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.

court rulings save Phuket’s sea gypsy land from blatant, greedy land grabs

Phuket’s ‘Sea Gypsy’ village facing Rawai Beach has long been famous, often as tourist attraction of the ‘human zoo’ kind. Bank in the 1990s it was common to see tour busses dropping off insensitive, stare-and-click tour groups. More recently, however, the ever-poor Moken have seen a healthier, and more profitable form of tourism bring crowds of foreigners streaming into their Rawai community. It’s now popular as a fresh fish market where tourists come to buy all the seafood the Moken can catch by the kilogram (and some from elsewhere) on the beach then turn to nearby restaurants to cook it for them. Chinese tourists love it, their numbers attest.

Underfoot, however, all is not as happy as things appear at the tables of seafood gobbling visitors. A bitter struggle to throw the Chao Ley off their land has been on the boil for years, with the unsuspecting natives now (2017) facing dozen of lawsuits from individuals and companies struggling to get their grip on that oh-so-valuable beachfront land. Two or three generations ago the illiterate Moken understood little about nationality or country borders, and certainly did not grasp the importance of land titles. So back in the 1980s a number of Thais managed to get land titles over the Chao Ley village issued in their own names. Now, with beachfront land prices at exorbitant levels, those unscrupulous conspirators have turned to the courts with their title deeds, asking that the Moken be expelled.

A number of good hearted Thais jumped to help the Chao Ley fend off the blatant land grabs, showing them how to prepare a defence that would establish their legal ownership before the judges. Even the Department of Special Investigation (DSI) got involved, checking the bones of ancestors buried below family homes. One critical piece of evidence was a photo of former King Bhumibol visiting the community in March 1959, long before the Thai claimants obtained their suspicious deeds from the Land Department. Even the age of the village’s coconut palms, mature and perhaps 30 years old at the time of the king’s 1959 visit, became important evidence supporting the Moken’s claim to have lived in Rawai for many generations.

The Moken suffered an early setback a few years ago when two families were evicted from their ancestral homes by court order in favour of a Thai person holding a land title deed. However, two subsequent, more comprehensive court rulings that considered all evidence turned the legal standings in favour of the Moken – a rare but welcome victory for this long downtrodden minority.

The Phuket Provincial Court ruled on 13 December 2016 against two Thai claimants trying to evict Moken families from their land. A second ruling by the Court of First Instance on 31 January 2017 reinforced this victory by dismissing a further six claims on Moken land. But dozens more claims over that land by Thais remain in the court’s log, leaving their future quite uncertain. There is hope that these latest, detailed court rulings will stand as precedents for the torrent of similar claims on the Moken’s ancestral land, and allow them to live peacefully without fear of eviction.

what a beautiful, big, carefree village the Koh Lipe gypsies once had

My photos from Koh Lipe in 1982 say it all – the Moken once had a beautiful, expansive village and a seemingly carefree life. Running for a few hundred metres, the village took up most all of the area behind the east-facing Haad Chao Ley beach, with lots of space between the houses. It was March that year that I, with a group of about 10 friends from Bangkok, made my first visit to Koh Lipe and the surrounding islands. Most of the group had come principally to dive, but everyone also wanted to see the famed natural beauty of these islands for ourselves. A few non-divers had joined, including my wife, then clearly pregnant with our first child, Ananda. Getting there required hiring our own fishing boats in Bak Bara, for in those days there was no public boat transport, no tourists and very, very few visitors of any kind in these islands.

We stayed in the only accommodation of any kind in the area, the National Parks bungalows on neighbouring Koh Adang. 51 islands in this southern-most stretch of Thailand adjoining the Malaysian border, plus 1,200 sq kilometres of surrounding seas, had been proclaimed the Tarutao National Marine Park in 1974. Koh Lipe and environs were included in that.

One afternoon we crossed to visit Koh Lipe and the sea gypsy village. With the locals having seen very few Europeans, our group was something of a sensation, with adults coming to greet us and children gawking shyly from their houses. The village elders determined that they would dance for us in the evening, so members of our group sought to buy food, alcohol and gifts from a small shop run by a small-time Chinese merchant, the only non-Moken resident in the community.

As the photos suggest, much merriment was had that night by both the Chao Ley and the visitors, who returned to their own island quite late. It would be another 31 years before I entered the Chao Ley village on Koh Lipe again. And what I found came as a huge shock; the Moken were living in a small, crowded and rather squalid plot of land, with the majority of their former village transformed unrecognizably and covered by a multitude of tourist resorts.

life in Koh Lipe appeared idyllic in those old days – but it wasn’t really that simple

Life appeared idyllic in that spacious, coconut shaded village. Not everything was quite as it might have seemed, however. Journalist Denis Gray and I had come seeking information and photos to support a story for the Washington DC-based magazine International Wildlife on bomb fishing of the coral reefs in the surrounding Marine National Park. Information wasn’t hard to come by. The Moken men admitted to us, in some embarrassment, that they were indeed among the bombers, as we had suspected. One of Satun province’s biggest businessmen, considered a local godfather figure due to the protection he enjoyed from politicians and police, was the mastermind. He, we were told, provided the Moken with the dynamite and training while they were obligated to sell their illicit catch to him exclusively.

