Identification. This grouping encompasses diverse, seminomadic boat dwellers scattered along the coasts and offshore islands throughout Southeast Asia from Tenasserim in southwest Myanmar down the coasts of Thailand and Malaysia, Singapore, southeast Sumatra, Borneo, and into the Sulu Sea region. "Sea nomads," as they are labeled in the literature, are a maritime-dwelling boat people oriented to the strand, including sand beaches, coral reefs, rocky shores, mangroves, and the sea. The most commonly used name for sea nomads, "Orang Laut," results in confusion, since this name refers not only to boat-dwelling sea peoples but also to strand-living people (in contrast to inland-residing communities known as "Orang Darat").
Location. Within similar nomadic boat adaptations, additional group distinctions can be made based on location, origin, dialect, and recent history. Along the Tenasserim coast and the Mergui Archipelago, the major islands on which Moken wander include Tavoy (Mali), King (Kadan), Elphinstone (Thayawthadangyi, Dung), Grant, and Ross (Daung) in the north; Domel (Letsok-Aw), Kisseraing (Kanmaw), Sullivan (Lanbi), Owen, Malcolm, and Bentinck islands to the south; and the southernmost point of Myanmar at Victoria Point (Kawthaung), including Saint Matthew's (Zadetkyi), Saint Luke's (Zadetkale), and the Loughborough Islands. Moken reside along the Thai coast down to Ko Phra Thong, Tongka, at the foot of Phuket. The Burmese/Thai communities include four distinct dialect groups: Dung (Doang) residing in the northen end of the archipelago around the islands of Elphinstone, Grant, and Ross; the Ja-it dialect group living around Lampi Island and Bokpyn; Lbi speakers living around Victoria Point; and the Lawta dialect group of Lawta and Tongka, Thailand. Farther south along the Thai coast at Ko Lanta Yai and Ko Lanta, in the Trang area, are Orang Laut Kappir (from the Arabic kafir, "unbeliever") . Down the Malay Peninsula along the Pontian coast live Desin Dolaq (Orang Kuala, Duano) and Orang Seletar (Selitar, Sletar), Orang Laut communities that the Malaysian government considers part of the Orang Asli community. On Pulau Brani in Singapore Harbor live the Selat. Documented Johor-Singapore communities that are either extinct or unknown today include Orang Akik, Sabimba, and Orang Biduanda Kallang; with the establishment of Port Swettenham, the British removed the Sabimba and Biduanda Kallang inland to sites in Johor. Orang Laut groups from around the Riau-Lingga archipelago include Orang Tambusa, Galang, and Mantang originally from the Pulau Mantang group of islands south of Pulau Bintan; Orang Moro from Pulau Sugi Bawah in the Riau Archipelago; and Orang Pusek (Persik), Orang Barok, and Orang Sekanak from Singkep in the Lingga Archipelago. The sea nomads of Billiton and Bangka Islands include the Orang Sekah (Sekak, Sekat, Sika). Communities related to the Johor-Singapore and Riau-Lingga groups can also be found along the southeast coast of Sumatra (e.g., Desin Dolaq migrated from Pulau Bengkalis and until World War II visited their kin at the mouth of the Siak River).
Demography. Population statistics are based solely on estimates. Bernatzik estimated the Moken population of Burma to be around 5,000 in 1939. This figure included settled boat nomads. The population for all sea nomads decreased over the past century because of disease and because of attrition as more boat dwellers settled as a result of government intervention (e.g., Skeat and Ridley reported that there were only 8 Orang Biduanda Kallang families left out of the 100 families removed from Singapore to Johor in 1847). 1983 population figures for Orang Laut in Malaysia include 1,924 Desin Dolaq and 542 Orang Selitar. Figures for Riau-Lingga, Bangka, and Billiton Orang Laut in the nineteenth century are unknown, but it is clear that the pattern of decreasing population fits them as well.
Linguistic Affiliation. All sea nomads traditionally spoke non-Malay Austronesian dialects and languages. Today the few remaining Orang Laut communities that maintain their cultural identity speak Malay, with a distinctive pronunciation. When Baptist missionaries established a school among the Moken in 1946, they wrote a Moken script "primer."