Carried away by modern waves

A Thai minority group struggling to adapt to formal education

When the tsunami struck Thailand's western coastline on December 26, 2004, it left many questions scattered among the demolished buildings and natural debris. Like flotsam and jetsam, development issues bounced into light after periods of submersion. Who owned the land? How should survivors be compensated? What should be done about the villages, hotels, businesses and government buildings that had been destroyed - including schools?

Caught in the net of the confusion were several small communities of sea nomads known as the Moken or Chao Ley, generically labeled as Sea Gypsies, who are believed to have Malay-Indonesian origins. It is estimated that over 3,000 Moken live on the Thai side of the Andaman Sea, but the actual population size is still subject of debate.

Traditionally, Moken communities lived on hand-made boats and traveled in fleets numbering from 10-40 along the coastline of the Andaman Sea, occasionally going ashore to forage or to reside in thatched-roof huts for short periods.

They lived simple but hard lives. Moken caught fish and seafood with spears and hand-made nets, and they had no need for electricity or piped water. They informally learned to make nets, carve boats, gather wild plants, preserve fish in the sun and salvage fresh water for drinking. Their traditional knowledge included where to find seafood and how to navigate the flow of the seas. This education was a curriculum of survival.

However, long before the tsunami struck, the traditional Moken lifestyle had been colliding with modern development. And like jagged rocks below the surface, even schools could thrust forth as points of controversy.

The Princess Mother intervenes

The Moken community has partially settled in areas of Thailand such as Ranong, Phang-nga, Phuket, Krabi, Phi Phi island and the Surin islands. However, this ethnic group has a distinct culture, religion and language that is separate from Thais - a point that became more vital after World War Two as more local Thais spread into these provinces with permanent housing, and industries such as tin-mining and tourism began to flourish.

As a result of their different cultural background, Moken were rarely given Thai citizenship even when born on Thai soil. Being stateless people, Moken were unable to access many government services, which in turn denied them land ownership, medical care and education. Without Thai citizenship or land ownership rights, entire Moken communities could be legally evicted from valuable territory or chased away.

It was the Royal Family that would change this practice of cultural isolation. Her Royal Highness the Princess Mother Somdej Phra Srinagarindra Boromarajajonani visited areas with Moken populations and gave family names to over three thousand people - Klatalay, Hantalay, Nawarak and Samutwari.

The Princess Mother affectionately referred to the Moken people as Thai Mai (New Thai). In return, the sea nomads still refer to her fondly as Somdet Ya, roughly Royal Grandmother.

Her first Royal visits took place on Ko Ko Khao in 1968 and Pak Chok in 1971. The Princess Mother also attended the opening of Surin's national park in the1980s and permitted Moken to continue living on the protected islands.

By giving Moken family names, and recognizing their communities, it enabled them to obtain identity cards that could lead to nationality. The doors were open, in theory at least, for the Moken to live on "Royal" land, access medical services and obtain education.

Education struggles

The government has often viewed education as a way to integrate traditional Moken people into modern Thai society. The opportunity for some Moken children to attend formal schools, however, is not without drawbacks.

Since Moken lack a written script for their language, teaching has mostly been done by verbal narrative. This made it much more difficult for Moken to adjust to the rote learning from textbooks at Thai schools. Furthermore, the Moken traditional lifestyle requires very few possessions, and their lack of money makes it impossible to buy material items such as books and uniforms.

Their nomadic lifestyle has also made it difficult to obtain education. Nearly all schools are land-based stationary buildings that require students to travel to them. Classes are delivered at a set schedule each day. This has been incompatible with the Mokens' nomadic lifestyle that is based around the ebbs and tides of the sea.

The earliest schools to admit Moken children failed to retain them for long. For example, the Ko Tchat Village School on Phra Thong island was established around 1935 for 20-30 students. The one teacher at the thatched roof wooden school was never able to get them to attend class regularly and the school closed in 1957.

Recent attempts to mix Moken children with local Thai students at a government Education Service Area (ESA) have often failed because students from the mainland sometimes view Moken children as subjects of ridicule and contempt - mocking them for their lack of education and inability to adapt to a national Thai identity. As a result, the retention rate of Moken children in Thai schools has remained low, and few advance to the secondary level.

The high dropout rate further compounds the problem since few Moken advance to the level of becoming a teacher. Young children therefore lack role models in their own community that would encourage them to be successful in school.

