Cross Cultural Foundation Report release: “They Never Asked Us What We Want”: Human Rights Situations During the Moken’s Humanitarian Crisis

March 15, 2019


morgan_S (1)

Cross Cultural Foundation’s Fact-Finding Mission,
Surin Islands, Phang Nga Province,
18-19 February 2019

Disaster Hits the Moken Village
On 3 February 2019, a village of the Moken  people
in   the  Surin  Islands’s   Bon   Yai   Bay  caught  fire
which burned down 61 houses, leaving at least 237
villagers homeless.  Among the affected people are
76  children  under  the  age of  15 ; 35  of them are
young  girls.   At   least  one  person  suffered  from
a minor injury. Moreover, 34 fishing boats, 38 boat
engines, and 11 electric generators  were damaged
in the fire, resulting in difficulties for many villagers
who rely on fishing for their subsistence.
After having received information about this incident,
Cross-Cultural Foundation (CrCF) undertook a fact-finding
mission in the village during 18-19 February 2019.

Background on the Human Rights Situations of the Moken
The  Moken,  known  as  “ sea gypsies, ”  are  seafaring
indigenous people living  along the ThailandMyanmar
marine  border  in   the   Andaman   Sea.   Historically,
they   had  a  semi-nomadic  hunter-gatherer  lifestyle,
migrating  from  place  to  place,  living  on  the  sea in
a traditional wooden boat called kabang, and subsisting
on artisanal fishing. During the monsoon season (May-
October), they would move back to the shore and live in
a temporary  stilt  house. However, after the emergence
of modern nation-states and demarcation  of  national
boundaries, the Moken has become subjected  to strict
regulations  under  both  the  Thai  and  Myanmar
government and their lifestyle completely altered.

In Thailand, many areas where the Moken had previously
lived   have  been   declared    as    marine  national  parks,
so  national  park  authorities  are  key actors who directly
manage and enforce restrictions on the Moken’s way of life.
“ They  want  to  keep us  here  but only  as  decorations of
the  National  Park  for  the  tourists to enjoy, ”  said one of
the Moken villagers, referring to the Surin Islands National
Park  authorities.  Under  the  National Park’s   regulations,
the   Moken   are   banned  from  chopping  woods  in  the
island  to  build  or  repair  their kabangs. During our field
visit, CrCF found that the Moken in  the  Surin  Islands  no
longer have any kabang left and have relocated their families
to live in  a thatched, stilted hut on the shore  by  necessity.
Moreover, under the government’s  maritime conservation
policies, they are not  allowed to sell sea products that they
can gather to land-based communities. Therefore,  most of
them have to work  as  boat  drivers,  cooks,  or  handicraft
sellers in the national park.

During the mission, CrCF found that the Moken villagers
face various forms of systematic human rights abuses.
Some examples include forced eviction and resettlement,
inability to access healthcare and education, dangerous
workplace environments, and statelessness. Nonetheless,
this report does not aim at providing comprehensive
documentation of the Moken’s human rights situations
but rather shedding some light on human rights issues
relevant to the fire incident.

“They never asked us what we want”
: Charity without Community Participation

  1. House design and layout

According to the information CrCF received, the Surin
Islands  National  Park  authorities  and the Thai Navy
approached  the  scene immediately after the incident
to provide humanitarian assistance to victims of the fire.
A great amount of financial and material aids subsequently
poured  into the village. Shortly after, 94 officers from
operational military units were sent to the village to help
alleviate the impact of the disaster and re-construct the
houses.  Planning  to finish  the  reconstruction  by late
March or early April, the military officials were quick to
begin the construction process, having already dug holes
and laid foundations and poles for all the 61 houses.
However, the Moken villagers were not at all consulted
about the planning and layout of their new houses and
the process of reconstruction.

