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Hopeless lives of sea gypsies
AuthorDefaultA…    文章CopyFromhttp://www.bangkokpost.com/opinion/opinion/286464/hopeless-lives-of-sea-gypsies    Hits292    UpdateTime2012-3-29    

 

  • Published: 29/03/2012 at 02:17 AM
  • Newspaper section: News

    Teng Pramongkit's dream is to see his children grow up as equal to other Thais. But without citizenship, the door of equal opportunities is shut for his kids and thousands of other Moken, or sea gypsies.

    "My mother doesn't know how to count days and years because we Moken count by our water system," said the father of two.

    "Because I don't know my birth date, I was told I cannot apply for citizenship. As a result, my kids have no chance of being Thai," he said, looking distraught. "Is there any way to fix this so my kids can have a future?"

    Back when national borders did not matter, the nomadic Moken or chao lay (people of the sea) roamed the Andaman Sea on their small "kabang" boats between what is now Thailand and Myanmar. When forced to settle, the Moken are faced with statelessness and a life without security or legal rights.

    Living on Koh Chang, Teng is among about 500 Moken who have now settled on Ranong's small islands. There are about 10,000 Moken along the Andaman coast in southern Thailand. While forced to integrate into the modern world, they lack the means to do so _ citizenship.

    "It's a very harsh life living off the sea," said Supap Pramongkit, a community leader. "We live a simple life and have little sense of ownership given our old nomadic way of life. That is why we're oppressed and exploited."

    Fishing and diving to catch deep-sea fish and shells is their expertise. It's what they have always done. But now their seas have been declared marine national parks, the Moken are arrested and sent to jail for breaking the law.

    They get very little for the fish they sell to the local thao kae, or middlemen. Fearful of all forms of power, they do not dare raise their voices in complaint. When they are hired for their diving skills to catch sea cucumbers off the Indian coast, most are cheated with their wages. Some have died.

    It is why Teng's worst fear is to see his kids stuck in the same Moken life. For him, hope arrived with Christian missionaries who came to help and convert the Moken after the 2004 tsunami. Most Moken are now Christians.

    But even with better education, the road ahead is rough without legal rights as citizens, said Supap. "We cannot get school certificates. We cannot have health benefits and other welfare. We cannot get good jobs because we don't have ID cards," he lamented.

    When applying for citizenship, the Moken are told to provide legal documents like birth certificates and personal information such as birth dates and places of birth.

    "But many of us were born on boats, not in hospitals, without witnesses other than our parents," said Supap.

    They are also told they cannot use the same witnesses for different citizenship applicants.

    "But we live in small family groups with little interaction with outsiders. If we cannot use the same people as witnesses, we have no chance of getting citizenship," said Supap. "The authorities should try to understand local realities."

    In fact, the rules the Moken are led to believe in do not exist. Exact birth dates and places of birth are not required either. The only legal requirement is reliable witnesses to confirm the applicant has been living in the area.

    But the authorities often argue that Moken from Myanmar will flock to Thai shores if they know they can easily get citizenship here. Such a view, if anything, reflects a refusal to accept that roaming the sea and crossing national boundaries is the Moken's way of life. Hence, their refusal to accept the Moken as indigenous people with full legal rights as citizens.

    The problem the Moken face is not poor citizenship regulations. It is prejudice and discrimination. Unless this changes, Teng's dream for better opportunities for his children and his people's lives will remain an uphill struggle.

     

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