The islands that make up the Mergui Archipelago in Burma are home to large populations of Moken people, often referred to as sea gypsies. Under the current Burmese regime the Moken receive little help in the form of health care and education. Depending nearly entirely on the sea, the fishermen face more and more pressures every year to their very existence. Often bullied by the mainland fishing fleets for supplies and easily swayed by the Thais to adopt unsustainable and destructive fishing methods such as blast fishing the simple Moken way of life may become a thing of the past.
During the 2010-2011 season Thailand Dive & Sail with the staff of MV Similan Jazz, have been collecting unwanted or used glasses to distribute amongst the Moken people to help improve the quality of life for those with poor eye sight. On 1 March 2011 MV Jazz embarked on her third Burma 9 Day Discovery Trip, a trip planned with adventure and discovery at heart but also with important work to do. In attendance were Dr Andrea Marshall & Dr Lindsay Marshall, two world renowned marine biologists. The trip was to be the final part of a four year project to tag Giant Manta Rays (Manta birostris) around the world. After successful satellite tagging at five major aggregation sites around the globe, only the Andaman Sea area remained. Having been refused permission by the Thai authorities to tag mantas in Thai coastal waters all hopes of completing this project rested in Burma. For Thailand Dive & Sail the trip was our chance to distribute the glasses we had been collecting all season.
On our second day of the trip, after diving at the Three Islets we made a course for Ma Kyone Galet, situated to the south of Kyunn Tann Shey (Lampi Island) on a small low lying Island called Bo Cho approximately 85km northwest of Kaw Thaung. Ma Kyone Galet is home to one of the largest Moken villages in the Mergui Archipelago. We spent the two hour journey cleaning the glasses and attaching literature written in simple Burmese with our message we hoped to leave with the villages;
“Fishing using bombs kill everything underwater. If bombing continues there may not be fish left for your children and their children. Help us stop the bombing and return to old methods of fishing”
As we headed through the narrow water way between the islands we were greeted by a tranquil scene of Moken longtail boats moored off the beach. We could see the simple wooden houses and the glints of gold reflecting from the buddhist temple set amongst the palm trees and rainforest. Negotiating ?the strong currents between the islands we made it ashore in our small dingy. Although we have visited many Moken settlements during our years diving in Mergui, any guest to these villages is instantly brought down to earth by the simplistic way of life lead by the Moken. Children of varied ages play on the beach, fishermen repair their boats, others dry their catch in the sun, all under the lounging, watchful gaze of the of the village elders. Time slows down as visitors forget about internet connections, deadlines and pressures of modern life as they are transported to another world.
After a precarious walk along the beach, dodging and tripping over mooring lines from the many boats, our Burmese guide Nai Nai introduced us to Ko Ht´we, a Burmese man from Kaw Thaung who had married a local Moken woman and settled on Bo Cho. With Nai Nai translating we explained our intentions and Ko Ht´we agreed to introduce us to the 2nd chief of the village, the village chief being away at the mainland. As we approached the town centre we were gaining a large entourage of children and villages, curious as to our purpose. No one, including ourselves really knew what was going on, but something was happening and there was a buzz in the air. We were ushered into the local medical centre and offered seats with the local nurse, 4 notable villages, Ko Ht´we and our invaluable guide Nai Nai. An awkward silence descended on us as we waited until all were present and settled.
Thailand Dive & Sail were joined by Dr Andrea Marshall and Dr Lindsay Marshall, whose experience in these matters was a great calming influence. We were nervous and slightly daunted by the prospect of addressing an entire village. Was our idea going to work? We explained we had been collecting glasses for those in the community with poor eyesight. Our explanation was met with blank stares from the six villagers seated opposite us. Were they suspicious of our intentions? Afterwhat seemed like a very long pause the villagers asked us some well informed questions, ‘how do we know who needs glasses?’, ‘how do we test our eyes?’ and one man even telling us he required 2.5 prescription glasses. Maybe we had not thought everything through well enough, blank stares greeted us from around the room. Then Clive and Andrea suggested that we could use books to test people’s sight. One of the village chiefs was handed a book, he donned a pair of glasses and stared at the printed words before him for what seemed like an age. He quietly passed the book to the man seated to his left saying nothing and looking blankly at us. This did not seem to be going to plan. Then an elderly villager entered the room, he was slightly crippled and from the way he felt about the room it was clear this man had very poor eye sight. The nurse offered him a pair of glasses, he tried them before being handed another pair. His eyes widened and his face cracked into a crooked smile at the realisation he could see again. This broke the ice andsoon villagers were picking up glasses, testing them with books, magazines, medicine labels and our printed message included with every pair. If the glasses were not needed they were passed onto the next person. Everyone was smiling and chatting with each other as more and more people entered the room to try the glasses. Some villagers obviously did not need glasses but tried them anyway just to join the fun. We were swept along by this change in atmosphere and soon we were posing for photographs with spectacle clad villagers, relieved and overjoyed our idea was proving to be a great success.
