The seafaring livelihoods of Myanmar’s “sea gypsies,” a nomadic ethnic group also known as Moken or Salone in Burmese, are being threatened by a plan to expand pearl farming in an archipelago they inhabit off the Southeast Asian country’s southern coast, members of the ethnic group and a village official said.
A joint venture by the Myanmar government and a Japanese company have submitted a request to expand its existing operations to an additional 30,000 acres in the Myeik (Mergui) Archipelago comprising more than 800 islands with coral reefs and beaches, they said.
The area includes territory that the Salone have relied on for generations, fishing in nearby waters and camping and cooking on various islands, they said.
Residents of Bokpyin township in Kawthaung district of Tanintharyi region, the southernmost leg of Myanmar sandwiched between Thailand on the east and the Andaman Sea on the west, are protesting against the expansion of pearl-farming activities by the joint venture, the Myanmar Tasaki Company Ltd.
More than 230 Salones live on five islands in La Ngan village, part of the Alaeman village tract in Bokpyin, which comprises many islands in the archipelago.
Salones object to the expansion of pearl farms to their islands, arguing that that it would wipe out their seafaring livelihoods.
“Both Salone and [ethnic majority] Bamar people disagree with the plan,” said Marnine, a Salone from La Ngan Island. “If they actually implement it, we could lose our lives. We would rather die here.”
“We Salone people will lose our livelihoods,” she told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “Then, we will face grave challenges. Our livelihoods are limited only to land plots that haven’t been expanded.”
Mon Ngai, another Salone local, said if members of the ethnic group surrender their rights to the islands, they will have no choice but to leave Myanmar for Thailand.
“If their pearl-farming activities overlap with the lands of our livelihoods, we will no longer be able to earn a living,” she said. “Without our livelihoods, we will starve. Then, we would have to migrate to Thailand. There would be no more Salone people here. ”
Thein Zan, head of La Ngan village, said transferring land that is vital to the livelihoods of the dwindling number of Salones to the company could have impacts similar to that of ethnic cleansing.
“Ethnic cleansing means not just killing people by guns and swords,” he said. “If their livelihoods are destroyed or forbidden, it has the same effects.”
Contract renewal requests
According to Tanintharyi region documents, Myanmar Tasaki has had a contract to operate pearl farms on more than 4,200 acres of land and water since 1997, particularly on Domel Island in Kyunsu township.
The company has invested U.S. $8.42 million in the operation and is obligated to give 25 percent of the pearls produced to the government.
Myanmar Tasaki has now submitted an application to renew its existing contract for a second time beginning in April 2020 and to expand its operations to more than 30,000 acres of land and water on and around three islands in the La Ngan chain, also known as the Sister Group Islands.
Members of the ethnic group said they are not against the company’s current activities on Domel Island, but that they want the company to spare territory that is vital to the survival of the Salone people from the expansion project.
Some local islanders have accused Myanmar Tasaki of not obtaining official permission in advance to build some structures on one of the islands in the La Ngan chain, and they have placed buoys in the water to mark what they consider their territory.
Than Tun, a Myanmar Tasaki employee in charge of the firm’s activities on Domel Island, said he could not answer RFA’s questions about the accusations.
“Only my supervisors will be able to answer your questions,” he said.
RFA also contacted Chit Soe, the company’s managing director, but was informed that he was away from the office on a trip and that no one else was available for comment.
Hla Htwe, Tanintharyi’s minister for natural resources and environmental conservation, said the regional government is assessing the company’s proposal because the central government in Naypyidaw has requested its remarks regarding the project.
“Their request for renewing the permit is still pending,” he told RFA. “We have asked them to affirm the areas they were given in the original agreement and the land area they will surrender. They are working on that.”
Hla Htwe also said that the regional government has asked relevant departments to assess the proposal and that the process is ongoing.
In October, some civil society organizations visited the islands to look at how an expansion of pearl farming would affect the area.
Aung Naing Oo, chairman of Tanintharyi region’s coordination team for rule of law and justice affairs, said he will advocate for the rights of the Salone who are urgent need of government protection.
“Pearl-farming activities can be done only along the coast,” he said. “These Moken fish on small boats in the coastal waters, so once the company begins its pearl-farming activities, the Moken will lose their natural fishing grounds.”
“This is not acceptable,” he said. “The government should protect their rights. We need to tell the situation to the president and to the state counselor,” he added, referring to Win Myint and Aung San Suu Kyi.
Zaw Hein, a lawmaker from Kyunsu township, said the government can resolve the issue by negotiating with the company to protect the livelihoods of the Salone people.
“The government should reconsider the contract with Myanmar Tasaki Company if its operations are actually threatening their survival,” he said. “They should renegotiate for a new deal. The government should focus on protecting the livelihoods of the Salone people in the long term.”
Under a previous military government, many Salones were evicted from Pearl Island to make way for pearl-farming activities.
They said they moved to Sakaw Island, but were driven out again for the same reason.
The population of Salones in the Mergui Archipelago has declined dramatically in recent decades and now stands at about 1,700 on 10 islands, down from 17,000 in 1980.
Entrepreneurs who have grabbed land for pearl farms and tourist resorts are forcing more and more Salones to migrate to Thailand.
Methamphetamine and alcohol addiction also has been wreaking havoc on the Salone community in recent years, hitting its population of young men particularly hard and causing mental illness in some.
In addition, the Myanmar government is pressuring the Salone to abandon their sea-based lifestyle and move to permanent settlements, with few resisting the lure of stability and government-provided benefits.
Reported by Kyaw Lwin Oo for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.