The islands that make up the Mergui Archipelago in Burma are home to the Moken, a seafaring nomadic community often referred to as sea gypsies. The Moken are listed in the bottom 5 poorest ethnic communities in the world. SEE&SEA was founded by Thailand Dive & Sail to help these people, rooted with a deep devotion to the Mergui Archipelago and determination to bring about environmental changes to the region. With any project that hopes to affect a change, the first step is to earn the trust of local indigenous populations. The goal of SEE&SEA is to improve the quality of life for the Moken so we can work together for a sustainable future through aid programs and educational projects.
Our first campaign in March 2011 had been an outstanding success considering our lack of experience in community work. We visited Ma Kyone Galet, one of the largest Moken villages in the Mergui Archipelago, with unwanted or used glasses to distribute amongst the Moken people to help improve the quality of life for those with poor eye sight. Last minute preparations had somehow been enough. The glasses were distributed with literature aimed at educating the fishermen to use more sustainable fishing methods, to protect precious coral reefs and to stop blast (bomb) fishing. The literature was actually written and photocopied whilst heading to Ma Kyone Galet using the boat's printer. We had little idea what we were doing when we arrived at the village, but our good intentions along with help from our local Burmese guide, Nai Nai and renowned marine biologists, Dr Andrea Marshall and Dr Lindsey Marshall we left the Moken with a great feeling of achievement.
To do this we would have to start acting like a proper charity! In July 2011 SEE&SEA was registered as a not for profit organisation in the UK. Using the success of our previous campaign we set about trying to find backing and sponsorship. However, been registered as a charity did not mean things will be easy. During the summer of 2011 little progress was made, after many dead ends and many unanswered emails it was becoming apparent that outside Africa, there is little help available for malaria treatment. Larger organisations did not seem interested in the inhabitants of the small islands that make up the Mergui Archipelago. Maybe we were trying to push our small grass roots project a little too far on the international stage. We turned instead to friends and local Thailand based businesses and at last met with some success. Aqua Master, based in Phuket came onboard and donated large wheelie bins which we would distribute around the village to help contain the garbage problem. Discarded plastic and broken bottles, not only pose a threat to the numerous children that play on the beach but also breading grounds for mosquitos. Shilling Communication, based in the UK, provided reusable food containers which the villagers could use to take on extended fishing trips to replace polystyrene and plastic food containers which are discarded into the sea or on the beach after use. At the same time glasses were arriving from friends of Thailand Dive & Sail in the UK, Köln in Germany and Thailand. At last were getting somewhere and confidence in our new, bolder project was growing.
The 2012 SEE&SEA II Campaign was to take place as part of a Culture and Conservation trip to Burma hosted by a boutique Southeast Asia tour company, Journeys Within along with Dr Andrea Marshall'sRay of Hope Expeditions, on board the SY Diva Andaman. From our first attempts at community work, involving some second hand glasses and a photocopier we now found ourselves on a 5star live-aboard boat in the company of intrepid travellers and world renowned marine biologists. Thailand Dive and Sail's main role was to plan the diving portion of the trip to the Mergui Archipelago, Burma and to Richelieu Rock and Koh Tachai, Thailand, although one afternoon had been left free to visit the Moken at Ma Kyone Galet, a small window of opportunity during a full and busy schedule.
As the guests boarded the SY Diva Andaman our supplies were to be further bolstered by kind donations from those arriving, bringing with them more reading glasses along with much needed mosquito nets, bags and items for the local school children at Ma Kyone Galet, including coloured pencils, chalks, note books and colouring books. Its easy to be moved by people's generosity during such moments and this was taken even further by a doctor working in Kaw Thaung's poorly funded and poorly equipped hospital who donated boxes of malaria medicine for the villagers. It was clear the hospital was in no position to donate anything but the doctor point blank refused to accept any payment for the medicine. With the last bit of money available for the 2012 SEE&SEA II Campaign we purchased antibiotics to add to our ever growing inventory.The crew of the Diva, whilst learning of our plans got into the mood and very kindly donated bags of their own clothes which they wanted to give to the Moken villagers. This gesture was both moving and testament to the great team that run the SY Diva Andaman. Dropping anchor in the channel that runs between Lampi Island and Bo Cho Island, loading the dinghies with guests and supplies it was finally time to put our plans into action. With our invaluable guide Nai Nai with us for a second year running, we headed ashore.As we headed to the village centre we learnt that many of the notable villagers were away, either fishing or visiting the mainland. The local primary school teacher took command and suggested we meet a that the temple situated on the hill overlooking the village. As we made our way to the temple we recognised some of the village elders and as was the case the previous year it was not long before many of the villagers joined our procession, along with 5 bright yellow bins full of food containers and all the other supplies we had amassed.
As the temple became more crowded, chaos assumed as we tried to talk with the temple's resident monk and some of the more notable leaders of the village over the excited chatter that filled the room. It was agreed that the Moken would have first choice of the reading glasses and the Moken families with young children would receive the mosquito nets. The food containers were assembled and would go to the fishermen who would spend their time out at sea, the clothes would go to those who needed them the most. The school materials our guests had donated would stay with the monk who spent the school holidays teaching the Moken children how to read and write Burmese. Nai Nai struggled to talk to the villagers over the excited chatter of those gathered there however he managed to get our message across and explain the reasoning behind the items we had brought.
We then set out to tour the village. We placed the wheelie bins in key locations and to our joy children started to pick up rubbish to fill the bins. One teenager gathered some leaves to throw away only to be told by a shop keeper, proudly standing by the shiny yellow bin in front of his shop, that the bins we not for natural waste, only plastic, glass and paper. In the chaos of the temple we'd got our message across. Nai Nai had kept a few extra pairs of glasses and he spent time visiting the elderly villagers who could not trek the distance up to the temple. Once again we were greeted by toothless, overjoyed grins as eye sight was restored. One man, although blind drunk clearly appreciated his glasses giving us the thumbs up, we left him drunk but no longer blind! Next stop was the medical centre were we handed over the much needed malaria medicine and antibiotics for the nurse when she returned. She was away on the mainland for medical training, another good sign for the future health of the villagers. On receiving the medicine, one villager showed his approval with more thumbs up.With sadness we had to depart from the island and continue our schedule north, one night dive then overnight to the now legendary Black Rock. Once again we had a rare glimpse into the simple lives of these down trodden people, who despite their tough existence are always smiling. This year's campaign had exceeded our expectations with the additional last minute donations, seeing the way our items were received in a dignified way and the happy interactions between visitors and residents as group photos were taken and games were played. As we literally set sail north we once again started to lay the plans for next years campaign.
None of this would have been possible without the help and kindness of our sponsors and donators. Thailand Dive and Sail would like to thank Kevin at Shilling Communication, Scott at Aqua Master, Carl Webb, Andrea Ross and Journeys Within, Dr Andrea Marshall and all the guests on the Ray of Hope Expedition, Niko Aigner, Steffen Schroeer, Bastian Lorenz and friends in Köln. Once again Paul, Fiona and the residents around Middleton-on-Sea, UK, friends and family of Joyce White, Lee our local surf dude, Nai Nai, the doctor from Kaw Thuang Hospital, Yannick and the wonderful crew of the SY Diva Andaman and a special thank you to Community Partners International for your advice and support. Helping the Moken in Burma with a Smile ;)