In the Surin Islands’ Moken Village, 2-3 families often live
together  in  a  single  house,  with each family having 4-5
members on average. Initially, the government planned to
allocate  only  a  space of a 3 x 6.5 square meters for each
house, which is an impossibly small area for  8-15 people
to  live  in.  Later,  the  Network  for  Sea  Gypsies  in
the  Andaman  Sea  successfully  urged the government to
change  the  housing  layout  to  5 x 8.5  square meters for
each house.  Still,  the government did not further consult
the community about their needs, and many villagers still
have several concerns as follows:

  • The houses are built very close to each other.
    The  government has decided to strictly rebuild
    the  houses on the 6.1 rai that the villagers used
    to  live  on,  even though the community thinks
    that their residential space should be expanded
    for  future  prevention  of  disaster.  There  is so
    little  space  that  the  roofs  of each house touch
    one  another.  If any house in the village catches
    fire  in  the  future, this design may make it easy
    for the fire to spread to other houses in a short time.


  • The house has a low basement (approximately 1.35-
    meter high) .  This  area  is  traditionally   used  for
    hanging  out  and  docking  the  Moken’s  traditional
    boat called However, such activities are not feasible
    with this design.

CrCF is concerned that the new house design and layout
will be uninhabitable for the Moken villagers. Previously,
after the 2004 Tsunami destroyed many Moken villagers’
residences, donors and government agencies  went  into
affected    areas    to    help    rebuild   houses   for   them.
McDuie-Ra et al. (2013) studied the spatial dysfunction of
Baan  Lion,  a   village   constructed   by   the   Lions  Club
International  Foundation,  and  found  that  the  lack of
consultation  and  engagement  of  the  local  Moken
community in the construction process leads to the
uninhabitability of the finished houses.Should

McDuie-Ra, Robinson, & Kaewmahanin, “ Spatial dysfunction
in post-tsunami Baan Lion: Taking the Moken beyond
vulnerability  and  tradition ”  (2013) the government
officials continue to take the villagers’ opinions for granted,
the newly constructed

The Moken villagers’ houses under construction,
Taken by Cross-Cultural Foundation, 19 February 2019


  1. Donations

Upon our arrival at the Moken village in Bon Yai Bay,
we find that the villagers have received an overwhelming
amount of donations in the form of food, clothes and
other utilities. However, these donations do not necessarily
match the needs of the local community. As we explored
the shelter area for villagers whose houses burned down,
we came across a tall pile of unwanted used clothes that
became a playground for Moken children.
Narumon Arunotai, a prominent anthropologist for
Chulalongkorn University who has also visited  the village,
raised concerns that these donations may become rubbish.
If so, the donations will not only be useless but also create
a burden for the villagers to dispose of them. Similar to the
problems of house design and layout, the increasing amount
of  unusable  donations  is  a  direct  result  of  the  lack  of
engaging  the  Moken villagers in the strategic planning of
humanitarian assistance to ensure that external organizations
and individuals provide aids that correspond with
the community’s actual needs.

  1. Food supplies and other necessities

While   the   Moken   villagers   wait   for   the  reconstruction
of   their  houses  to  finish,  the   Thai  government   provides
them   with  food,  temporary  shelter,  and  other  necessities.
While  most  of  the  villagers’  fundamental  needs have been
addressed,  several   of   them   expressed  a  strong  sense of
frustration  that   stems   from   the    official    restriction  of
their activities. Before the fire incident, every Moken family
in the Surin Islands earns their income by making bracelets
for their children to sell at the  National  Park.  However, the
fire had destroyed many  families’  wax  rope and beads that
they use to  make  the  bracelets,  as  well  as  all  of their cash.

“We simply want some wax rope
and beads to make bracelets,
but they never asked what we want.

– A moken villager

“We simply want some wax rope and beads to make bracelets,”
said  a  young  Moken  lady, “But they never asked us what we
want.”  Several  women  in  the  village  echoed  the  same
sentiments,  which  signify the Moken’s desire for self-reliance
and   independence. However,  since  their  cash  had  been
burned  down, they cannot buy materials for the bracelets to
restart their business.

