Dynamite fishing and drugs threaten Myanmar’s ‘sea gypsies’
MYEIK ARCHIPELAGO, Myanmar — With a swift breath the teenage boy dives into the turquoise waters of southern Myanmar, a spear clutched in his hand, but below him lies nothing but a graveyard of broken, gray coral.
He is one of the Moken, a nomadic seafaring tribe who have perfected this freedive fishing technique over hundreds of years among the 800 islands that dot the Myeik archipelago and neighboring southern Thailand.
Until recently the sea provided them with everything they needed: a base for boats they lived in, fish and seafood to eat and bounty such as pearls to trade with islanders for fuel and rice.
But the waters have been devastated by the commercial fishing industry that has eaten away the area’s once abundant marine life.
The destruction has been wrought by fishing boats, many believed to be from neighboring Thailand, who use dynamite and trawlers to sweep the seabed.
In a cruel chain reaction, some Moken youths have ended up working for the fishing fleets that are destroying the ecosystem that supported them through the generations.
“When we were young, a husband could easily support his family,” Kar Shar, the Moken leader in Makyone Galet village, recalled as he smoked his pipe outside his stilted, corrugated-iron house.
“Now the whole family has to work to survive, and sometimes even that is not enough.”
Many islanders, including local Karen and Burmese as well as the Moken — known as Salon in Myanmar or “Sea Gypsies” in the West — have been caught up in the trade.
“There is a lot of dynamite fishing,” said Jacques Ivanoff, an expert at France’s CNRS and the Musee de l’Homme who has spent decades working with the Moken.
“Left alone ... (they) have no other choice to make a living.”
Risky and illegal
It’s risky, illegal work, but for many the potential profits make the dangers worth it. Divers can earn more than $100 in a night, compared to an average wage of $3 a day on the islands.
Some Moken have turned to drugs to cope with the strain of the work and say fishing is no longer enough to sustain them.
Today less than half of those living on the Myeik archipelago lead the seafaring life of their ancestors, and that number is declining.
No one has made a kabang, the traditional wooden boat in which people used to spend most of their lives, for a decade.
Kar Shar, the Moken leader in Makyone Galet village, longs for those days again.
“When we lived on the boats we could move to other places if the current place was not good, but now we cannot,” he said.
“Life was better on the boats.”
what divers can earn in a night working for the fishing fleets, compared to an average wage of $3 a day on the islands
A Moken fisherman holding a spear dives to hunt for fish in the waters of the Myeik Archipelago, off the coast of southern Myanmar.