Weekly Insights and Analysis

From Thailand: Moken Sea Gypsy Tribe Learns Rules of the Road

December 5, 2007

By Ampika Saibouyai

“In the past, we could live anywhere on the sea or along the coast,” says Hong Klatalaey, the head of Thung Wa, a Moken sea gypsy community of some 70 families who were forced to settle further inland after the 2004 tsunami destroyed their coastal homes. “We would sail until we found places with plentiful supplies of fish and fresh water. We built our houses from the wood of trees that lined the beach. We were totally self-sufficient and free. Today, of course, things are very different. We have had to settle now, and we must learn how to live on the land among other people.”

The Moken are traditionally a nomadic tribe of sea gypsies who have been trying to adapt to a more static way of life along the developing coastlines of Thailand. After the devastating 2004 tsunami, their lives changed dramatically as they were forced to deal with new challenges of rebuilding their homes, boats, and livelihoods in unfamiliar surroundings.

As they adapt to modern living, one specific problem for the Moken has been their inability to obtain driving licenses. Many Moken use motorbikes to drive to markets and sell their daily catch or to commute to the construction sites where they work as day laborers, but few of them have driving licenses. This makes them a hazard to themselves and other drivers on the road, as well as easy prey for policemen looking for bribes.

“It’s not that we can’t pass the driving test,” says Hong Klatalaey. “The problem is that we can’t pass the written test [of the driving license exam]. Even myself, I’m the village head, and I must’ve failed at least five times!” That’s because they are now required to type in their answers for the written test on a computer keyboard: a modern-day tool that 90 per cent of Moken have never used before. That, coupled with the fact that many Moken are illiterate or poorly educated.

When Hong Klatalaey told The Asia Foundation’s Tsunami Legal Aid and Referral Center (T-LAC) about the Moken’s difficulty in passing the written part of the driving test, T-LAC wanted to help. So they organized a one-of-a-kind workshop held in partnership with the district Transportation Department and the United Phuket Commercial Company on November 14-15, 2007, at Thung Wa village to verbally review the questions and answers on the written test. To further enhance their road skills, two technical trainers and necessary equipment for the practical part of the driving test were provided by the automobile firm, Honda.

During the two-day workshop, 105 Moken men and women were taught the rules of the road and traffic signs, then took the road test to assess their driving ability. They also sat for the written test, during which illiterate applicants were assisted by T-LAC volunteers who read the questions out loud. The end result: all of those who took the test passed and received bona fide driving licenses. The workshop was hugely popular. and those who attended requested that similar events be held for other Moken communities living in other tsunami-affected areas of Thailand.

Ampika Saibouyai is a Program Officer for The Asia Foundation’s Tsunami Rights and Legal Aid Referral Center.

Related locations: Thailand


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