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The “Sea Gypsies” of Myeik archipelago threatened by Pearl cultivation, Myanmar


Salung people, also known as Moken or Mawkin people are known for their unique way of living as sea nomads (sea gypsies). More than 230 Salung  officially live on five islands in la Ngan Village, Aleman Village Tract, Boke Pyin Township, also known as the Myeik Archipelago, in Myanmar and make a living from small scale fishing. Traditionally, they spend most of their lifetime on the boats and occasionally live on the islands during the monsoon season.  Now the natural habitats of this unique ethnic tribe are being threatened by production of world-famous high-quality south sea pearls. Despite of their timid behaviour, Salung people are protesting Myanmar Tasaki Pearl Company's efforts to expand its operations on the islands of their last resort. An ethnic Salung woman from La Ngan Island, said the reason for protesting is because if the islands were given up for the pearl cultivation, there will be no place to work for the Salung people. Another Salung woman claims that they have no other way than to migrate to islands in Thailand and it will be the end of their way of life in Myanmar (3). The Salung people and their way of life in the Andaman Sea should be seen as a prehistoric heritage, protected by the State, and promoted as a tourist destination. In 2018, the Senate approved a proposal to establish their area as a protected area to tighten access to the Salung/Mawkin Islands. The Mawkin/Salung are one of nine ethnic groups of Burman. However, they have unique language of their own (Austronesian language) (1). Salung fishing way is that they put small boats on the big boat and sail off until reaching the deep sea in a big boat. Then, when they reach the deep sea, they lower the small boats and catch squids and other sea creatures (1). 

Myanmar Tasaki operates a pearl farm on Saw Mon Hla Island also known as Domel Island, near the island where the Salung people live. The company will renew its operations for the second time in the fourth quarter of 2020 and plans to expand to three islands in the Sister group (3). The pearl industry sells to Japanese and American buyers. When the United States lifted sanctions on state-owned enterprises, the industry made more than $ 100 million a year(1). According to Tanintharyi region documents, the Myanmar Tasaki Company has had a contract to operate pearl farms on more than 4,200 acres of land and water since 1997, particularly on Domel Island in other sister islands (2). At present, they have expanded to 10,000 acres of pearl cultivation (2). The company has applied to the government for permission to operate on more than 30,000 acres of Sister Group islands, including the Domel Island (3). The shore area of designated for pearl cultivation in the new plan overlaps with the fishing spot of the Salung people. The indigenous small fishing boats had to travel near shores to catch squid, clams, and trapping octopus. If the shores are bounded by the cultivation markers, the people can no longer fish there. the culture, and livelihoods of the Salung people will be wiped-out. This is the current suffering in the process of threatening their very existence and cultural identity. According to RFA, La Ngan Island Village Administrator, believes that handing over the ethnic minority's livelihood to the company is tantamount to committing genocide. However, the locals say they are not opposed to the company operation in other area, but they just want to protect the islands where Salungs live and continue to work (2). 

