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HRW decries state abuses of Moken people by Burma and Thailand

A group of Moken families rest in the shade of trees on an island in in the Mergui Archipelago, Burma. Pic: AP.

By Casey Hynes
June 26, 2015

The persecuted Rohingya Muslims of Burma’s Rakhine state have drawn international attention recently, rightly inspiring demands for an end to the discrimination and violence that drives thousands of Rohingya to risk their lives seeking refuge via dangerous sea voyages. Human rights groups have taken both Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand to task on the treatment of Rohingya, who are often refused refuge and exploited by smugglers and human traffickers. Last year, Phuketwan reported that Thai officials were involved in asmuggling operation that trafficked Rohingya refugees. Two Reuters journalists won a Pulitzer prize for reporting on those charges.

But now Human Rights Watch wants to draw attention to another outrage occurring off Burma’s shores, one the Burmese and Thai governments criminally exacerbate. HRW this week released a new report, “Stateless at Sea: The Moken of Burma and Thailand,” addressing human rights violations against this sea-faring community.

The Moken are considered one of the 135 ethnic races of Burma, but are a stateless people. These nomadic “sea gypsies” come from the Mergui Archipelago, and make their living off the sea. Roughly 3,000 Moken still call the archipelago near Burma’s southern coast home, while about 800 live in Thailand, according to HRW. However, those in Thailand struggle to access education and affordable health care, and are threatened by discriminatory laws that could push them out of their homes.

“In Thailand, the Moken’s ability to pursue their traditional livelihoods is limited by marine conservation regulations, such as the ban on gathering sea products for trade and chopping trees to build or repair boats,” the organization said in a press release. “Thai middlemen exploit Moken vulnerability in order to persuade them to undertake illegal and dangerous work, such as dynamite fishing. On land the Moken also face forced displacement, since they own no title to the traditional shore areas where they live for part of the year.”

HRW called on the Thai government to grant all legitimate asylum claims and to create better avenues for Moken to file complaints and abuses. Dynamite fishing operations exploit the Mokens’ free diving skills, sending them “under water with air running through thin plastic tubes hooked up to a diesel-run compressor so they can stay longer on the seabed to harvest their catch.”

Many of the divers die or suffer severe physical trauma from ascending too quickly from the dives, while others are killed and maimed using homemade bombs on the job. Of course, they have no recourse and receive little to no compensation after these accidents.

Most Moken cannot get an official state ID in Thailand because they don’t qualify for citizenship, and their stateless status makes it difficult for them to take advantage of state welfare programs, according to the report.

“Because most Moken children are born in villages with the assistance of local midwives or on boats, many do not have an official birth certificate,” it said. “And most cannot meet the residency requirement because their nomadic lifestyle results in their spending long periods of time outside of the country.”

HRW also noted that those Moken who have chosen to settle permanently in Phuket rather than live nomadically often must fight eviction from local businessmen.

HRW accuses the Burmese navy and other Burmese and Thai state authorities of “extortion, bribery, arbitrary arrest, and confiscation of property.” Moken people quoted in the report describe being shot at by Navy soldiers and extorted for what little they had. The threat of military violence prevents some Moken from being able to fish and gather food and goods to trade.

One man said,

They point their guns at us so we just jump into the water. If we show them that we have money then sometimes they stop bothering us and don’t take anything else. If we decide to stay on an island, or fish around it, then we have to pay the island head—and these are also Burmese soldiers.

HRW called on Burma to register the births of all Moken children, providing them with a pathway toward basic care and stability, to ensure equal rights for all Moken, comparable to those given to Burmese citizens. The first recommendation, of course, was to end the abuses being committed by state officials. As for Thailand, HRW insists on an end to threats of forced relocation, access to social welfare programs, and protection of labor rights.

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