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The Moken of Southeast Asia

May 19, 2011

There’s a beautiful photo-essay gallery over at Survival International of the Moken, a semi-nomadic people in Southeast Asia that subsist largely on the sea.    Award-winning photographer Cat Vinton spent 6 weeks with a semi-nomadic family in the Surin Islands. Her photographs are of Father Pe Tat, Mother Sabi, and their children.

Check it out here.

Sadly, the Moken’s way of life is endangered.  A peaceable people, they have frequently been persecuted by the Burmese and Thai governments, both of whom are wary of their border-less lives, and have tried to settle the Moken permanently in national parks.  Their semi-nomadic numbers have also diminished in recent years due to political and post-tsunami regulations, companies drilling for oil off-shore, governments seizing their lands for tourism development and industrial fishing. ‘Today, the big boats come and take every fish. I wonder what they will do when the ocean is empty?’ Hook Suriyan Katale told film-maker Runar J. Wiik.

A website – Moken Projects – has been created to help raise awareness of their situation.

A few good excerpts from the gallery:

  • A recent scientific study conducted by Lund University in Sweden showed that the eyesight of Moken children is 50% more powerful than that of European children. Over hundreds of years they have developed the unique ability to focus under water, using their visual skills to dive for food on the sea floor. ‘They use the optics of the eye to the limits of what is humanly possible,’ says biologist Anna Gislén.
  • The Moken’s extraordinary knowledge of the sea, winds and lunar cycles is not written down. Theirs is an oral history, rich in myths, legends and songs; children learn to ‘read’ nature through observation and experience.
  • ‘For the Moken, the ocean is our entire universe,’ says Hook Suriyan Katale.
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