After many group photographs we took a stroll along the line of houses near the centre of the village. We were beckoned over to a small group of ladies and children sat on the veranda of one of the basic Moken houses. An old lady explained to our guide Nai Nai that she had heard what was happening but saddened as she had not made it in time to try a pair of glasses. Her eye sight was very poor and she was finding it difficult in her old age to fish for cuttlefish. Living alone with no husband or children to help her she was becoming totally reliant on her neighbours for help. Nai Nai quickly headed back to the medical centre claiming there was one pair of glasses left. We did not even expect the glasses to be there let alone be a pair that would be the correct prescription to correct her sight. Nai Nai returned clutching an old, respectable looking, gold rimmed pair of bifocal glasses. We waited tentatively as she tried the glasses.
It was a real long shot but luck was with the village this day and she beamed her approval. The glasses were perfect helping correct both her near and far sight. Surprisingly she switched to speaking in Thai thanking us with the familiar Thai, kop khun kha. The Moken are often quite shy due to language difficulties but she happily spoke to us in Thai, explaining she had learnt the language when she was younger whilst working at fish markets in Ranong, Thailand. This was the defining moment of the whole afternoon as we listened to the now extremely cheerful lady, chatting about her life. It was with some sadness when we had to leave her but we needed to speak with the nurse. Now we had made contact with the people of Ma Kyone Galet we wanted to see if there was anything we could do for the village in the future, plus we wanted to speak with the elders about the blast fishing that unscrupulous Thai fishermen are organising in the southern part of Mergui.
With Nai Nai translating again we listened to the nurse. The biggest problem the villagers faced was that of malaria. She explained that the Moken do receive some help from the Burmese Junta in the form of medical supplies and malaria treatment but often when she visits the mainland there are not enough malaria tablets available. We noted the type of medicine required, photographing the various forms of tablets. Bolstered with confidence from our glasses campaign new ideas were quickly forming for our new campaign for the 2011-2012 season. Vowing to help obtain malaria medicine we left to find Ko Ht´we’s house.
Ko Ht´we had settled with his Moken family in a fine but simple wooden house near the village outskirts. We spoke about the blast fishing in Southern Mergui. We were positive that the Moken people were suffering as this practise seems to be on the increase. Ko Ht´we confirmed our suspicions and went to great lengths to distance himself and the village from this destructive fishing method. He explained that fishing is becoming more difficult for the people and that the village is receiving unwanted attention from the hapless efforts of the Burmese Navy to stop the bombing. He said that the Navy are suspicious that they are to blame for blast fishing. The bombs are manufactured in Ranong, Thailand and then transferred to small longtail boats often crewed by migrant refugees from Rohinga. After several days bombing the catch is then transferred back to Thailand. Ko Ht´we gave us contact information of a NGO organisation that is currently setting up a base in the area to help the Moken and hopefully end the blast fishing. Thailand Dive & Sail hope to work with this organisation in the coming months and also continue our efforts with the Burmese Ministry for Hotels & Tourism to end this destructive fishing method.
As we made course for our night dive site heading west from Bo Cho our group members discussed our experiences on the island. Some Burma first timers said that Ma Kyone Galet was one of the most beautiful places they have seen, others were touched by the friendly smiles and waves from the Moken as we departed, some moved by the simple hand to mouth existence of these people. For Thailand Dive & Sail we departed with a satisfactory glow inside knowing we had achieved more than we hoped for and full of confidence that we can do more for the Moken in the future. None of this would have been possible without the help of Morgan and Ana, who kindly donated the first glasses to our appeal, and very special thanks to Paul, Fiona and the residents around Middleton-on-Sea, UK without whom none of this would have been possible.
For the up coming 2011-2012 season, Thailand Dive & Sail hope to collect more glasses for other Moken villages. We also intend to obtain enough Malaria medicine so no-one in these villages are left untreated and to provide mosquito nets for every house or dwelling. We are also looking for sponsors ?to help clean up the beaches at these villages. Rain water accumulates in the trash that litters the beach becoming a breading ground for mosquitos. The medicine we collect can be a cure for the disease but we hope to educate the people to prevent the spread of malaria in the first place. To bring about environmental changes in the Mergui region we first have to win the trust of the local indigenous populations. We made our first tentative steps towards this goal in March 2011 and hope with continued help and support we can do much, much more.