Do we fetishize indigenous people?

Working on a documentary in the Andaman Sea prompted questions for Julian Sayarer about the way indigenous and nomadic peoples are represented in the West.

Crew members celebrate the Thai festival of Songkran with the Moken. Photo: Julian Sayarer

Crew members celebrate the Thai festival of Songkran with the Moken. Photo: Julian Sayarer

Looking perplexed, the executive producer turned to a translator as the Moken man leaned on the tiller of his petrol engine. ‘Why don't you use sail boats?’ he asked. Somewhat puzzled, the Moken man provided the obvious answer: ‘Because petrol is easy.’

The exchange took place on a long-tail boat, off the island of Surin, Thailand, in waters not far from Myanmar. Nearby was a beachhead framed by stilt huts, papaya trees, white sands and turquoise sea. It was one of the first days of a film shoot for which I had been recruited as a writer and observer, and that moment – the producer’s disappointment – captured perhaps better than any other the fate of the Moken ‘Sea Gypsies’, a nomadic people of 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. On the one hand, they, and nomadic or indigenous peoples like them, have to contend with modernity; while on the other, they are expected to act as representatives for a traditional way of life, of a time when things were simpler.

The threats to the Moken’s traditions read like a roll-call for the perils of globalization. Interest in oil and gas exploration beneath the Andaman Sea is on the uptick; the lucrative nature of the resources make maritime borders precious and contested, so the movements of these sea nomads – most of them without citizenship – are prey to harassment by border patrols, particularly by the Myanmar navy. Real-estate developers buy up the coastlines while industrial fishing strips the sea of fish, leaving the Moken to catch only tourists. An elderly Moken lady spoke of her early years as a refugee of the Myanmar civil war – a series of ethnic conflicts that have occurred since 1948 – using discarded oil cans as cooking pots and plastic fertilizer sacks for makeshift clothing. This is not to mention climate change and the rising sea levels that lap at Moken villages around the region.

Conservation laws that might protect Moken interests, meanwhile, often work against them. Legislation in 1981 that made Surin a Thai national park curbed the Moken right to traditional forestry methods, and Myanmar developed legislation in the 1990s that likewise disregarded the needs of indigenous peoples. The result, Moken people told me, is that while industrial trawlers scour the Andaman Sea, they are restricted from fishing for a level of catch that would allow them to trade a small surplus. Deforestation laws penalize the Moken for felling trees to build kabang, while across the region industrial logging depletes ancient forests.

At the same time as navigating this turbulence, much of the media and tourist interest attracted by the Moken expects them to shun the affordances of the modern world. Without having ever asked for such a noble role, and having had much taken from them that might have allowed them to fulfil it more comfortably, the Moken are expected to serve as custodians of the traditional soul in an industrial, digital age. ‘Sea Gypsies Saw Signs in the Waves’ was the mystic rendering CBS gave to explanations of how the Moken of Surin largely survived unscathed the 2005 Boxing Day tsunami, an event that helped birth a vast output of reportage about them which failed to detail structural threats the Moken are less equipped to resist, while fetishizing their supposedly unmediated relationship to the natural world.

The Moken are an Austronesian people of the Mergui Archipelago, a group of approximately 800 islands claimed by both Burma and Thailand. Most of the 2,000 to 3,000 Moken live a semi-nomadic hunter-gatherer lifestyle heavily based on the sea, though this is increasingly under threat
Moken women return to a waiting boat after foraging for food on the rocky shores of the Ko Surin National Park, Thailand.
Taylor Weidman/Lightrocket/Getty

Looking at the many cameras trained on the Moken of Surin while I was observing the documentary, I was reminded of John Berger’s Ways of Seeing and his reflections on how this sort of gaze works. Just as Berger observed that in the visual arts ‘men act and women appear’, in today’s world, the Moken exist primarily to be watched. Nor are they alone in this role. The BBC’s Human Planet, in presenting a top-down view of human life on earth, often shows indigenous peoples within the ‘noble savage’ role of a simple mind aligned with nature.

The result is an industry of images for audiences who can watch indigenous wisdom in the evening, stimulating the mind before going back to work next day. One can’t help feeling that modern life in post-industrial society – depersonalized and bureaucratic – uses images of authentic indigenous life to hold on to some sense of awe at the human project. We use them to remind us that life is meaningful. More affluent audiences leaf through a glossy National Geographic that alternates between images of first peoples and pristine habitats, arranged alongside glossy advertisements from Cartier and Land Rover. The two presences fuse together as if capturing some essential, priceless sense of what it is to witness life on earth, where a luxury purchase moves you closer to original humanity.

If the 2015 buyout of National Geographic by Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox began some external soul-searching around this relationship, in 2018 the magazine itself went further, and, on its own terms, published a front-page editorial under the title-come-confession: ‘For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist.’

And racist it was, adhering to the same ostensibly harmless but, in fact, patronizing notion that the Moken would out of principle use only wind in a world run on petrol. Another telling moment of unease in the documentary production involved an underwater dive scene, showcasing the Moken as supreme freedivers, capable of holding their breath underwater. As with the use of petrol, there was some disappointment from the documentary team when the diver assumed that he would be making his life easier by using a snorkel. International media attention has been drawn to the underwater eyesight of Moken children which tested as superior to that of European peers – ‘The “sea nomad” children who see like dolphins’ declares a BBC headline. Less ‘exotic’ is the fact that all children, no matter what background, were shown to have improved underwater eyesight after spending some time practising vision tests underwater.

What all of these depictions create – however awe-inspired and well-meaning – is an image of the Moken as part of the natural rather than human world, one which serves subtly to undermine claims and expectations that they should have social, economic and human rights. Seeing them primarily in terms of sail power, or in stories about the oral histories that provided them with early-warning signs to spot a tsunami, makes the Moken tradition appear mystical, rather than structural; a question of ethnographic curiosity rather than of legitimate rights to land, sea and resources.

I believe the anthropology documentary I was working on was well-intentioned, just as the respect of most audiences is also sincere and deeply held. But there is a poetry to exotic images that we should not be seduced by. However spellbinding it might be to observe the Moken’s ability to live at one with nature, to fetishize those characteristics leaves both us and them vulnerable to what happens if we overlook the key detail that, of their greatest threats, most are human-made.

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