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Sea Gypsies' Tsunami Rebuild Curse

Thailand's Moken tribe — a small community of fishermen whose elders ordered a hilltop evacuation just before the tsunami hit — is rebuilding on a nearby beach. The Moken believe their old home is cursed because they mistakenly left behind a handicapped boy.

The boy was the only tribe member to die in the waves, which killed more than 157,000 across southern Asia and 5,300 in Thailand.

Whereas the soaring death toll has touched off calls in the high-tech capitals of the world for a global tsunami warning system, here on this small island it has strengthened an ancient people's faith in skills passed down from generation to generation.

Younger Moken seem impressed by the way several elders detected unusual movements in the Bay of Bengal on Dec. 26 and warned villagers to seek safety on a hilltop before the tallest of three waves hit the island following a 9.0-magnitude earthquake in the Indian Ocean.

The tsunami swallowed the Moken's beachside village of several dozen wooden houses on stilts and destroyed many of their precious boats. A new village is already being built — as close to the shore as before but not on the same beach.

"We will build a new village in Bon Yai beach because there is a person who died in Bon Lek beach," said Moken headman Salama Klatalee, referring to the boy left behind.

Likewise, the death of several Moken from cholera several years ago prompted a similar move, that village also having become taboo, said Pantjaporn Panklin, an official of the Care International Foundation, which is helping the Moken rebuild.

There are some 200 Moken living on South Surin Island, one of several groups of so-called sea gypsies in Thailand and Myanmar. They are darker than most Thais, with curly hair and bushy eyebrows.

For centuries, the Moken spent several months of the year — the monsoon season — plying the Andaman Sea, fishing with nets and spears. They lived in long wooden boats that were big enough for whole families and partially covered by canvas roofs. Occasionally, they stopped on islands to sell their catch, buy food and get water. The rest of the year they lived in their elevated homes along the shore, still surrounded by water at high tide.

The Moken are animist — a belief in the existence of individual spirits — and worship the sea. Every year during the full moon of the fifth lunar month, they stop working for three days and nights to feast, dance, sing and put themselves into a trance.

Today, like other sea gypsy ethnic minorities in and around Thailand, the Moken are being absorbed by mainstream Thai culture. They still have their own language, but many Moken youths on South Surin Island are also fluent in Thai.

The island, one of five in a chain 40 miles off the Thai coast, has no roads or cars, and everyone travels by foot or by boat. Some Moken work in the national park that makes up half the island. Others are employed as garbage collectors, housekeepers and hiking or snorkeling guides for tourists. They often learn far less about sailing, navigation and the sea than their elders.

Few of the sea gypsies, even the older ones, now fish for months at a time in the Andaman Sea. Most only fish during the day, returning home at night.

Narumon Arunothai, a social scientist at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok who has long studied the Moken, hopes the younger generation will be inspired by their elders' survival skills.

"People are safe from tsunami because these elders know the sea. We should encourage the young to have pride in their wisdom, which is bound to be forgotten one day," she said.

By Rungrawee C. Pinyorat

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