One of the few remaining hunter-gatherer populations in Southeast Asia, the Moken have made the sea their home. Foraging food from oceans and forests, trading fish and shells for other necessities, and traveling by boat across the waters of southern Burma and Thailand, the Moken have maintained a self-sufficient, nomadic way of life along the Andaman coast for hundreds of years.
Approximately 3,000 Moken live around and on the 800 islands of the Mergui Archipelago along Burma’s southern coast, while an estimated 800 Moken are currently settled in Thailand.
The Moken have lived in this area since at least the 18th century, though over time they have traversed the entire Andaman Sea. Most Moken spend their daily lives on small, covered wooden boats, called kabang. The Moken’s hunter-gatherer lifestyle relies on men, women, and children each playing roles in community subsistence, taking only the resources they require for survival and making minimal impact on the natural environment. Usually catching enough for their consumption and trade, Moken men use harpoons and, more recently, nets to catch fish. Moken women and children collect crustaceans and shells during low tide on beaches. When trading goods with land-based communities, the Moken usually work through middlemen operating in port towns along the Andaman.
The Moken face deepening poverty, marginalization, and discrimination. Most are stateless, making them more vulnerable to human rights abuses and depriving them of access to other rights, including the medical care, education, and employment opportunities that Thai and Burmese nationals enjoy. Tightening immigration and maritime conservation laws restrict the Mokens’ freedom of movement, threatening their traditional lifestyle. In addition to government distrust and discrimination, the Moken often face exploitation from land-based communities, but are unable to seek redress through national laws and policies. In recent years, more Moken have decided to reside permanently in Thailand and Burma. Both governments should act to protect and promote the Moken’s basic rights, including taking steps to provide them with citizenship.
Moken in Burma
I have met 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 can only give them fish.
—Moken woman from Ply Island, Thailand
The Moken living on Burma’s islands and waters are largely unregistered and, because of their nomadism, many are not considered citizens by the Burmese government.
After the 1982 Citizenship Act was passed, the Burmese government issued national ID cards to a number of Moken leaders in charge of small communities living on islands near the port city of Mergui. Functioning largely as travel permits, the ID cards allowed Moken leaders’ flotillas to sail freely. Since then, however, the government has been inconsistent in issuing ID cards to Moken.
Moken and other stateless people in Burma must request government permission to travel outside the district where they reside and cannot work legally without a work permit. As a result, they often must work in the informal sector, with wages and conditions below legal standards. As stateless persons, Moken are unable to receive benefits under national healthcare and welfare schemes.
The Moken in Burma are vulnerable to human rights violations and exploitation by state authorities, particularly the Burmese navy, without any means to seek protection, redress, and justice. Human Rights Watch found that the navy committed a pattern of abuses, including extortion, bribery, arbitrary arrest, and confiscation of property.
Several Moken told Human Rights Watch that when they are foraging on an island and hear the engine of a patrol boat they run inland and hide because they fear robbery and other abuses by Burmese sailors. As a result, many Moken say they no longer travel the length of the archipelago. Tok, a Moken man, said:
When we see the Burmese navy we dive in the water and abandon our boat. We swim to an island, sometimes it is dark at night, and we swim sometimes five to six kilometers. I have done this four times. The soldiers would always shoot at us.
Gamat, a Moken man from Dung Island in Burma, told Human Rights Watch about being repeatedly shot at by the Burmese navy:
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. One of them who made it back here [Lao Island, Thailand] told me.
According to Gamat, Burmese sailors sometimes commandeer their boats if they are filled with fish and force the Moken to swim:
They 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.
Won, a Moken woman, said that, “Whatever the Burmese navy wants, we have to give it to them.”
Moken in Thailand
As of January 2014, there were an estimated 506,000 stateless people in Thailand, primarily consisting of ethnic minorities.
In 2008, the Thai government changed its nationality law to permit stateless children and adults to register and acquire Thai citizenship, but bureaucratic obstacles and difficulties continue to plague the procedure.