Were they not aware that the extensive destruction they were visiting upon the reefs would reduce fish populations long term, and thus make life difficult for them in future? Yes, they admitted to being aware, but offered no justification for their actions. Quick money, it seems, had overcome all concerns about tomorrow.

The friendliness and unstinting hospitality of our new Chao Ley friends extended to an invitation to join them on a fishing trip the following day, where they would demonstrate how they spear fish. While they dove with a primitive compressor and plastic tube, we followed with our modern, and much safer SCUBA outfits, taking photos of them hunting underwater. But demonstrations of bomb fishing were out of the question.

traditional life of the sea gypsies can still be seen in Myanmar

Chao Ley are regularly photographed with their longtail boats, regularly used for fishing, and in Koh Lipe, for ferrying tourists. These boats, however, are not the same craft that helped bring them fame as wanderers of the oceans, and the name ‘sea gypsies’. To see a genuine Chao Lay boat we have to go north to the hundreds of uninhabited islands of the Mergui Archipelago in Myanmar. Here is one of the very few places in Southeast Asia where you can still find these sea people eating, sleeping and living on their boats for long periods in the traditional manner.

Even here, though, the sea people have permanent onshore homes that they return to during the monsoon months, and may spend some time in during the calm winter months. The Burmese government has encouraged the Chao Lay to build and settle in the well-protected community on Bo Cho Island, in the channel separating this from the big landmass of Lampi Island.

This government-assisted community has a school which the Chao Ley children are encouraged to attend, a clinic, a government office and a Buddhist monastery where anyone so inclined can become a monk. The Burmese are trying to get the sea dwellers to integrate and become national citizens, a process that will surely take a few generations. When Chao Lay families are found hunting and gathering among remote islands their children are there too, chasing food with the adults or playing on the idyllic beaches, but not in school.

integration into Thai society? difficult, but perhaps the best future for them

What future for the sea gypsies of Thailand and neighbouring countries? Some idealists have dreamed of giving them full legal rights to citizenship, land ownership etc. while leaving them to follow traditional lifestyles. Others see full integration into Thai society, even with the likelihood of them eventually losing their own language, as the only realistic solution. Integration, be it partial or complete, of minorities has been a thorny question faced by many countries, without any ideal, one-for-all solution having been devised.

Following traditional lifestyle is simply not an option for the Chao Lay in Thailand and Myanmar, for a couple of compelling reasons. First, the ocean resources on which these tribes once lived are now virtually exhausted. There’s simply not enough fish and other marine life left in the Andaman Sea to sustain the old hunter-gatherer ways. Even in the Mergui Archipelago, where I first saw Moken surviving on their boats in the wild in 1995, fish stocks have plummeted with the arrival of hundreds of commercial fishing boats run by Burmese. On a trip there in 2014 Moken I met on a remote beach complained of the fishing boats and the lack of fish.

With the ever-increasing demand for and rising prices of seafood, plus the lack of government controls, the pressure of unscrupulous, take-everything fishing trawlers will keep stocks low. The sea gypsies’ future does not lie entirely at sea.

Back in Phuket the Thai government has spent decades trying to get Chao Ley children to attend school regularly, with only sporadic successes. During the 1990s I was able to employ a Chao Ley girl as a junior accountant for my publishing company, but she was one of the rare few whose parents had taken education seriously and kept here in school year after year. It was more common for these children to attend school when the weather was bad, then disappear on fishing or other trips with their parents when oceanic conditions turned good.

The recent battles in the Phuket courts illustrate the need for these people to catch up in education and understanding, or get left even further behind and open to new forms of exploitation.

Want to help the sea gypsies? Rent their longtail boats and go touring.

Sea Gypsies are not as widespread in the Andaman as some people might have you believe. Take the so-called ‘gypsy village’ close to James Bond Island that Phuket's huge tourism machinery often extols in its efforts to sell more tickets. There are no sea gypsies here at all, and never have been. Koh Pannyi, the stilted village where the James Bond visitors all have lunch, is strictly a community of Muslim fishermen.

There are two villages of Moken on Phuket, one in the Phi Phi Islands, two on Koh Lanta, a large one off in the remote Surin Islands and only a thin scattering of others along Thailand’s entire west coast. Many of them suffer a fate similar to that of disposed minorities in other parts of the world. Strong parallels could be drawn between these people and the aborigines of Australia. Even when they strike good fortune – like a big haul of fish – and make good money, they rarely have much to show for it after a day or two. Their houses remain basic and ramshackle. It's not uncommon to see much of their earnings disappear into alcohol and drunken stupor.

Anyone wanting to help these unfortunate folks should rent their boats or buy their fish, not just give hand-outs. Renting a longtail boat for a snorkelling or touring daytrip provides the boat owner with work and dignity. And hopefully some of the money will get back to his family.

by John Everingham