- There were some signs. Two weeks before the tidal waves
slammed the Surin Islands, the Andaman sea gypsies, the Moken, who make
their livelihood from diving and catching fish with their bare hands, said
they saw several rare deep-sea creatures alien to the reef area.
- They were also amazed and puzzled as to why a number
of crabs and lobsters had crawled up from their holes - as if they were
- The Moken talked about these abnormal phenomena but did
not know what was to unfold.
- Three days before the tsunami struck, an elder Moken
shaman called Burong Klathalay, 50, claimed that his ancestors' spirits
came to him and warned of the danger. "In my dream, the spirits warned
that danger was coming. Beware!" In that dream, he said he begged
the spirits to spare their lives and said he would present culinary offerings.
- The final sign arrived on the morning of the full moon
day when the tsunami struck. The seawater rapidly retreated so that the
Moken's boats almost crashed into the coral. The Moken cried and shouted,
"Run, run, run to the mountain!"
- With newborns tied to their mothers' breasts, toddlers
on their fathers' backs, and the elderly staggering, the Moken of the Surin
Islands fled to the mountain behind their wooden and bamboo stilt shacks.
- Today, almost all the seafaring Moken, as well as some
tourists who were in the area, are safe. The exception is one 30-year-old
Moken man who had suffered from partial paralysis for several years, who
did not make it to the mountain in time.
- The Moken did not have expensive advanced technology
to warn them about the killer waves. They survived merely because of their
close relationships with and observation of nature and because they heeded
their ancient wisdom and even superstition, which modern-day educated people
may deem unscientific.
- Now the Moken have come under the media spotlight. Their
stories are being reported in the news and on television programmes. When
they are interviewed, they recount their stories with pride.
- "I think more people are now aware of the Moken
and are learning to accept their existence and respect the wisdom that
saved them," said Narumon Arunotai of the Social Research Institute,
Chulalongkorn University, who has been researching the Moken for about
a decade. "These sea gypsies live so close to nature. Their lives
depend and revolve around it, so they develop a sharp, vigilant instinct
about danger. We can learn from them if we accept that their wisdom is
legitimate," she added.
- ANCIENT WARNING TALES
- The Moken are indigenous people who have frequented the
islands and coastlines in the Andaman sea for centuries. According to researchers,
they hold the sea map to the Andaman and are skilful skin divers and fishers.
However, some Moken believe that people from the mainland think they are
"dirty, low-life, uneducated and 'uncivilised'."
- Perhaps the tsunami tragedy might change the deep-seated
prejudice some have against ethnic minorities such as the Moken, and bring
about a revival of their disappearing cultures.
- In the wake of the tsunami, belief in ancient spirits
and myths have been invigorated as well as their ties with nature that
may have fallen by the wayside with modern civilisation. This is helping
to bring back the Moken's cultural pride.
- At their temporary shelters, the Moken recalled the tragedy,
how they signalled danger, how they survived and lessons they learned.
- "The Moken are reviving ancient accounts of tsunamis.
This can stir up a recollection of old social memories and wisdom, adding
up to new knowledge from this tragedy," commented environmentalist
- For example, the Thai Mai (New Thais), Moken sea gypsies
who have settled on a permanent location on shore, have started to recall
"myths" they once heard in their childhood of when their ancestors
still roamed the rough ocean.
- "They said one day the navel of the sea would suck
all water and spit it all back in the form of waves. Many people would
die. I never thought that it would be real," said Kalya Lek-awut,
40, a Thai Mai from Baan Thung Daab in Koh Phra Thong, Phangnga province.
"They even told me to beware, for it could happen in my lifetime."
- Kalya recalled how she survived December's tsunami by
crouching on a thorny tree when the powerful tidal waves hit the island.
Nine Thai Mai died and 76 survived from this village.
- Many survivors said their lives were spared because the
ancestors' spirits on the island protected them.
- "While I was struggling in muddy water, I prayed
to Por Tah Hin Kong, our ancient spirits since the early days when our
tribe still roamed the ocean. I prayed for them to save me. And I survived!"
said Daorueng Taleh-rungroj, 40, from Baan Thung Daab.
- She said that the shrine of Por Tah Hin Kong, which is
a pile of rocks on the island's cape, sustained the waves.
- Many, too, said that they owed their lives to trees.
- "Trees saved our lives. Without them, I wouldn't
have lived. Those who died were those who could not hold on to trees,"
- In recent years, Koh Phra Thong has been promoted as
a tourist destination, and some villagers sold their land and cut down
beach trees to make way for resorts.
- "It's a sad lesson. Had we not gotten rid of those
trees, weeds and plants along the coast, the tides would not have been
so powerful and pervasive. I believe that had there been more trees, the
water would have come in more slowly, giving us time to flee," she
- Now villagers are talking about restoring the island
to the way it used to be.
- "It's our fault that we cut down those trees for
the resorts. We have ourselves to blame," said Kalya. "Now, we
don't want resorts on our islands."
- VALIDATING ETHNIC WISDOM
- Moken researcher Narumon said that we should include
the Moken's ancient, non-scientific wisdom in our way of learning if we
strive for a knowledge-based society.
- "It is time we learn to respect and embrace diversity
of knowledge and give room for ethnic wisdom to thrive," she said.
"Ethnic minorities such as the Moken have a lot of wisdom and knowledge
we can learn from. But in modern-day society, we don't recognise it as
legitimate 'knowledge'. Rather, we restrict knowledge to only Western and
scientific versions. If we don't preserve this ethnic culture, this wisdom
will be lost."
- The sea Moken on the Surin Islands know how to look for
safe locations in their communities. They settle near mountains where they
can forage for food, find wood to make their homes, and, in this case,
seek shelter from danger when necessary. The communities also locate themselves
behind other islands, so those islands act like natural shields from stormy
seas or wind.
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