To qualify for Thai citizenship, stateless persons must present a birth certificate, prove they have resided in Thailand for at least 10 years, or, through DNA testing, show a blood relationship to a Thai citizen. However, most Moken are unable to trace their blood lineage to any ethnic Thais in Thailand. Because most Moken children are born in villages with the assistance of local midwives or on boats, many do not have an official birth certificate. And most cannot meet the residency requirement because their nomadic lifestyle results in their spending long periods of time outside of the country.
An absence of local government outreach to the Moken communities has contributed significantly to the low number of Moken birth registrations. In addition, Thai civil servants and healthcare providers in areas where the Moken reside frequently fail to follow the directive under the nationality law to issue birth certificates to any child born in Thailand, including children of stateless persons.
Perhaps because other tribes have given up their nomadic lifestyle while the Moken remain relatively mobile, the Moken have the most difficulty among Thailand’s three “Sea Gypsy” tribes in obtaining citizenship or Thai government ID cards providing them access to government welfare, labor, and education services.
On August 18, 2010, Thailand’s National Security Council approved Mokens to apply for and receive a card commonly known as the “zero card.” Holders of the zero card must request prior permission in writing from the governor’s office to travel outside the district, which is difficult for nomadic sea-dwellers whose livelihoods depend on traveling far and freely. These restrictions hamper communication with other Moken groups and families living in different provinces, and obstruct the organizing of traditional group ceremonies.
When not at sea during the rainy season, the Moken usually return to the same islands each year. They have generally not tried to assert land ownership rights on the islands because most believe that land and water should not be owned or controlled by one person, but rather shared by many. And under Thai law, without citizenship, Moken families cannot own land in any case, even if for decades they have returned each year to the same otherwise uninhabited land. In recent years, more and more Moken have decided to reside permanently on Phuket Island where they are now facing eviction by local businessmen.
Bulai, a Moken woman from Rawai Beach on Phuket, told Human Rights Watch about her ongoing struggle against eviction:
There are 14 of us in this house, from age 60 to a 1-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 do not 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. We are trying to prove that we came here first and should have the right to stay. We have showed government officials that our ancestors are buried here in this house. Their bones are old and that should be good evidence to back us up even though I am not really confident the court will rule in our favor. But I will keep fighting.
Nim, a Moken man from the same village, said:
The landowner wants to sell this land. But we get in his way. So, he filed lawsuits to evict us. The court only looks at documents. The court said, “No document, you will have to leave no matter how long you have lived here.… Three of my neighbors were ordered to leave their houses. How long can we fight? We do not have much money. It is already very difficult for many of us to pay for a ride to town to attend court hearings.
The Moken face enormous obstacles in gaining access to adequate health care. The healthcare system in Burma, where the government spends only 2.2 percent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product on health and education combined, is poor and well below the standard of care in Thailand. Not surprisingly, many Moken prefer to receive care in Thailand when they need medical treatment.
Costs for medical care under the universal healthcare scheme in Thailand are as low as 30 Thai baht (approximately US$1 per medical visit), but undocumented persons are not eligible for such affordable treatment. Thailand’s Universal Healthcare Act of 2001 provides that only Thai nationals are entitled to the government-subsidized treatment. Stateless persons such as the Moken are not covered. Because they usually cannot afford the fees, many do not seek treatment at hospitals or clinics until their condition becomes a medical emergency.
One Moken woman explained how she failed to get prompt medical treatment for two of her children in Thailand because she was discouraged by the high cost: “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.”
Thailand and Burma have each ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which obligates states to provide all children with access to education without discrimination, including on the basis of nationality. But Moken children face significant challenges getting a formal education.
In Burma, education is compulsory for all children through age nine, and children who pass a comprehensive examination have the option of continuing to secondary school. In the Mergui Archipelago, an estimated 100 to 150 Moken children attend informal ethnic Karen Catholic schools located on islands near their villages. But the majority of Moken children living in Burma do not attend school at all.
Under Thailand’s 2007 Constitution, “a person”—not just a citizen—has the right to receive 12 years of free education. Moreover, under the National Education Act, children must attend nine years of compulsory education. Despite these legal protections, access to education for migrant children in Thailand remains poor. Relatively few children of registered migrants attend Thai schools, and even fewer children of stateless parents or unregistered migrants go to school.
