The Moken have resisted, but threats to forcibly settle them still hang in the air. And other troubles abound. Their own demography could destroy them: Many young men die each year in diving accidents—often from the bends when they dive too deep and resurface too quickly while working for Burmese fishermen. As the military presence increases throughout the islands, the Moken are unable to move freely in search of spouses. And without room to roam, they cannot find the traders who provide rice—the staple Moken food—and fuel for their motors. Ten years ago, some 2,500 Moken still led the traditional seafaring and spiritual life in this archipelago. That number is slowly diminishing and is now at perhaps 1,000.
As the son of a shaman and a father figure to his people, Gatcha's mission is to keep the old ways alive, bringing the Moken together for rituals that have suffered as flotillas have divided into subgroups and scattered north and south to reduce competition for natural resources. On this journey he will round up followers, including sacred singers and dancers to take with him to Nyawi Island, where things have gone awry. Soldiers are harassing the Moken and Burmese there, and the Burmese government has mandated a Moken festival for tourists—which Gatcha says is upsetting the spirits. With offerings, trances, song, and dance on Nyawi, he hopes his people can begin to appease the ancestors, to whom they look for guidance and protection.
The days of gathering end with a night of restorative ritual, after which I am heartened to see Gatcha and his family push out to sea in the damp, gray morning, continuing their journey through the archipelago. As the dry season nears its end, it is time to put down shallow roots on land, setting up a temporary camp in which to wait out the swift winds and rains of the monsoons. It will be a place to honor the spirits and to build new boats for young men coming of age.
The island chosen for a monsoon camp offers a breathtaking setting: A wall of virgin forest—rife with boar and bats to be hunted—a band of beach, and a deep, powerful sea. Women comb the beaches and sing, and children play in the surf. Girls coax sandworms from hiding with rattan sticks; boys fashion harpoons and learn from the older men how to hunt for fish, crab, turtle, ray, and eel.
The Moken are the soul of this archipelago, the expression of a world that has begun to fade. My hope is that as the rains continue to come and go, so too will the Moken, from sea to land and back again.