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Thailand Pledges Houses, Aid for Moken ‘Sea Gypsies’

Thailand Moken Sea Gypsies South Andaman Phuket

Commerce Minister Jurin Laksanawisit promised to provide appropriate housing for stateless Moken people in Phuket and other southern areas in the Andaman Sea.

Jurin announced the plan during a visit to a community of indigenous Moken people, popularly known as “sea gypsies,” late last week.

Jurin said he would sponsor the building of houses for semi-nomadic sea gypsies living in six provinces with coastlines on the Andaman Sea as part of a larger community development project in the area over the next five years.

The Moken, who are skilled divers and have inhabited the region since the 18th century, live on more than 800 islands in the Andaman Sea, although they number only around 3,000 people, according to experts.

Many of them live in abject poverty and are facing increasing challenges to their traditional ways of life.

“One of the few remaining hunter-gatherer populations in Southeast Asia, the Moken have made the sea their home,” Human Rights Watch explains.

“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.”

The rights group says the Moken are among the most underprivileged people in Thailand and neighboring Myanmar, formerly known as Burma.

“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,” the group says.

“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.”

For years the Mercy Center, a Catholic charity in Bangkok, has been engaged in community-building and enrichment projects for Moken villagers on Koh Lao, an island in the southern Thai province of Ranong.

“We are doing for the Moken what we have always done for the poorest of the poor — we are sending their children to school and taking care of the mothers and grandmothers,” said Rev. Joseph Maier, a Redemptorist priest from the United States who runs the Mercy Center in a sprawling inner-city slum in the Thai capital. 

“In addition, because of their precarious legal status in Thailand, we are working in myriad ways with the entire village, together with the local provincial government, to help these poor seafarers gain recognition and status as permanent Thai residents.”

Despite having been born in Thailand, many ethnic Moken people remain stateless and continue to lack official identification documents required for employment, attendance in schools and other citizenship rights.

“They have lived without fresh water, electricity, toilets or schools,” said the Mercy Center, which now operates daycare services, nutrition initiatives to prevent malnutrition among children and education projects in some communities of ethnic Moken people.

This story appeared in UCA News, a Bangkok Herald partner.