Dy­na­mite fish­ing and drugs threaten Myan­mar’s ‘sea gyp­sies’

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - WORLD -

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.

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