Cultural tsunami

As many Moken continue to struggle for identity cards that would recognize their rights to own property and to obtain education, they must also wrestle with the fact that their traditional nomadic lifestyle is coming to an end.

Thousands of households in the provinces hit by the tsunami were struck by land ownership problems. Hotels and financers filed lawsuits to legally claim valuable land to profit from the boom in tourism, which at times led to attempts to evict Moken communities as squatters. They were especially vulnerable if they had lost personal documents in the tsunami that could verify they were born on Thai soil.

Moreover, some Moken have partially abandoned traditions in order to conduct trade with locals or to profit from the tourism industry. Lacking education, Moken have turned to making money by transporting tourists across the islands or selling shells and seafood that they have gathered. This has led to conflict with local fisherman and boat taxis that resent the competition.

The abundance of motorized fishing trawlers in the area has sharply reduced the amount of fish that the Moken can catch, and this has also forced them to move ashore.

Some of their cultural or religious practices are now in contrast with environmental conservation projects. For example, they are now forbidden to hunt endangered animals such as sea turtles in the national park or rare mouse deer on land. Restrictions have been placed on the sale of conch shells to tourists, which the Moken collect by free diving to remarkable depths.

In some places, televisions can be seen glaring inside Moken households with corrugated iron roofs, while tinned food and packaged goods lay littered around their boats.

Alcoholism has become a major problem, which has especially increased among Moken women whose traditional roles have changed with the stationary lifestyle. There have also been reports of gambling and theft in these communities that previously shared what few material goods they owned.

Their traditional knowledge enabled many people to survive the tsunami. Moken warned others to find higher ground after predicting the killer wave. In the Takau Pa district of Phang-nga, the Moken also provided neighbors drinking water from their own wells. They also searched for bodies and survivors in their boats shortly after the wave.

Many Moken felt that the tsunami had punished them for abandoning their old ways. And this made some parents even more reluctant to allow their children to sacrifice a traditional lifestyle on the sea for a concrete classroom ashore.

School projects for the Moken

In the aftermath of the tsunami an enormous amount of international financial aid poured into the country. The flood of money also came with a renewed desire to invest in education, including a number of projects focusing on Moken communities that have come to fruition this year.

A German company that manufacturers knives and cookware, JA Henckels, rebuilt a primary school at Chao Thai Mai village in Phang-nga province. About 70 percent of students are estimated to be Moken. The company also contributed to the construction of the village's first high school.

Siam Commercial Bank donated funds to encourage Moken children to return to school after the tsunami, including help with obtaining legal papers needed to be eligible for education programs in Phang-nga's Takua Pa district.

One Non-Government Organization, Foundation for Children, took an alternative approach in 2007, providing Moken children with transportation to Thai schools and supplying breakfast even if the child had not proven Thai citizenship. The NGO helped provide special classes to Moken children at Ban Koh Lao that developed Thai language skills while taking into account Mokens' cultural background.

Even as far back as 1998, the Thai government permitted a special curriculum for Moken on the Surin Islands to give them a sense of pride in their culture. Moken students learned about the history of their tribe at the same time as studying math, science and Thai.

However, Dr Narumon Arunotai, who has studied the Moken for more than a decade at the Social Research Institute of Chulalongkorn University, warns that caution must be taken before introducing education systems on these nomadic populations of the Andaman.

Moken children could lose their self-esteem if too much emphasis is placed on building a Thai identity. They might feel that their own language and culture are inferior, and thus turn away from education. Dr Narumon believes that education should provide room for cultural diversity and enable Moken to develop traditional knowledge.

Between two waves

Thailand's government has a tough choice to make. On one hand, it can promote the tourism industry at a great expense to the Moken way of life. Beachside luxury hotels and other tourism-related enterprises generate a huge amount of revenue for the country. On the other hand, there is a moral issue of preserving the culture of a small and impoverished minority group. In this backdrop, the overriding issue is whether a balance can be created between the two - and how education can play a productive role in this effort.

Jacques Ivanoff, a renowned specialist in research about Moken communities, observed that they have been able to survive by creating an economic niche while adapting without repudiating their special ethnic qualities. It remains a tight balance between traditional knowledge and the requirements of modern education. The curriculum needed for their survival has changed, and the painful fact is that Moken must learn to navigate between the two crashing waves of knowledge.



Ken sure knows a lot about many things. He's the man to go see if you would like to know anything about Ayutthaya. Keep up the good work Ken! can't wait to catch up over a few drinks.

By Paul, Sydney (8 years ago)

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