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  • Janepicha Cheva-Isarakul and Christoph Sperfeldt

Mobile Maritime Peoples & Sedentary Citizenship: the case of the Moken in Thailand

Captions: Moken people arrive on shore (credit: authors)

‘We used to have lots of space. Each family to their own. We are not used to living in a house next to each other like this,’ a Moken man told us as we sat with him in his small hut on a state-owned island off the southern coast of Thailand. The Moken people are one of the traditionally mobile maritime peoples in Southeast Asia, who have roamed the coastal areas and islands in the Andaman Sea for generations. When we did our fieldwork in 2018 to investigate how traditionally mobile peoples such as the Moken are treated within the government’s identification and citizenship regimes, it was startling to witness how much their mobility has been curtailed in the past few decades.

The 2004 tsunami brought national attention to the Moken and their lack of Thai citizenship, which has pushed many of them into situations of precarity. As with many other mobile peoples, the Moken’s mobility and cultural practices were presented as a governance ‘problem’ that needed to be resolved. The natural disaster became a catalyst for humanitarian mobilization by the NGO sector and for state efforts to sedentarise the Moken, as a way to help them access basic services and citizenship. Today, most Moken in Thailand no longer live in their traditional houseboats (kabang), pursuing maritime subsistence activities during the dry season and building temporary shelters on shore during the rainy season as their ancestors once did. Instead, they were relocated to live on a few islands (some in national parks) in rows of deteriorating houses built years ago by NGOs and the Thai state.

Our interviewees reported very limited access to their traditional waters due to the expansion of protected conservation areas as well as tourism infrastructure, as well as a general decrease in the ecological abundance of sea resources. As put by one Moken, ‘in the past, we only needed to trade for a bucket of rice and we could survive for months with what we found in the sea’. Now, the Moken’s traditional livelihoods of maritime subsistence and trading have been largely replaced by wage-earning linked with global capitalism. Those in national park areas sell souvenirs and rely on tourism to survive, while others work for fishing companies and sometimes perform risky tasks for little compensation. Even though many Moken now live permanently on land, those whom we visited do not own this land individually or collectively – nor have they traditionally claimed ownership over land at all.

Whilst the Thai state has supported the sedentarisation of the Moken on a humanitarian basis, it has struggled to accommodate the Moken in its complex identification and citizenship regimes. These regimes remain grounded in a concept of sedentary citizenship that emphasizes documentary proof based on fixed residence and established territorial links. Mobility, historical and present, disrupts and challenges these state systems. Almost two decades since the tsunami, some Moken have been granted Thai citizenship, while many others remain stateless because they are unable to provide sufficient administrative proof that fit the citizenship criteria or because they are deemed a potential threat to national security due to their cross-border ties with relatives in Myanmar.

Like many mobile peoples around the world, the Moken are caught in the double-bind of the current citizenship regime that views mobility as a threat to both human security (hence the sedentarisation policies) and national security (hence their exclusion from citizenship which then leads back to human security). As a consequence, they are stuck between perceptions of a quasi-indigenous population and administrative practices frequently treating them as ‘immigrant aliens’. We estimate that there are still around 600 stateless Moken from among a total estimated population of more than 1,000 in Thailand. In a country with a large number of heterogenous stateless groups such as Thailand, the small number of stateless Moken rarely registers as a priority.

Caption: Moken children look for clams (credit: authors).

For the Moken, sedentary life within the bound of the state has deprived them of a critical aspect of their sense of self: freedom of movement and access to traditionally shared waters and territories. Moken who hold Thai citizenship can travel freely in Thailand, but need a visa for visits to Myanmar, where many of their relatives reside. A stateless Moken, as with other stateless persons in Thailand, is not permitted to travel freely beyond the province under which they are registered without permission from district officials. The process of getting permission requires visiting the district office on the mainland, filling in paperwork in the Thai language and paying a fee. Given these bureaucratic and financial obstacles, few non-citizen Moken go through the formal processes, living in constant fear when leaving their province to travel to neighbouring islands. Freedom of movement has been cited by our Moken interviewees as a key motivation for getting Thai citizenship, but that task is far from simple.

The sedentary citizenship regime, which requires documentary proof of birth, residency and other bureaucratic ‘facts’ of belonging to the state, poses significant challenges for mobile populations with attachments to multiple territories and varying periods of ‘residence’ in them. Bureaucracies associated with written documents and other official records are at odds with the Moken’s non-literate culture and oral traditions. Although there is official recognition of the Moken’s culture (such as the 2010 Cabinet Resolution to revitalise marine mobile populations’ ways of life), it has so far not translated into a more flexible administrative process that can accommodate the realities of Moken’s lives. Prejudice and lack of knowledge among Thai officials about the Moken’s way of life can also present a significant challenge. Our research shows that sedentary and immobilised conceptions of citizenship and associated governance practices not only restrict access to citizenship and introduce new forms of state control, but they actively produce the kind of statelessness they simultaneously try to resolve. The situation of the Moken reminds us that access (and the right) to citizenship is not a cure on its own, unless broader issues of discrimination and loss of autonomy are addressed.

This blog is based on a recent article published in Citizenship Studies and can be accessed here.

Janepicha Cheva-Isarakul is Lecturer in Social Policy at the School of Social and Cultural Studies, Victoria University of Wellington.

Christoph Sperfeldt is Senior Lecturer at Macquarie Law School, Macquarie University, and Honorary Fellow at the Peter McMullin Centre on Statelessness, University of Melbourne.



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