Indigenous People on the Bottom


I’m in Koh Lanta, Thailand, an island on the Andaman sea in Southern Thailand. This is a Moslem area, and in general the people here don’t look like Thais do up north where we live, near Chiang Mai. I have come across a group of people living here who are distinctly of a piece, unlike their neighbors. Physically and linguistically distinct, they are most commonly called “Sea Gypsies,” and are much, much poorer than their neighbors.


They go by many names. Anthropologists call them Moken, and define them as a semi-nomadic Austronesian people, who live in the Mergui Archipelago, a group of approximately 800 islands in the Andaman Sea. In Thailand they live near Phi Phi, Krabi and Phuket. The ones who have assimilated themselves into Thai culture are called “Thai Mai” or “New Thai.”


The Burmese treat them the way they do anybody they don’t want around. They force them out of the country at gunpoint.  The Thais are more accommodating than the Burmese, but the Moken don’t have Thai citizenship, which means they cannot own land and are not entitled to free medical services. They’re refugees, as are the Hill Tribe people up near Chaing Mai and Chiang Rai; ethnically distinct people who were driven out of Burma.


There’s another distinct group, the Rohingya, who are not welcome anywhere, and are persecuted in Burma. The Burmese claim they belong in Bangladesh, and the Bangladeshis claim they’re Burmese.


Sad to see the extreme poverty of these people. The Moken are not Buddhists. They have their own religion, and in Koh Lanta town there’s a shrine to their gods.