‘Sea gypsies’ find relief as pandemic halts tourism

On calmer shores: Moken children playing on Rawai Beach beach at their settlement on the southern Thai island of Phuket. — AFP

THE virus had wrought havoc worldwide, but for the “sea gypsies” it brought welcome respite from the threat of mass tourism.

Since the pandemic began, life has been easier for Sanan Changnam and his people – there’s lots of fish to eat and projects on their ancestral land have halted.

In the Andaman Sea’s blue waters, linked to the surface by a pipe stuck in his mask – a “thread of life” letting him to breathe – Sanan stalks fish and shellfish, spear in hand.

A few kicks of his flippers and he skewers three groupers before rising to the surface.

With Thailand closed to foreign visitors for the past eight months, tourist boats are stuck at the quay and fishing has been easier for the Chao Lay, or “people of the sea”.

“We don’t dive as deep as before, it’s less dangerous, ” Sanan, 42, said.

His ancestors, nomads who came from Indonesia nearly 300 years ago, took land in Rawai, a beach in the south of Phuket, long before it was a popular tourist destination.

Over nine million visitors came to Phuket in 2019 and the boom had a huge impact, bringing declining fish stocks, shrinking fishing grounds and a frenzy of construction.

The traditional life of the Chao Lay, also known as “sea gypsies”, has been turned upside down – but the pandemic has brought a pause.

“It gives us a bit of a breather, ” says Alim, Sanan’s uncle.

Authorities are less strict when the Chao Lay sail in protected marine reserves or near islets usually reserved for tourists.

“We risked being arrested or having our boats confiscated, ” he says.

“We sometimes went up too fast to the surface, not respecting decompression times. It was dangerous, there were injuries, even deaths.”

The threat of eviction also hangs over the 1,200 Chao Lay living in Rawai, where developers have been eyeing their land – a strip a few hundred metres long facing the sea.

But with tourism halted, Phuket’s economy is paralysed, tens of thousands of workers have returned to their home provinces and construction projects are at a standstill.

“We hope all of this will be abandoned. They want to drive us out of our homes, but also to deny us access to the sea, ” says Ngim Damrongkaset, 75, a Rawai representative.

For the animist Chao Lay the beach is a vital space where they keep their colourful wooden boats and where they pray and give thanks to their ancestors.

The battle with tourism promoters is unequal – many Chao Lay are illiterate and did not know they could register land in their name.

Many families today have no legal title to the land they live on, though the government is trying to help them prove that they were there long before the investors.

It has ordered analysis of old aerial photographs and of the bones of Chao Lay ancestors – traditionally buried on the beach so they can still hear the sound of the waves.

Narumon Arunotai, an anthropologist at Bangkok’s Chulalongkorn University, says the government “must seize the opportunity provided by the pandemic to rethink their vision on Chao Lay”.

“Covid is an opportunity to change mentalities. Mass tourism in Phuket has been a catastrophe for the sea gypsies, ” she adds.

One option is authorities buying land and entrusting it to them permanently. Bangkok recently allocated an area of mangrove to a Chao Lay community to temporarily live – a first step but not a permanent fix.

It has also committed itself to preserving their oral traditions, without much effect so far.

People in Rawai face many problems, including alcohol and disease.

“They need special education that preserves their culture. The government needs also to allow them to fish more freely, ” says Narumon.

The Chao Lay have unique gifts and traditions that serve them well.

Children of the Moken – one of the Chao Lay’s three branches – have 50% better visual acuity in water than their European counterparts, according to a 2003 study.

And their deep understanding of their environment allowed many of them to spot the warning signs of the devastating 2004 tsunami and flee.

Most of them escaped and helped many tourists to safety too.

“We will always be the children of the sea, ” smiles Alim. — AFP

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