International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples: The Mokan

According to the United Nations, today is International Day of the Worlds Indigenous Peoples. Every day should be this (and is for some), I know. Nevertheless, it is worth pausing today to remember Indigenous lives and worlds, what they can teach us. Visit Survival International for resources on Indigenous rights and to support peoples through legal and rights battles with miners, tourism operators, land ‘developers’, governments, agricultural companies, logging companies, etc.

Today, I would love to sit and learn from the Mokan Peoples about their life with the sea.

‘The Ocean is our Universe. Everything happens at sea. We are not people who are bound to any land. Wherever we go, we go with our boats.’ Hook Suriyan Katale, a Moken man from the Surin Islands.

Image by Cat Vinton

The Moken are a semi-nomadic Austronesian people, who live in the Mergui Archipelago, a group of approximately 800 islands in the Andaman Sea. The Moken have traditionally lived on hand-built wooden boats called kabang for most of the year, migrating in flotillas between islands according to factors such as subsistence needs, wind patterns, security concerns and disease. They have historically shunned material possessions and rejected outside technology.

Today, their maritime existence that recognizes no national boundaries is endangered. A peaceable people, they have frequently been persecuted by the Burmese and Thai governments, both of whom are wary of their border-less lives, and have tried to settle the Moken permanently in national parks. Many Moken now live permanently in bamboo hut ‘villages’, selling handicrafts as souvenirs and working as boatmen, gardeners and garbage collectors for the tourist industry.

IMage by Cat Vinton

Their semi-nomadic numbers have diminished in recent years due to political and post-tsunami regulations, companies drilling for oil off-shore, governments seizing their lands for tourism development and industrial fishing.

‘Today, the big boats come and take every fish. I wonder what they will do when the ocean is empty?’ Hook Suriyan Katale once told film-maker Runar J. Wiik.

Some Moken families still sail across the waters of the Mergui Archipelago in their kabang for seven or eight months of the year.

Image by Cat Vinton

The Moken’s traditional kabang is made from wood and lashed together with bamboo pegs and rattan rope. Its hull is carved, the stern forked and the roof thatched with dried palm leaves. Only a few species of trees are suitable for kabang construction, including the rakam (salacca) tree, a fibrous plant that swells when wet.

The Moken’s creation legend has it that an ancestral island queen, named Sibian, declared that the kabang would represent the human body, with the front of the boat a mouth that eats (‘okang makan’) and the rear that defecates (‘butut mae’).

The Moken’s extraordinary knowledge of the sea, winds and lunar cycles is not written down. It is an oral history.

It is thought that Moken children learn to swim before they can walk.

A recent scientific study conducted by Lund University in Sweden showed that the eyesight of Moken children is 50% more powerful than that of European children. Over hundreds of years they have developed the unique ability to focus under water, using their visual skills to dive for food on the sea floor. ‘They use the optics of the eye to the limits of what is humanly possible,’ says biologist Anna Gislén.

‘The Moken are born, live, and die on their boats, and the umbilical cords of their children plunge into the sea.’, Moken elder.

The Moken eat fish, dugong, sea-cucumber and crustaceans, which they catch with harpoons, spears and hand-lines. Hook Suriyan Natale says that such sustainable methods ensure that ‘there will always be fish left in the sea.’

Image by Cat Vinton

They also use nets to catch shell-fish from the rock pools and forest shallows. Before certain species are harvested, the Moken make spiritual offerings as a mark of respect, using the spirit pole or ‘lobong’, which bears the faces of protective spirits.

While other islands and coastal areas have suffered from the impact of human settlements, the Surin Islands have remained largely unaffected by the presence of the Moken. Like many tribal peoples, they take from their environment only what they need to survive. The nomadic nature of the traditional way of life also means that forest and marine resources are rotated, and no one resource or area is over-harvested.

‘The Moken are like the turtle,’ says Pe Tat, ‘We have always lived between the land and the sea. This is what we know, who we are and where we belong.’

Image by Cat Vinton