According to the Mawkun News, a woman in the village claims that this is not the first time that the Salungs have been in trouble because of the Pearl Project. Salung analysts say they have been forced to flee one island after another because of pearl farming projects since the country was ruled by Military Generals. Also known as Owen Island, the South Sea Pearl Company was started by a Japanese company in 1954. The island is also known as Pearl Island because of its pearl farming. In 1963 the pearl farm on the island was confiscated by General Nay Win (Military dictator). About 10 years later, the government had expelled the Salungs from the island. As a result of the expulsion, the Salung settled on the smaller island of Sinraw, north of Jai'i Island, where some of their tribes lived. Later, a local private company, a joint venture between the government and Pearl, came to the island. Salung analyst Mr.Cho Lun said that around 1983, more Salungs were expelled from the island. The Salung, who were expelled from the islands near the mainland for their pearl production activities, resettled in nearby islands. Salung analysts say that they have settled in the La Ngan archipelago, where they now live, as a tribe with a group of relatives who have lived there for a long time. However, the Pearl Project, which has been chasing out the Salungs for a long time, has not stopped and is now expanding into the La Ngan Islands which is the last Island for them to survive. According to the locals "Once the pearls producers confiscated the shores, no one can go near the island".  The local said that because of the pearls, access to the island's waters was restricted to barbed wire and even if the villager accidentally broke into the pearl farm, there has been cases of harassment by the pearl company, accusing them of being a pearl thieves. In addition, pearl farming areas were issued under Section 144 (The orders, issued under section 144 of the Criminal Procedure Code, prohibit villagers from access to natural habitat), which criminalize the local villagers.  Daw Pu, who is a woman elder of the tribe, left for Naypyidaw in September 2019 to guarantee the future of her life and her tribe. However, her expectations were astray. The tribe representation did not get the promise of protection after meeting with the Deputy Minister and some officials from the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (4). Hla Htwe, Tanintharyi Region's Minister of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation, said the report was being investigated by Naypyidaw for comment. Aung Naing Oo, chairman of the Tanintharyi Region Rule of Law and Justice Coordination Group, said the study would be submitted to the president because the state needed to protect the Salunga people. Zaw Hein, an Amyotha Hluttaw (National Assembly) member from Kyunsu Township, believes that the best solution is to negotiate with the company to ensure that the Salung ethnic people do not lose their jobs (4). However, the future of Slaung people are still uncertain. 

There are more than 10 pearl farming companies in the Myeik Archipelago. There was no opposition from locals or the Salung ethnic group to any pearl farming company, including Tasaki in the past. The current protests are based on the growing area of the Salung ethnic group, which has led to fears that the Salung will starve and end up in trouble. As well as the fear of being displaced (Even though Thailand government gives protection for Salung) Locals and civil society groups are surrounded by fears that another ethnic group will disappear from the country (now over 1,700 Salomon people remain in Myanmar)(5). 

Basic Data

Name of conflict:The “Sea Gypsies” of Myeik archipelago threatened by Pearl cultivation, Myanmar
State or province:Tanintharyi State
Location of conflict:Village, Aleman Village Tract, Boke Pyin Township
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Wetlands and coastal zone management
Other industries
Aquaculture and fisheries
Specific commodities:Fish

Project Details and Actors

Project details

Myanmar Tasaki Co Ltd. is the largest producer of pearls in Tanintharyi Division. It is a joint venture with Myanmar Pearl Industry and produces 220,000 pearls a year. Orient Pearl, the second-largest producer, produces 120,000 pieces a year. All the other pearl makers in the archipelago follow the method invented by Tasaki. The privately owned Tasaki Company signed a contract with the junta in 2001 to cultivate pearls in the archipelago. According to the contract, Myanmar Pearl Company received 25%. But after 2018, only got 20%. Tasaki is currently setting up two pearl farms on 29,000 acres (about 11,735 hectares) near Domel Island in the archipelago (1).

The Salung protested at the village meeting point. They crossed the sea to Naypyi daw to meet with the government. Salung men usually die young because of heart and lung compression from diving without equipment. Therefore, only women sometimes become old and knowledgeable leaders. The Salung people do not usually use dynamite on their own. It is used by the illegal fishing boats from Thailand. Some Moken/Salung people had to work as fishermen for these illegal fishing boat because of lack of job and limited area of fishing. Women and children finds their own food on the shore beside depending on the men. The pearl cultivation on the shore is limiting their food chain.

