The Mergui archipelago in southern Myanmar has been called the “Lost World.” The people losing this world are the Moken, who have lived off the land and the sea for centuries as Mergui has now been claimed by outsiders — fishermen, poachers and loggers, followed by developers and high-end tourists.

The islands harbour some of the world’s most important forms of marine biodiversity, and are a lodestone for those eager to experience one of Asia’s last tourism frontiers.

Losing out to the world

As the world closes in, the long-exploited Moken are rapidly diminishing in numbers and losing the occupations that sustained them for generations. Though they are known as “sea gypsies,” very few still live the nomadic life, and only some ageing men can fashion the “kabang,” houseboats on which the Moken once spent much of every year.

Their island settlements are awash with trash and empty liquor bottles, signs of the alcoholism that has consumed many Moken lives. They may eventually share the same fate as some of their cousins in neighbouring Thailand who have become exotic photo opportunities near highly developed tourist areas.

“Before it was easy to earn money, to find products of the sea. You could easily fill a bucket with fish. But now many Burmese are pursuing the same livelihoods,” said Aung San, resting under the trees of Island 115 with some 20 Moken men, women and children. “The life of the Moken is becoming harder and harder. So many men are dying.”

Asked if his people would welcome foreign visitors, the fisherman and trader replied, “We don’t want to live with the Burmese or other people. We want to live by ourselves.”

The former military rulers of the long-isolated Myanmar kept the archipelago off-limits to foreign visitors until 1996 when a nominally civilian government took over in 2011.

Myanmar’s Minister of Hotels and Tourism Htay Aung said the islands will be promoted, but that protecting the environment and “minimising unethical practices” are top priorities.

For the time being, however, the region remains a free-for-all, with no overall management plan for tourism or the environment. Nor is there a known blueprint for the precarious future of the Moken, who French anthropologist Jacques Ivanoff describes as “the soul of the archipelago.”

The Mokens, who for centuries, roamed the islands, worshipped spirits and hunted now have been moved into settlements by the government or driven to find work on the mainland, where they are sometimes forced to labour on mines and farms. Their hand-hewn “kabangs,” built as symbolic representations of humans, complete with mouth and other organs, are becoming museum pieces.

About 2,000 Moken are believed to inhabit the archipelago, significantly reduced through migration, intermarriage with Burmese and deaths of males from rampant alcohol and drug abuse. “In 20-30 years the Burmese will dominate Moken culture,” said Khin Maung Htwe, a Burmese married to a Moken, in Ma Kyone Galet village.

Though tourism is just getting started here, industry has already taken a heavy toll on the archipelago.

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