BANGKOK – The governments of Thailand and Myanmar must end discrimination and other abuses against a nomadic seafaring tribe whose livelihood in their waters has been upended by development, a human rights group said Thursday.
Human Rights Watch said in a report that the Moken, often dubbed "sea gypsies," face extortion and other abuses by authorities, while also under restrictions due to new conservation and immigration laws. The New York-based group says the Moken are particularly vulnerable because most are stateless as a result of their nomadic lifestyle.
The Moken grabbed the world's attention when they were able to save themselves from the ravages of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami because their intimate knowledge of the sea allowed them to recognize warning signs of the disaster and flee to high ground.
The tsunami robbed the sea of many of the natural resources from which the Moken extracted a subsistence living, and commercial fishing further depleted the waters.
"Far from the idyllic image that tourism promotes of the Moken people, these sea nomads face increasing restrictions and attacks at sea, and systematic discrimination on land," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The group estimates that 3,000 Moken live mostly on small boats on islands along Myanmar's southern coast, while neighboring Thailand is home to about 800.
The report charges that state authorities — particularly Myanmar's navy — carry out extortion, bribery, confiscation of property and other abuses of the Moken's rights.
In Thailand, regulations including the ban on gathering sea products for trade and chopping trees to build or repair boats, limit the Moken's traditional livelihoods, the report said. Their resettlement on land since the tsunami has caused problems, since they generally hold no title to valuable seafront properties.
Myanmar officials were not available to comment on the report.
Thai deputy government spokesman Maj. Gen. Verachon Sukhonthapatiphak said that while the government is trying to help the Moken, the law does not easily allow them to be granted citizenship, an action Human Rights Watch says would help uplift them.
Virat Sompobsunart, who has been working seven years to help Moken children, told The Associated Press that the lack of citizenship has kept the Moken from access to basic rights and welfare.
"When the children have accidents and are brought to the hospitals, they have to pay a large sum of money because they don't have the paper showing they are Thai citizens," said Virat, a coordinator at the Mercy Center, a Bangkok-based non-governmental organization.