There is currently one informal, Moken-only school, where children study Moken culture. Although the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designed the curriculum, Thailand’s Ministry of Education has yet to formally recognize the school, therefore denying children who attend formal certificates verifying completion of primary school and leaving them ineligible to continue on to secondary school.
The Moken have subsisted for generations on fishing and foraging, building shelter from materials found in the surrounding environment. Ironically, the Thai government’s creation of national parks in the Andaman Sea, ostensibly aimed at protecting the environment the Moken have helped to preserve, is seriously affecting the Moken lifestyle due to new laws and regulations that restrict their traditional practices.
For example, the Surin Islands Marine National Park’s regulations prohibit the Moken from chopping wood to build or repair their kabang boats and stilted huts. While they are allowed to gather several types of fish for their own consumption, they are prevented from collecting sea products to trade with land-based communities to earn money.
The yearly arrival of thousands of tourists to the Surin islands allows some Moken to find jobs working as tourist boat drivers or garbage collectors at campsites. While some Moken expressed satisfaction with this work, many Moken remain unemployed.
Jui, a Moken man who survives on begging, expressed his frustration:
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 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. I only received a small amount of money from those middlemen. 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 that we could not fish around Surin Islands anymore. We could not catch turtles, sea cucumber, or giant clams. They said those animals are protected. They set so many rules and restrictions on our ways of life. More and more areas have become restricted. Fuel is expensive. My family now cannot earn enough from fishing. I come out on the beach, talking to tourists and begging money from them. I can speak Thai. Some tourists wanted to know my stories and took pictures of me. They gave me money. It is embarrassing. But at least I could bring cash back to my family.
Thai middlemen frequently hire the Moken for their exceptional marine skills, but sometimes exploit their vulnerable status or coerce them into illegal and dangerous fishing practices.
Through generations of gathering and hunting from the sea, the Moken have developed the unique ability to stay underwater for extended periods while diving without oxygen tanks or other equipment (free diving). When they are recruited to work on dynamite fishing boats or hired to dive for sea cucumber or abalones, the Moken are sent under water with air running through thin plastic tubes hooked up to a diesel-run compressor so they can stay longer on the seabed to harvest their catch.
Many Moken divers die or suffer from permanent injury and disability derived from decompression sickness (“the bends”), caused by ascending too quickly. When dynamite fishing, many middlemen provide homemade bombs that can explode without warning, killing or injuring the Moken using them. Moken who are injured performing the dangerous fishing work have little opportunity to receive compensation for their injuries.
Tui, a Moken man who was permanently disabled by decompression sickness, recalled the incident:
I was 17 years old then. On that day, I went on a boat with six other men from my village. It was just another dive. I did not expect any bad thing to happen to me. We were hired by a Thai middleman to harvest sea cucumber. I dived, breathing air through a tube, to the seabed. Then suddenly, there was something wrong with the air pump. No air came through the tube. I rushed to the surface to breathe. My friends dragged me back on the boat. And I passed out. I woke up again in a hospital bed in downtown Phuket. The doctors said I would not be able to walk again. My left leg was crippled. The middleman, who hired me, did not pay for my hospital bill or give me any compensation. My family had to borrow money to pay for my treatment.
What happened to me is called nam neeb (“compressed by water”). Many men in my village have been injured or even killed by it.
Arrangements for dynamite fishing vary, but usually the middleman will provide the Moken with a large boat, money and goods for bribing government officials, and dynamite. Lebi, a 15-year-old from Chang Island, told Human Rights Watch about an accident in which he and his companions were severely injured:
I was fishing on a boat with other Moken; there were three of us on the boat. At that time I was about 9-years-old. One of the other Moken lit the end of a piece of dynamite that had a very short fuse. We were in a rowboat and could not get away fast enough so all of us got hurt. One person was blinded, another person lost an arm, and I got these scars on my face….
They took us to the hospital in Ranong and my mother had to pay for everything. The owner of the boat did not pay anything for us. … He ran away and we could not find him.
Moken told Human Rights Watch that they dislike this type of work, but many feel they lack alternative labor opportunities to support themselves and their families.
