Koh Lipe’s community of sea gypsies, or Moken, is ‘shrinking’
Koh Lipe is home to a community of so called ‘sea gypsies’, an ocean-going minority people believed to have lived along this east Andaman coast for millennium. Most visitors will see these deeply tanned, rugged boatmen briefly when arriving and departing the island, for the sea gypsies have been given a monopoly on the longtail services moving tourists between the beach and the offshore pontoons. It provided then a basic living.
Few tourists, however, will get to know much about them, nor understand that here is yet another minority people steam-rollered by business greed and the readiness of a developed society to ignore the rights of the weak – or in this case, to even recognize that they have any rights. Despite that they predate the Thai nation and the arrival of Thais in the Andaman region, many sea gypsies still remain without nationality.
Thailand’s sea gypsies comprise two related ethnic groups, the Urak Lawoi and the Moken, now intermarried and essentially one community. Their gypsy nickname reflects their original lifestyle; they once spent six months of the year roaming the seas, living in small wooden boats as they foraged for seafoods. Come the monsoon and rough seas, they built temporary villages on sheltered beaches, only to desert that once calm conditions returned. The few generations, however, have seen the gypsies settle into permanent villages, with bigger, stronger homes.
Chao Ley, or 'people of the ocean' is the common Thai term that refers to both of these groups. Some people feel that ‘sea gypsy’ is somehow derogatory and insist that Chai Ley should be used exclusively. Personally I think ‘sea gypsy’ is more romantic than offensive, and continue to use all terms freely.
The building of permanent villages on prime beachfront land – something that began several generations ago – has brought huge turmoil to these people in recent years. A look through my first photos of Koh Lipe, taken in early 1982, shows an extensive gypsy village that occupied virtually all of the eastern beach, Haad Chao Ley (which tourists sometimes wrongly call Sunrise Beach). Today, most of their original village land is occupied by resorts, with the Moken community shrunk into a tiny settlement a fraction of its original size.
How did that happen? Were the Moken fairly compensated for their land? Was the land even recognized as theirs? Recent history in Thailand, and the treatment of this minority elsewhere in the region, tells us there is a high chance of their being exploited and displaced unfairly.
While I can't answer the obvious questions about the village of Koh Lipe (yet), a look at the well-publicized case of the Moken village at Rawai on Phuket shows the huge challenges these left-behind, largely uneducated people face.