Moreover,  the  authorities  do  not  see  the  importance  of
their  work.  Once  a  CrCF  staff  enquired the local officials
about whether  they  can  buy  the  villagers some materials
for   making   bracelets,  they  refused  and  responded  that
the villagers would be able to resume their bracelet-making
business only after the reconstruction process ends.
“For  now,  they  can   live  off  the  aids  that  we  have  been
providing.   Instead  of  making  bracelets,  they  could  have
helped  us  do  other  works,  but  they  are  just  too  lazy,”
said  a  civilian  official from Kuraburi district. What he said
reflects  the  negative  racial  stereotypes  of  indigenous
populations in Thailand, including the Moken, as ‘backward,’
‘incompetent,’  and  ‘lazy’  that  prevails  among  ethnic
Thai people.  This racial prejudice results in a misperception
that  the  indigenous  people  do  not  know  what  they want,
therefore  undeserving  of  direct  participation  in
decision – making   processes   about  their  home  territories
and  requiring  authoritative,  top – down   guidance  and
leadership  from  more  ‘civilized’  and ‘better-educated’
people, i.e., ethnic Thai people.

CrCF   commends   the  government  authorities   for   its  rapid
shelter and food support after the fire incident.  Such  a  timely
humanitarian   response   has   saved   many   lives   of   Moken
villagers and restored their dignity and security  in the time of
crisis. Despite the Thai government’s seemingly good intention,
the absence of community engagement  in  the  reconstruction
process,   tinged  with  racial  prejudice,  does  not  only  fail  to
empower   the   Moken  villagers  but  also  subjects  them  into
a  more  vulnerable,   helpless   position.   Most   villagers  now
have  to  rely  solely  and passively on the State’s humanitarian
assistance  and  private  charity.  They  can  neither  express
what kind of assistance they want nor seek out any alternatives.


Policy and legal recommendations:
Towards the right to self-determination for the Moken

On 11 February 2019, the Network of Andaman Seafaring
Ethnic  People,   represented  by  Mr.  Wittawat Thepsong,
handed  a  letter  to Mr. Wicharn Simachaya, Secretary of
the  Ministry  of   Natural   Resources   and   Environment,
who  acts as Chairman of the Committee for the Affairs of
Indigenous Peoples. The letter  demands  the  Ministry  of
Natural  Resources  and  Environment to temporarily halt
the  reconstruction  of  houses  in  the  Moken  village  in
the Surin Islands and proposes three following requests 


These requests do not deviate  much  from  the  government’s
already-existing agenda to improve theMoken’s quality of life.
On 2 June 2010, the government issued Cabinet Resolution on
the  Rehabilitation  of  Sea  Gypsies’  Ways  of  Life
( hereinafter  “ Cabinet  Resolution ” ). The Cabinet Resolution
indicates that the government will create short-term measures
for  housing  security,  publichealth  assistance,  nationality
verification,  access  to  education,  cultural  promotion,
elimination of racial stereotypes, and budget allocation to the
Network  for  Sea  Gypsies.  It  also outlines a longterm plan to
create  the  “ Special  Cultural  Zone ”   for  the  sea  gypsies  to
accommodate their specific cultural traits. However,
the resolution has never been fully implemented. As
demonstrated in 19 this report, the Moken in the Surin Islands
still face issues of forced eviction/settlement and racial
discrimination. CrCF, therefore, echoes the requests of
the Network of Andaman Seafaring Ethnic People and
specifically urges the Thai government to follow-up on its
commitment to protecting the Moken’s human rights by
ensuring effective implementation of the resolution.

Moreover, the solutions proposed under the 2010 Cabinet
Resolution may not sufficiently protect the Moken from
the structural human rights abuses that they face.
CrCF believes that the Thai government should follow the
international human rights standards, to which the
Thai government has committed itself, as a guideline to
create measures to protect the Moken. For example, as a
party to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of
Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) and the International
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial
Discrimination (ICERD), Thailand is obligated under the
international law to create measures to ensure that the
Moken, as well as other indigenous groups, enjoy full human
rights, especially the right to self-determination, which is
directly related to the situation of the Moken in the Surin Islands.

