Andaman Sea Gypsies Heeded
Pre-Tsunami Signs
Wisdom Of The Sea

By Karnjariya Sukrung
Bangkok Post
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 migrating elsewhere.
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.
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 Chainarong Sethachue.
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," said Kalya.
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 said.
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."
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.
© Copyright The Post Publishing Public Co., Ltd. 2005



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