Where the Indian Ocean hits Myanmar’s southwestern coast, a lacework of 800 islands rises, fringed with shimmering beaches.
Here hornbills break a primeval silence as they flutter through soaring jungle canopy. Pythons slumber on the gnarled roots of eerie mangrove forests. Only rarely will you spot the people who live here: the Moken, shy, peaceful nomads of the sea.
The Mergui archipelago has been called the “Lost World,” but outsiders have found it – first fishermen, poachers and loggers, and now developers and high-end tourists. The people losing this world are the Moken, who have lived off the land and the sea for centuries.
The islands are thought to harbour and important marine biodiversity, and are a lodestone for those eager to experience one of Asia’s last tourism frontiers before, as many fear, it succumbs to the ravages that have befallen many once-pristine seascapes.
As the world closes in, the long-exploited Moken are rapidly diminishing in numbers and losing the occupations that sustained them for generations. Though they are known as “sea gypsies,” very few still live the nomadic life.
Their island settlements are awash with trash and empty liquor bottles, signs of the alcoholism that has consumed many Moken lives. They eventually may share the same fate as some of their cousins in neighbouring Thailand who have become exotic photo opportunities near highly developed tourist areas.
“Before it was easy to earn money, to find products of the sea,” says Aung San resting under the trees of Island 115 with about 20 Moken men, women and children. “You could easily fill a bucket with fish. But now many Burmese are pursuing the same livelihoods.
“The life of the Moken is becoming harder and harder. So many Moken men are dying.”
Asked if his people would welcome foreign visitors, the fisherman and trader replies: “We don’t want to live with the Burmese or other people. We want to live by ourselves.”
The former military rulers of long-isolated Myanmar (Burma) kept the archipelago off-limits to foreign visitors until 1996.
A nominally civilian government took over in 2011, but tourism remains relatively low. Some 2000 tourists visited in 2013 – that’s about two-and-a-half an island.
To date only one hotel exists, the Myanmar Andaman Resort, on Macleod Island. But a grab-the-best-island race is being run among Burmese and foreign developers, with a dozen concessions already granted and others under negotiation.
The reefs and islands here range from rocky outcrops to extensive land masses of high hills pierced by caves and blanketed by vegetation.
A long jetty and two helicopter pads have been built and nine bungalows are under construction on the stunning but rather unwelcomely named Chin Kite Kyunn (Mosquito Bite Island).
It is leased by Tay Za, believed to be Myanmar’s richest tycoon and closely connected with its powerbrokers. Three security men and 11 lazy dogs are currently the island’s only inhabitants.
The website of one development company, Singapore’s Zochwell Group, advertises the island it hopes to develop as “The Next Phuket”. Zochwell is negotiating a lease to build a marina, casino, hotels and a golf course to be designed by the company of American golfing legend Jack Nicklaus.
Myanmar’s minister of hotels and tourism, Htay Aung, says the islands will be promoted, but protecting the environment and “minimising unethical practices” are top priorities.
For the time being, however, the region remains a free-for-all, with no overall management plan for tourism or the environment. Nor is there a known blueprint for the precarious future of the Moken, whom French anthropologist Jacques Ivanoff describes as “the soul of the archipelago”.
For centuries they roamed the islands, worshipping spirits and reciting long epics of a mythical past. They collected molluscs, crabs and sea cucumbers, speared fish, hunted, and dived to find valuable pearl oysters.
Today, most have been moved into settlements by the government or driven to find work on the mainland, where they are sometimes forced to labour on mines and farms.
About 2000 Moken are believed to inhabit the archipelago, significantly reduced through migration, intermarriage with Burmese and deaths of males from rampant alcohol and drug abuse.
Though tourism is just getting started here, industry has already taken a heavy toll, including dynamite fishing, illegal loggings and wildlife poaching.
Trawlers have depleted the shallow fishing grounds of the Moken, who cannot compete with better equipped Burmese divers in search of sea cucumbers and oysters.
Julia Tedesco, who manages an environmental and tourism project at Lampi island, said tourism is developing “just as so many resources have already been depleted”.
Tedesco’s three-year project, run by the Italian group Instituto Oikos, includes the development of eco-tourism, putting a draft management plan into practice and training park staff. A key challenge, she says, is to protect the environment while providing income to local people who have long drawn their sustenance from it.
What happens to them will depend greatly on Myanmar’s politicians and generals, and their business cronies.
The answer in Myanmar may be eco-tourism, but even that is problematic, at least for the Moken.
Khin Maung Htwe, who has worked with anthropologist Ivanoff, says re-orienting the largely illiterate Moken from their deeply rooted lifestyles and occupations to become nature guides or hotel staff would prove difficult.
“The reality is that they don’t understand or believe in the value of education,” he says. “They don’t understand how it could help them gain their livelihood.”
On Island 115, several Moken families hunt for squid before returning to their village. At night, the families sleep on the white sand or just inside the tree line hugging the beach.
“We just want to do what we are doing,” Aung San says. “We don’t have the knowledge or motivation to do any other work.
“We live here. We don’t want to go anywhere else.”