Kloie Picot

Photographer/ Videographer

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The Sea Gypsies of the Andaman Sea

Conversion to Christianity

A small community of 88 Sea Gypsies on Payam Isand in the Andaman Sea now lives in Bungalows donated by the Thai and Swedish Chapter of The Full Gospel Church, and many have converted from a mix of Animism and Buddhism to Christianity. Today, after 500 years of discreetly packing up and floating away to new, isolated islands or coves or whenever their unique animist beliefs and (extremely rare) matriarchal society take them, their unique culture may be all but over.

The December 26, 2004 tsunami took what meager belongings they had; dirt floor huts, fishing boats, and a few personal items. The land was never theirs; they had come 40 years ago from Myanmar. They are not commercial fishermen, the Sea Gypsies took only what they needed from the sea, sustaining themselves with clams and oysters, their basic food staple. Now faced with over fishing by Thai or Burmese Trawlers they fear the sea can no longer sustain them. They have been forced to trade what they do find for rice and other dry staples.

After the Tsunami Rev Sien Bauket; the rotund energetic Chairmen of the Thai Southern Region of the Full Gospel Church, met the Andaman Mogen or Sea Gypsies. When asked why amongst from all the victims of the tsunami he chose to sponsor this particular group of people Rev. Sien replied, “I felt mercy. They had nothing. They were squatting the land they lived on, even before the tsunami they lived in huts with sand floors, their children had no clothes, the men and woman drank alcohol. They had no status so because they are not Thai citizens, the government would not give any assistance.”

Rev. Sien went on to explain that with tears in my eyes he wrote to the Swedish Chapter of the Full Gospel Church asking to sponsor a program to buy land on Kao Kwai, to build huts, install a well, electricity, and purchase fishing boats for a small group of stateless Sea Gypsies.

After a year of the tireless and selfless efforts of Rev Sien and his Burmese assistant (a former heroin addict who converted to Christianity after a terrifying ordeal at sea) the Sea Gypsies have land, bungalows, electricity, a well, boats and a church in the middle of their community.

The Sea Gypsies continue to be skeptical of Christianity. Those who speak Burmese or Thai can read the bibles donated by the Full Gospel Church, but those who speak Moken have little knowledge of the teachings. The fishermen explain that before they went out to sea, they pray to Jesus, whereas before they prayed to the Goddess of the Sea. Marriage between Moken and Thai is becoming normal and their children now attend the Thai run school on the island. Their culture is changing, adapting to the life of sedentary fisherman.