How does the West show indigenous people?

From New Internationalist Easier English Wiki
Revision as of 19:31, 19 January 2019 by Linda (talk | contribs)
Jump to navigation Jump to search

How does the West show indigenous people?

Julian Sayarer is working on a documentary in the Andaman Sea so he is thinking about how the West shows indigenous and nomadic peoples.


At the Thai festival of Songkran with the Moken. (Photo: Julian Sayarer)

The producer asked the Moken man, who was using a petrol engine: ‘Why don't you use sail boats?’ The Moken man was confused about the question and replied: ‘Because petrol is easy.’

This was in Thailand, near Myanmar, near a beach with huts on stilts, papaya trees, white sands and turquoise sea. It was one of the first days of making a film – I was a writer and observer – and it was very interesting to see how disappointed the producer was with the answer. This shows what people think about the Moken ‘Sea Gypsies’, a nomadic group in the Mergui archipelago, a group of 800 islands in the Andaman Sea.

The Moken move from island to island, living from and on their boats. They have to live with modern life; but people expect them to still represent a traditional way of life when things were simpler.

There are many threats to the Moken’s traditions - the dangers of globalization: oil and gas exploration beneath the Andaman Sea; more problems with borders because of the money in oil and gas; companies are buying land to build on; big industry is taking all the fish, so the Moken only have tourism; also, there is climate change and rising sea levels.

Conservation laws that might protect the Moken often work against them. In 1981, the Surin islands became a Thai national park by law, but this meant that the Moken could not do their traditional forestry anymore. The same happened in Myanmar in the 1990s. Big industrial ships now take most of the fish from the Andaman Sea, but the Moken are not allowed to take fish to sell. There is a lot of industrial cutting of trees, but the new laws stop the Moken cutting trees to build with.

They have many problems. But at the same time, tourists expect the Moken to have nothing to do with the modern world and to protect traditions. For example, CBS News showed how the Moken of Surin nearly all survived the 2005 Boxing Day tsunami. The news showed how beautiful their relationship with nature is, but it didn’t show how life is becoming much more difficult for them.


Moken women return to a boat after finding food by Ko Surin National Park, Thailand.(Taylor Weidman/Lightrocket/Getty)

It seems that the Moken people are there only for people to look at them, like many indigenous people. We love to look at beautiful photos of them.

Another problem was filming the Moken diving underwater. They can hold their breath underwater for a long time. But the people making the film were disappointed when the Moken diver wanted to use a snorkel to make the diving easier. The BBC has written that the Moken children have amazing eyesight underwater and said the children are ‘sea nomads’. But research has shown that all children all over the world develop better eyesight underwater when they practise the tests underwater more.

Maybe showing the Moken in this way is racist. Maybe people want to show them as beautiful. But the images show the Moken as part of the natural world, not the human world. This means that maybe we do not think they should have social, economic and human rights. We treat them as mystical and strange, not people with rights to land, sea and resources.

People who made the documentary are sincere, like the people who watch it. But we must understand that they are not just exotic poetry. We love the fact that the Moken live well with nature. But we must understand that they will suffer if we do not see that the biggest dangers to them come from humans.

Julian Sayarer is a travel writer and author of All At Sea - Another Side of Paradise.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)