To the Government of Burma
- End abuses of Moken by government officials and the Burmese navy, including arbitrary detention, unnecessary restrictions on movement, and unlawful confiscation of property.
- Issue national identity cards to all Moken entitled to Burmese citizenship and accept alternative forms of proof for citizenship claims such as oral testimony.
- In accordance with the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), ensure that all children born in Burma, regardless of their nationality, are registered at birth and provided with birth registration documents. Ensure that all Moken children lacking birth registration are retroactively provided with such documents, and establish effective birth registration systems.
- Provide equal access for the Moken to social welfare, education, health care, and other essential services available to Burmese citizens.
- Allow United Nations agencies and international and national humanitarian organizations unfettered access to all areas of the Tenasserim region and the archipelago, and encourage effective provision of assistance, with the participation, consultation, and coordination of the Moken, to economically and socially disadvantaged communities in the region.
To the Government of Thailand
- Proactively review all applications for citizenship by Moken in Thailand and grant citizenship to all Moken with legitimate claims to nationality. Conduct outreach and awareness raising activities for the Moken about how to file a nationality claim and appeal against adverse decisions.
- Issue ID cards to all Moken considered ineligible for Thai citizenship and ensure that they are accorded the rights to freedom of movement, expression, association, and employment.
- Establish accessible, effective complaint mechanisms and rigorously investigate complaints of abuse made by Moken, irrespective of the complainant’s citizenship status.
- Cease threats of forced resettlement of Moken communities and other “Sea Gypsy” populations at Rawai beach, Phuket province.
- Establish an easy-to-access, low-cost system for Moken who are not citizens to obtain work permits and take all necessary steps to ensure the effective protection of the labor rights of the Moken in accordance with Thai law. Fully comply with Thailand’s obligations under International Labour Organization Conventions No. 111 on Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) and No. 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labor.
- Consider endorsing the curriculum produced by Chulalongkorn University’s Andaman Pilot Project that includes lessons in Moken culture and tradition in addition to other core school subjects.
To both the Burmese and Thai Governments
- In accordance with the CRC, establish an outreach system for effective birth registration of all Moken children born in Thailand through mobile birth registration units targeting Moken communities, proactive actions by public health officers and health care providers, collaboration with organizations working with the Moken, and effective awareness-raising activities in Moken communities.
- Meet obligations under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the CRC by ensuring that stateless persons and undocumented migrants have equal access to basic health care. Encourage medical care providers and public health officials to undertake regular health outreach activities to Moken villages. Ensure that the Ministry of Public Health staff issue birth certificates and provide immunizations to Moken children.
As people indigenous to the Mergui Archipelago and Thailand’s Andaman sea coast, the Moken are protected by the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. Consistent with the declaration:
- Ensure the Moken are not subjected to forced assimilation or destruction of their culture. This includes providing mechanisms to ensure prevention and redress regarding any action that aims to, or has the effect of, depriving them of their integrity as distinct peoples or dispossessing them of their lands, territories, or resources (art. 8).
- Ensure the Moken are able to establish and control their educational systems and institutions providing education in their own language, in a manner appropriate to their cultural methods of teaching and learning (art. 14).
- Ensure that Moken are able to fully enjoy all rights established under applicable international and domestic labor laws, including by protecting them against any discriminatory conditions of labor, and by taking specific measures to protect Moken children from economic exploitation and hazardous or harmful work (art. 17).
- Ensure that Moken are secure in the enjoyment of their own means of subsistence and development, and to engage freely in all their traditional and other economic activities, and that those deprived of their means of subsistence and development are entitled to just and fair redress (art. 20).
- Ensure the Moken have the right to the lands, territories, and resources they have traditionally occupied or used and that these rights are given legal recognition and protection (art. 26). Where such lands, territories, or resources are confiscated without their consent, the Moken should have the right to redress, by means that can include restitution or, when this is not possible, just, fair, and equitable compensation (art. 28).
- Consult and cooperate in good faith with the Moken to obtain their free and informed consent before approving any project affecting their territories or resources, including water use, and provide effective mechanisms for just and fair redress for activities to mitigate adverse environmental, economic, social, cultural, or spiritual impact (art. 32).