Article 4 of UNDRIP provides “ Indigenous  peoples,
in exercising their right to self-determination, have
the right to autonomy or self-government in matters
relating to their internal and local affairs,as well as
ways  and  means  for  financing  their  autonomous
functions. ”  In  her  analysis  of  the  concept  of
“ self-determination ”  in  UNDRIP,  legal researcher
Anna Cowan asserted that it entails the following elements :

1.) Meaningful participation in decision-making
processes (Article 18);
2.) Freedom from racial discrimination
(Article 1,2, and 9).

Article 2: “Indigenous peoples and individuals
are free and equal to all other peoples and
individuals and have the right to be
free from any kind of discrimination,
in the exercise of their rights, in particular
that based on their indigenous origin or identity”

Article 18: “Indigenous peoples have
the right to participate in decision-making
in matters which would affect their rights,
through representatives chosen
by themselves in accordance with their own
procedures, as well as to maintain and develop
their own indigenous decision-making institutions.”

 – United Nations Declaration on the Rights
of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP)

Even though there is a mechanism for indigenous peoples
to participate in decision-making processes that determine
their future, it still would not be “meaningful” if they are
still stereotypically perceived as “incompetent” and,
therefore, not worth taking seriously. Likewise, even though
the society may be more or less free of racialized prejudices,
the indigenous people who have been historically subjected
to political disenfranchisement by colonialism and state-making
projects will not be able to determine their future because they
lack institutional access to decision-making processes. Cowan’s
analysis draws on a close reading of UNDRIP to demonstrate
that indigenous peoples can never truly determine their
own future without the symbiotic combination between
meaningful community participation in decision making
and freedom from racial discrimination.

Apart from UNDRIP, Thailand has several obligations under
the ICERD. In 1997, the Committeeon the Elimination of
All Forms of Racial Discrimination (hereinafter “the Committee”)
has issued the General Recommendation XXII,
which specifically  urges State parties to “ensure that members
of indigenous peoples have equal rights in respect of effective
participation in public life and that no decisions directly
relating to their rights and interests are taken without
their informed consent.” Moreover, the recommendation
suggests that state parties “recognize and protect the rights
of indigenous peoples to own, develop, control and use their
communal lands, territories, and resources.” During the review
of Thailand’s commitment to the ICERD in November 2012, CrCF,
together with its partner organizations, submitted a shadow
report that points to the lack of indigenous community
participation in local resource management. In the Concluding
Observation, the 21 Committee raised similar concerns about
the violations of indigenous people’s rights and recommended
that Thailand respected its commitments to indigenous
rights in accordance with ICERD and UNDRIP.22

Under these international legal commitments, Thailand must
ensure that the Moken have the right to self-determination,
with full ability to participate in decision-making processes
related to their rights and freedom from racial discrimination
and negative stereotypes. Accordingly, CrCF proposes
the following recommendations:

  1. Every development plan must receive free, prior, and
    informed consent from the Moken villagers before it
    begins. The government should create a mechanism for
    the Moken villagers to govern themselves by taking a lead
    on designing, delivering, and monitoring development
    programs in their local community.
  2. The government should facilitate regular participation
    of the Moken in decision-making institutions and local
    governments, both at the national and local levels.
    Moreover, the government should provide financial and
    linguistic support to ensure the effectiveness of such
  3. State officials must undergo training about anti-racism
    training to eliminate negative stereotypes and prejudices
    about indigenous peoples.


Disclaimer: This document has been produced within the context
of financial assistance from the European Union (EU)
and UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
The views expressed herein can in no way be taken to reflect
the official opinion and policy of the EU and OHCHR.


They never ask us what we want”_Moken’s Human Rights Situation Report by CrCF

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