Thailand: Helping a minority stay afloat

A project to empower Thailand's nomadic Moken people is helping to end their exploitation
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The Moken – or sea nomads – of Thailand have a tradition which warns that when tides recede far and fast, now known as a precursor of a tsunami, a man-eating wave will soon head their way, so they should run far and fast. On 26 December 2004, they did just that – and lived.

But while every one of the estimated 400 Moken people of Thailand survived the tsunami, their homes and their fishing equipment – their means of livelihood – did not. What's more, any hopes of fishing as they used to have been destroyed by the destruction to the seabed caused by the tsunami.

There has been no help from the government because the Moken people have never been awarded Thai citizenship. Having previously lived a semi-nomadic life in Indonesia and Malaysia and later Burma, the past 20 years have seen Moken people settle on islands including Ko Lao, Koh Chang and Koh Pyam in the Ranong province – so by law they should therefore have received Thai identity cards. But the Thai government considers them Burmese and refuses.

"This has added problems – they have no labour rights, so that even if they tried to gain income by other means than fishing, they would be taken by the police because they do not have identity cards," says Parinya Boonridrerthaikul, co-ordinator of the ActionAid office in Thailand. "There is another issue too – neighbouring communities consider Moken people as backward and ignorant, largely because their cultures are different to mainstream Thai society. Both these things combined mean that Moken people are vulnerable to exploitation."

Some people buy the fish that Moken people do catch and sell it for more. Others get them involved in illegal fishing ventures, reports Jude Fransman, research adviser in international education. "We know that many people take advantage of the Moken people's incredible diving skills and phenomenal eyesight that has adapted over time to enable them to see great distances. There have also been cases of sexual exploitation."

These are not pitiful people, she points out. "They are incredibly resourceful and intelligent and know exactly what is happening to them, but they are powerless to do anything about it," she explains.

Vicky Pramongkij, a young fisherman from Koh Lao, adds that because their lack of citizenship means that Moken people have no access to education, they cannot read Thai script, making them vulnerable in other situations. "When we go to Ranong to buy powder milk, merchants will give us the expired ones. We do not know this because we cannot read. We only realise this after our children have upset stomachs." The hospital can't help them, he adds, because they have no access to public healthcare. "For whatever disease we have got, we only receive paracetamol."

Moken people have received support from various NGOs, particularly the ones that came in thick and fast straight after the tsunami. "But as so often happens directly following a crisis, organisations came in with very short-term strategies and often with little consultation with the communities themselves. So while everyone had good intentions, there was minimal co-ordination and no needs assessment," says Fransman.

This is where ActionAid is aiming to make a difference. "We wanted to find a sustainable solution that the people themselves had ownership of. We wanted them to follow their own pathway as opposed to being hijacked by the agendas of other organisations," says Fransman.

The first step was to find an effective means of communication with the Moken people. "Moken people are fantastic linguists, with many speaking five or six languages because of their extensive travelling. But their language is not scripted, so they have no writing or reading skills. That made it difficult for ActionAid, which usually writes up documents for everyone to see," she says.

An approach to adult literacy called Reflect provided a potential solution. Used by 300 organisations across 80 countries, Reflect utilises visual graphics through illustrations and photographs so that whatever issue is being discussed, it can be explored collectively and a record can be made of that discussion. "We used Reflect to discuss things like the differences in prices at the market and it was very successful because the Moken people had total involvement in this process and a record of the discussion that they can 'read'," says Fransman. "Reflect enabled Moken people to analyse their different options and when they decided on a course of action, it seemed much more coherent and people felt empowered about their decisions."

As such, a needs assessment was compiled. "It wasn't as if we didn't know any of the problems facing the Moken people before, but there were so many different versions from different NGOs," she says. "Even if you spoke to the Moken people themselves, you'd usually wind up hearing from the men who are more confident in Thai – and the male leaders at that. So the participatory methodology we used was far more successful because it was far more inclusive."

The next step is for ActionAid to take a bottom-up approach to ending the exploitation. "Instead of merely allocating aid, the idea is to help the Moken people build the strength to hold anyone that discriminates against them, including the government, to account."

This, of course, involves the Moken people learning about rights. "Citizenship doesn't count for much if you don't know your rights. If, for instance, you are entitled to a bank account but you have no idea how to open and use an account, it's worthless. Similarly, navigating hospital bureaucracy isn't possible without an understanding of it."

Literacy is a major part of this process. Fransman explains, "The problem with most literacy programmes is that they teach people in the same way that you would with children – starting with the alphabet and then moving into words. But this can be patronising and irrelevant and assumes people have more time than they may actually have. We believe a far better approach is to teach them to read and write about things that are directly relevant to them – like navigating the market or filling in forms at the hospital. The idea is to start recognising numbers and letters in accordance with things happening in your life."

ActionAid is also working with the Moken people to raise awareness about their plight. "School events and photographic exhibitions provide a useful way of representing the best parts of Moken culture. And in collaboration with other organisations, we are trying to represent some of the problems like citizenship. The idea is that children as far away as Bangkok start to recognise that there are people on the other side of their country who have equal rights to them – or should do."

To be fair, the Thai government itself is trying to promote the positive aspects of several minority groups, including the Moken people. "But while this is great, the government still won't give them citizenship," says Fransman.

She believes this is largely because they don't want to have to vouch for the illegal behaviours of some of the Moken people, who wind up making their income by means such as fishing in Burmese and Indian waters. "If Moken people were made citizens, then Thailand would have a responsibility to give them adequate court representation in places like Burma and India. Also, there are a lot of Burmese immigrants in Thailand and they may feel obliged to give them rights too, which they want to avoid.

"But the government is slowly learning from the many organisations working with the Moken around Thailand who have tapped into their extensive knowledge about natural resources and the sea, as well as their skills in areas like diving, and rich oral culture. These people of the sea are more than equipped to decide how to live their lives – all they need is the same rights and status as their fellow Thais."