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Sea Gypsies

By Ma Thanegi     When the present-day battle cry of the world is "Prosperity, and more prosperity", it is unsettling to realise that there is a race of people who abhor this very message: for the one reason that accumulated wealth would destroy their culture, their very way of life, the reason for their existence. They are the sea gypsies who live a nomadic life among the thousands of islands of the Myeik Archipelago, called the Salon or known by the name they call themselves: the Moken.

They are skilled on the sea and in the sea, with even toddlers paddling their baby-sized canoes hewn out of solid tree trunks, with as much ease as the city kids peddle their tricycles. They dive without oxygen tanks to gather real pearls; they hunt for stingrays and sharks; they gather sea cucumbers and abalone.
 A Salon shrine and totem
The sea is their backyard and for them, casting nets to catch fish to sell would be as easy as a farmer pulling up carrots. But the wealth gained from such an ambitious enterprise would create an equality of standards among their small race, which they do not want, so they do not use nets.

There are two schools of thought as to their origin: some believe them to be descended from Malaysian fishermen who, to escape some religious harassment took to the sea, as some of their words are the same as some Malay words. But then, they have equally if not more identical words with the Mon. The Mon are descended from Mon-khmer stock, and the word Moken could have been a variation of the name of the racial root.

Very few anthropologists have managed to do research on the Moken, for they are shy of strangers. Indeed shy is not even the exact word, for they want no influences from the outside world on their culture, and thus have no desire for any interaction with strangers. A lady professor from the Anthropology Department, University of Yangon, Daw Tin Yee did a field trip in 1997. A French anthropologist Pierre lvanhoff did extensive research in the 1950s. In the 1980s his son Jacques carried on his father's work, first learning the language to set up better relations with the Moken. Both he and his father had recorded the verbal history handed down to each generation by the previous one.
A salon man ready to spear a fish
The Shaman or the spirit master is the head of a particular group of boats. He or she has complete authority, for their prowess in terms of healing the sick by invoking spirits is highly respected. The Salone live a hard life but disdain modern medicine.

The family members of each boat work as a team during the dry season, with the men hunting in the sea and the women gathering oysters and shells on the craggy rocks of the shore. There is little property they carry on their boats, apart from pots and pans, some clothing, their tools, and a dog to warn the approach of strangers.

During the rainy season, they build bamboo huts on islands they have chosen for that season. There they may plant and sow, as they know how to farm, but only enough for their food and to exchange with goods. With the onset of better weather, they leave the huts, and if other Moken come by and live in them, no matter: there is no quarrel over property.
A traditional Nat shrine
If one's boat is out of order, he can join the others to go hunting, without any need to share his catch.

In the old days when real pearls were easier to find, theMoken, equipped only with goggles they made out of hollow bamboo stems, string and two pieces of glass, were the only people on Myanmar shores who could gather these treasures of the ocean. They would deal with only one merchant who have gained their trust; even with better prices they refused to sell to others. They come ashore hiding the pearls in the mouths, to spit them out into a napkin only when they reach their merchant's house.

Prosperity may come with promotion or vice versa; but a change of lifestyle is what the Moken most want to to resist. Their 'primitive' way of living make people think of them as backwards; but on the contrary, they have proven only their strength. They have survived for centuries in the same manner, which few races in the world can say they have done. It is not that they do not know of a better life: in their trade with the 'land' people, they have seen the comforts money can buy, but they prefer not to exchange their culture for comfort.
Salon cultural itema on display at Pansea Hotel,Yangon
Not only are they content with their traditions, they are fiercely protective of them, beacuse equilibrium must be kept and thus peace maintained; these are after all of greater value than money. They have a lot to teach the rest of the world.

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