Human Rights Watch presses Thai, Myanmar govts to ensure Moken people's rights

Human Rights Watch presses Thai, Myanmar govts to ensure Moken people's rights
This child of the Moken people is featured in a travel pictorial book titled One Planet. Also known as"Sea Gypsies', the Moken live on houseboats and in semi-permanent stilt villages off Thailand's Andaman Coast, subsisting largely on fish from the surrounding coral reefs.
PHOTO: Lonely Planet

The governments of Thailand and Myanmar should immediately end discrimination and other rights abuses against the Moken, sea nomads who are among the few remaining hunter-gatherer populations in Southeast Asia, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said in a new report yesterday.

About 3,000 Moken live mostly on small boats within the Mergui archipelago along Myanmar's south coast, while another 800 are settled in Thailand.

The 25-page report, "Stateless at Sea: The Moken of Burma and Thailand", describes in words and photographs alleged violations of the Moken people's rights by state authorities, including extortion, bribery, arbitrary arrest, and confiscation of property. HRW also examines tightening immigration and maritime conservation laws that it says threaten their freedom of movement and traditional lifestyle.

Most Moken, known is Thai as chao le (sea people), are stateless, making them extremely vulnerable to human-rights abuse and depriving them of access to medical care, education, and employment opportunities, HRW says.

"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 HRW Asia director Brad Adams. "By effectively denying them citizenship, the Thai and Burmese governments make the Moken easy targets for exploitation and other threats to their very existence."

In Thailand, the Moken's ability to pursue their traditional livelihoods is limited by marine conservation regulations, such as the ban on gathering sea products for trade and chopping down trees to build or repair boats, HRW said.

It said Thai middlemen exploited Moken vulnerability to persuade them to undertake illegal and dangerous work, such as dynamite fishing. On land the Moken also face forced displacement, since they own no title to the traditional shore areas where they live for part of the year.

The Thai government should review all applications from Moken for citizenship and grant those with legitimate claims, HRW urged. The authorities should end threats of forced resettlement of Moken populations, create a complaints mechanism that Moken can access when their rights are violated, and support access to culturally suitable education for Moken children and lawful work opportunities.

The Moken are listed as one of the 135 recognised "ethnic races" of Myanmar under the 1982 Citizenship Act, but the issuance of national identity cards to the Moken has been inconsistent, hindering their travel within that country, HRW said.

The Myanmar government is required to provide ID cards to all who are entitled; to ensure birth-registration documents are issued to Moken children; and to provide the Moken equal access to social welfare, education, health, and other services provided to other citizens, the US-based rights group said.

A Moken man named Gamat from Myanmar told HRW that navy officials "point their guns at us so we just jump into the water. If we show them that we have money, then sometimes they stop bothering us and don't take anything else. If we decide to stay on an island, or fish around it, then we have to pay the island head - and these are also [Myanmar] soldiers."

In recent years, more Moken have given up their nomadic ways and decided to reside permanently in Thailand or Myanmar.

Both governments should act to protect and promote their rights and ensure that the Moken are treated in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, HRW said.

"Burma and Thailand need to recognise and respect the Moken people's rights to live as they always have," Adams said.

"Protecting them from abuses, ensuring a path to citizenship, |and providing access to basic services is best way forward for these indigenous and too often exploited people."

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