Level of Investment for the conflictive project8,420,000 (2)
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:1700
Start of the conflict:2018
Company names or state enterprises:Myanmar Tasaki Pearl Company from Japan - Project Operator
Relevant government actors:Myanmar Pearl Industry
Myanmar government
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Citizen’s Action for Transparency (CAFT)
Myanmar Alliance Transparency and Accountability (MATA)
တောင်ပိုင်းလူငယ်အဖွဲ့ (Southern Youth Group)
တရားဥပဒေစိုးမိုးရေးနှင့် တရားမျတမှု ဆိုင်ရာလုပ်ငန်းများ ပေါင်းစပ်ညှိနှိုင်းရေးအဖွဲ့(Coordinating Body for Rule of Law and Justice)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stagePREVENTIVE resistance (precautionary phase)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Industrial workers
Local government/political parties
Moken or Selung
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Media based activism/alternative media


Environmental ImpactsPotential: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage)
Health ImpactsPotential: Malnutrition
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Potential: Displacement, Militarization and increased police presence


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Criminalization of activists
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:The expansion of pearl cultivation is going on, and the Salung are deprived of their livelihood

Sources & Materials

2)RFA-Kyaw Lwin Oo. (2019, November 13). Pearl Farm Plan Could Spell Doom For Myanmar's Nomadic Sea Gypsies? (Ye Kaung Myint Maung &R. Gerin, Trans.). Retrieved September 25, 2020, from

4)Kyaw Zay Ya. (2020, January 27). Mawkun ပုလဲနဲ့ အလဲခံနေရတဲ့ လူမျိုးစု (A tribe being traded for pearls). Retrieved September 25, 2020, from

1)Hein Thar, & Bandu Nang. (2020, May 20). မြိတ်ကျွန်းစုက ပုလဲကျိန်စာသင့် မော်ကင်းများ Moken People of Myeik Archipelago cursed by Pearls. Retrieved September 24, 2020, from

3)Kyaw Lwin Oo. (2019, November 12). မြန်မာဌာန | သတင်းဆောင်းပါးများ ပုလဲလုပ်ငန်းတိုးချဲ့မှုက ဆလုံတို့ဘဝကို ထိခိုက်နိုင်. RFA. Retrieved September 25, 2020, from

5)Zaw Moe Oo. (2019, November 17). News-Eleven မြိတ်ကျွန်းစုမှ ဆလုံတိုင်းရင်းသားများရဲ့ ပြင်းထန်လာတဲ့ နောက်ဆုံးခံတပ်ကာကွယ်မှုနဲ့ ပုလဲကုမ္ပဏီရဲ့ ဧရိယာတိုးချဲ့မှု. Retrieved September 25, 2020, from

Related media links to videos, campaigns, social network

DVB ဆလုံဒေသခံတွေနဲ့ ပုလဲကုမ္ပဏီကြား စာချုပ်စာတမ်းမှာ အားနည်းချက်တွေရှိနေ

ဆလုံတိုင်းရင်းသားတွေ ကန့်ကွက်နေတဲ့ ဂျပန်နိုင်ငံအခြေစိုက် ပုလဲမွေးမြူရေးလုပ်ငန်းသက်တမ်းတိုး (Southerner TV News)

ဆလုံတိုင်းရင်းသားများနေထိုင်သောကျွန်းများတွင် ပုလဲမွေးမြူရေးတိုးချဲ့လုပ်ကိုင်လာမှုအပေါ် ကန့်ကွက်

Other documents

Salung (Moken) people protesting against the Pearl Company Salung (Moken) people protesting against the Pearl Company. 2019 photo credit to Zaw Moe Oo (News-Eleven)

Meta information

Contributor:Environmental Justice Team Myanmar
Last update26/09/2020
Conflict ID:5241



The tribe elder of Salung (Moken) protest against Pearl companies

The tribe elder of Salung (Moken) protest against Pearl companies. photo credit to Mawkun

Salung (Moken) Diver

Salung (Moken) Diver. photo credit to DVB

Salung (Moken) Fishing boat

Salung woman with her boat. Photo credit to Kyaw Zayya(Mawkun news)

Salung (Moken) people protesting against the Pearl Company

Salung (Moken) people protesting against the Pearl Company. in 2019. photo credit to Zaw Moe Oo (News-Eleven)

Boat of Salung People

Salung woman with her boat. Photo credit to Kyaw Zayya(Mawkun news)