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Thailand/Burma: Sea Nomads Vulnerable to Abuse

Protect Sea Moken People’s Basic Rights, Create Path to Citizenship

A traditional way to lure fish from deep ocean reefs, a rope with palm leaves attached is moored at a depth of 70-80 meters. © 2011 Sofie Olsen

(Bangkok) – The governments of Thailand and Burma should immediately end discrimination and other rights abuses against the Moken, sea nomads who are among the few remaining hunter-gatherer populations in Southeast Asia, Human Rights Watch said in a new report today. Approximately 3,000 Moken live mostly on small boats within the Mergui archipelago along Burma’s southern coast, while another 800 are settled in Thailand.

The 25-page report, “Stateless at Sea: The Moken of Burma and Thailand,” describes in words and photographs serious violations of the rights of the Moken by state authorities – particularly the Burmese navy – including extortion, bribery, arbitrary arrest, and confiscation of property. Human Rights Watch also examines tightening immigration and maritime conservation laws that threaten their freedom of movement and traditional lifestyle. Most Moken are stateless, making them extremely vulnerable to human rights abuse and depriving them of access to medical care, education, and employment opportunities.

“Far from the idyllic image that tourism promotes of the Moken people, these sea nomads face increasing restrictions and attacks at sea, and systematic discrimination on land,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “By effectively denying them citizenship, the Thai and Burmese governments make the Moken easy targets for exploitation and other threats to their very existence.”

The Moken are listed as one of the 135 recognized “ethnic races” of Burma under the 1982 Citizenship Act, but the issuance of national ID cards to the Moken has been inconsistent, hindering their travel within Burma. The Burmese government is required to provide national ID cards to all who are entitled; to ensure birth registration documents are issued to all Moken children; and to provide the Moken equal access to social welfare, education, health, and other services provided to other Burmese citizens. The Moken have also suffered from violent attacks and seizure of property by the Burmese navy.

A Moken man named Gamat from Burma told Human Rights Watch:

"[The navy] point their guns at us so we just jump into the water. If we show them that we have money then sometimes they stop bothering us and don’t take anything else. If we decide to stay on an island, or fish around it, then we have to pay the island head – and these are also Burmese soldiers."

In Thailand, the Moken’s ability to pursue their traditional livelihoods is limited by marine conservation regulations, such as the ban on gathering sea products for trade and chopping trees to build or repair boats. Thai middlemen exploit Moken vulnerability in order to persuade them to undertake illegal and dangerous work, such as dynamite fishing. On land the Moken also face forced displacement, since they own no title to the traditional shore areas where they live for part of the year.

The Thai government should review all applications from Moken for citizenship and grant those with legitimate claims. The authorities should also end threats of forced resettlement of Moken populations, create a complaints mechanism that Moken can easily access when their rights are violated, and support access to culturally suitable education for Moken children and lawful work opportunities.

In recent years, more Moken have given up their nomadic ways and decided to reside permanently in Thailand and Burma. Both governments should act to protect and promote their rights, including providing a pathway to citizenship and protecting them from economic exploitation that threatens their way of life. They should ensure that the Moken, as people indigenous to the Mergui archipelago and the Andaman sea coast, are treated in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“Burma and Thailand need to recognize and respect the rights of the Moken people to live as they always have,” Adams said. “Protecting them from abuses, ensuring a path to citizenship, and providing access to basic services is best way forward for these indigenous and too often exploited people.”

Quotes From the Report
“I have met the Burmese navy men before and they always ask us for money or food. They always show us their guns.... Mostly we have no money so we can only give them fish.” – Moken woman from Ply Island, Thailand

“The Burmese soldiers sometimes shoot at our boat while we are fishing. They have done this to me many times. My older brother was shot by a Burmese navy officer while fishing with other Moken and died. Those other Moken who were on the boat just jumped into the water and swam away.” – Gamat, Moken man from Dung Island, Burma

“There are 14 of us in this house, from age 60 to a year old. We were all born here in this village. But the document [official land deed] said the land where we have lived for generations belongs to someone else. It said a Thai businessman owns the land. Now he wants to kick us out and sell it. Where are we going to live now? I don’t know. One by one, Moken families have been taken to court and told to leave this village because they do not have ownership of the land.” – Bulai, Moken woman from Rawai Beach, Phuket, Thailand

“I had five children but two of them died after having very bad diarrhea. They were both infants when they died. At that time, I didn’t have any money to take them to the hospital even though they were sick.” – Moken woman, Thailand

“I used to be a diver. When I was a teenager, there was no limit for Moken fishermen. We could go anywhere from Phuket to the Surin Islands and beyond to catch fish, shrimps, lobsters, and shellfish. We brought our catch ashore to the middlemen, who would sell them in downtown markets or to beachside restaurants…. Life was not comfortable, but we had freedom to go wherever we wanted to go…. But then around 16 years ago, government officials told us we could not fish around Surin Islands anymore.… They set so many rules and restrictions on our ways of life…. My family now cannot earn enough from fishing. I come out on the beach, talking to tourists and begging money from them.… It is embarrassing. But at least I could bring cash back to my family.” – Jui, Moken man, Thailand

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