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

Kuwait Times - - HEALTH & SCIENCE -

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, grey 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 neigh­bour­ing 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. Im­pov­er­ished, state­less and with re­stricted work­ing rights, some Mo­ken be­gan div­ing for fish­ing crews in the early 90s and continued af­ter the for­mer mil­i­tary gov­ern­ment forced many to live on the is­lands. “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.”

Drugs an added scourge

It’s risky, il­le­gal work. The fish­er­men travel to the de­serted outer is­lands where they are less likely to be caught. There the divers search for the best spot, be­fore throw­ing in the dy­na­mite and quickly rev­ers­ing away. Some breathe through thin plas­tic tubes hooked up to com­pres­sors, while oth­ers use no equip­ment. Many suf­fer de­com­pres­sion sick­ness, which can leave them crip­pled and un­able to walk. Oth­ers die as they swim up to the sur­face, or never sur­face at alla ter­ri­ble price to pay for a busi­ness whose prof­its largely slip over­seas. “Peo­ple say the boats are from Thai­land,” said 54-year-old Mo­ken man Ko Matt.

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. Win Myat was a teenager when his un­cle died, lost to the caf­feine-laced metham­phetamine pills known as ‘yaba’ that have flooded the area. “He would spend all his money on drugs,” the 20-year-old told AFP on Nyaung Wee is­land. “In the end he was very weak and al­ways be­came an­gry if he did not have the pills,” he added, re­quest­ing his name be changed.

“He made a lot of trou­ble for our fam­ily. Then he died.” Rights ac­tivist Khin Maung Htwe es­ti­mates around 40 per­cent of Mo­ken men on the is­lands use nar­cotics, ei­ther yaba or heroin from Myan­mar’s drug-pro­duc­ing bor­der­lands. Most are young men, leav­ing the Mo­ken women to marry the lo­cal eth­nic Karen and Burmese and set­tle fur­ther into a more land-based cul­ture. “Now there are not as many Mo­ken men as women left,” said Tun Aung Soe, 20, whose mother is Mo­ken and his fa­ther eth­nic Burmese. Ex­perts say the Mo­ken’s pop­u­la­tion in Myan­mar has fallen from around 5,000 over 10,000 if you in­clude other sea no­mads the Moklen and Urak La­woi-to 2,000-3,000 to­day.

‘Bet­ter on boats’

The col­lapse of fish stocks has been a dis­as­ter for the Mo­ken. A Nor­we­gian fish­eries re­search ves­sel which sur­veyed the Myeik ar­chi­pel­ago in 1980 and again in 2013 found ram­pant over­fish­ing had led to a 90 per­cent fall in the biomass of open ocean species of fish. Robert Howard, marine pro­gram ad­vi­sor for en­vi­ron­men­tal NGO Flora & Fauna In­ter­na­tional, said there are an es­ti­mated 8,000 smaller boats and many other large trawlers op­er­at­ing in the area. “If that keeps go­ing the fish­ery will even­tu­ally col­lapse,” he warned.

Many of the Mo­ken 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.” — AFP

Mo­ken chil­dren play in shal­low wa­ters in front of their home in Nyaung Wee vil­lage in the Myeik Ar­chi­pel­ago, off the coast of south­ern Myan­mar. Un­til re­cently the sea pro­vided the Mo­ken, a no­madic sea­far­ing tribe, 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.

Photo shows an ae­rial view of Mo­ken fish­ing boats in the Myeik Ar­chi­pel­ago, off the coast of south­ern Myan­mar. —AFP Pho­tos

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