From the end of the monsoon season in 2006 (September) until the start of the next monsoon (April 2007) I worked on different projects in South-East Asia. One of the assignments was co-writing and ultimately location scouting for a feature film about a boy who drifts out to sea when the Tsunami hit in 2004. In order for the Producers to be able to come up with a workable budget, I organized an expedition up along the western coastline of Thailand logging and documenting potential underwater locations. Finally we approached the Burmese (Myanmar) border, and cast anchor in a lagoon on Mu Koh Surin (The Surin Islands). This is the southernmost Islands in the Mergui (Myeik) archipelago which consists of more than 800 Islands all together. Surin is also the only small group of Islands in the Mergui Archipelago which ended up in Thailand when the border was drawn back in the time when the French was governing Burma. All the other Islands are situated off the western coast of Burma. We brought some fish and diesel into the Moken village on Surin, and were lucky enough to find an old Moken who spoke some Malaysian, and a foreign lady who could translate his Malaysian to English for us. This is how I learned that the Moken spoke their own language, different from all the other Sea Nomads in South-East Asia (The Urak Lawoy, The Bajao, even the Moklen (not Moken but Moklen) who live closer to the coast). And I already knew that “nobody” knows or cares if there is a difference, – they are all called Chao Lay (Sea Gypsies) in Thailand, much like calling African originated people “Niggers”. And there on Surin I also learned that they used to move from beach to beach in their Kabang boats, but that the Thai National Park Authorities used the army to put up a row of simple barrac-like bamboo bungalows, and forced the Moken to stay there in order to utilise the other beaches for tourists. They even cut down all the palm trees belonging to the Moken, since palm trees are considered agriculture, and if you can prove that you have been using fertile land in Thailand for more than 20 years, you have certain rights to continue. This way they lost valuable staple food for the young. But, they don’t have any citizenships (not in Thailand nor Burma) and therefore no rights. The most important discovery on that first day, was the fact that this was the far southern end of a culture which exist predominantly further north inside Burma. I can hold my breath for quite a while, and really enjoyed freediving with the Moken hunters, and was fascinated by their unique boats made from one tree and still capable of crossing the open seas. Based on previous work I had done with indigenous peoples in different parts of the globe, I realized that the half destroyed culture I saw on Surin would possibly be still “alive” in Burma. I decided to do some research when I got back.
There was very little substantial information to be found on the Moken, and nothing about their situation today. So during the next Monsoon I jumped on a plane and went undercover to Surin in small local boats to find out if the Moken would trust me to make a film about them. The National Park is closed during the monsoon season, and nobody is allowed to enter into the National Park zones. Mainly becase this is when the Authorities make a lot of money letting the fishing trawlers scrape the reefs clean of fish inside the so-called “protected” zones of the marine National Parks, and also because the weather is very bad. I filmed myself during this expedition, and this 7 min. episode can be seen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=A4QFCMttEgs
During this trip I decided to try and make a film showing the Moken situation and decline based on universal human topics, seen through a Moken, hoping that this approach will create the necessary empathy needed from the internbational community if the Moken shall be given a fair chance when entering into the modern world. I have seen indigenous societies entering the modern world feeling useless, since all they are good at is no longer needed, with generations of low self worth and psychological problems struggling in poverty as a result. Just like the “Sea Gypsies” situation in the sad slum villages closer to larger civilizations. Because of Burma’s strickt regime, the Moken are the last free-roaming Sea Nomadic Culture left which has been able to continue their practices from the stone age and all the way up until today. They are Austonesians, and was part of the fastest and broadest human expansion starting 4500 years ago and populating both the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Anyways, I found my main character, made some new friends, and could start trying to raise money for the film project.
As you are experiencing now, there are so many fantastic and eye-opening aspect around the Moken, that I realized that a personal portrait of one Moken (the film that would have the strongest emotional impact on the audience) would not have room for going into detail about all the unique and important issues related to the Moken way of life and situation. That’s when I started Project Moken, as a social media, TV and reportage-based tail of the film. Like a comet, where the film would be the head, and all the other aspects would follow in the tail. It started growing when I saw that many simple things like a rusty old motorbike, or a boat engine, or sometimes just some bags of rice, – would really help better the everyday life for the Moken on Surin. And when we became good friends, I told them about the success of an eco tourist project I filmed in Masai Mara in Africa where tourists could walk with the Massai and learn from them, not just see lions from a crowded minibus. The Masai started teaching their culture to the young again, since now it could be worth something in todays context. The Moken would love to show tourists how to freedive their way, but are not allowed to make money. We are not allowed to stay in the Village even when the park is open, and any money from tourists must be paid to Thai companies who have paid their share to the “bosses”. So this is very tricky, but I hope the pressure created after the film is released will open some doors of opportunity. We are already doing it, but in secret.
It was more difficult to film in the Thai National Park that in Burma, who has a total ban on filming in their country. But I found ways, and we were the first real film-team ever to shoot a film in Burma (Myanmar).
Anyways, we’re inviting freedivers for a trip in February. You can see it here: http://www.freediveuk.com/project-moken/moken-expeditionholiday-2014/
Other places to look is: “Project Moken Channel” (on YouTube), “Project Moken” on FaceBook and our website. And here’s my resume on the page: http://www.projectmoken.com/?page_id=315