nothing. Even though I am a Moken girl, I have my dignity. I have my friends here who support me,” said 14-year-old Green, who lives in Koh Nok village, Phang Nga province, and leads a local youth group.
“Some of my schoolmates don’t know my background. If I tell them directly I am Moken then it’s fine, but those who look down on me are the ones who find out through gossip. I want to say: ‘I’m a normal, ordinary girl. I am just like a normal Thai girl.’”
There are about 10,000 Moken in Thailand, scattered around the south coast, some living on islands while others have moved to the mainland. The Moken have always been self-sufficient, living off the fish they caught and maintaining a peaceful existence.
But times are changing and the Moken way of life has to adapt. When the Boxing Day Tsunami struck in 2004, many Moken saw their homes destroyed while the subsequent influx of relief organisations meant some communities became dependant on handouts.
Changes out at sea mean the Moken not only have to travel farther and farther out to catch fish, but they must also compete with fishing boats from around the world. Leaving the sea has been the only solution for many Moken, some moving to the mainland to become labourers or hotel staff.
Their ethnic minority status means that the Moken can miss out on basic rights like access to education, healthcare and land rights. As a result, many Moken live in poor conditions with little support. The children often drop out of school to work with their parents, but for those who stick it out, they face cruel jibes about things like their language, which is only spoken, not written.
“It’s a big issue, talking in Moken. Some people look down on me for it in school. They don’t understand and they don’t like it, “ added Green.
Plan Thailand supports Moken children and their families to access their rights to and preserve their culture while adapting to mainland life. Getting children to stay in school is a challenge because their parents have spent their lives supporting themselves and therefore don’t see its value, especially when they see how Moken children are treated.
Over on tiny Lao Island in Ranong province, there’s a school with about 90 students — most of them Moken – who Plan is supporting through local partners.
“If I weren’t at school I’d be working at home, helping my parents preparing food and things like that. But I want to go to study instead… I want to be a doctor so that when my parents get sick, I can treat them,” said 12-year-old Chuli, who lives with her family in a Moken village on the other side of the island.
“We get scared when meeting people from outside the Moken community as we don’t know about them,” she added.
This trepidation leads to some Moken turning their backs on their heritage for fear of social exclusion, said Hong Klatale, head of the Tungwa Moken village in Phang Nga province.
“Some finish their education and get a degree and never came back to help with community development,” he added.
“Some might not feel so proud of being Moken, so if others find out they might be teased. When they go to live in a big city, some change their family name… They become trapped by modern culture,” he added. “They are frustrated about their identity. They try to renew their own identity to live in the modern world,” he added.
Empowering children to be proud of their background while equipping them with the right kind of skills to support themselves and their families in the future is becoming increasingly crucial, but for the children growing up while these changes happen there are many uncertainties.
Green added, “I want everyone in the world to know that the Moken exist and we did not disappear. I want to say to other ethnic groups around the world, ‘Don’t be shy or ashamed. Tell the people who you are. Don’t be ashamed to be an ethnic minority. Keep fighting for who you are.’”