A Sea Gypsy Hears a Siren Song to Champion Rights

By Ellen Nakashima
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 5, 2005

GOLDEN BUDDHA ISLAND, Thailand -- On Sunday morning, a Buddhist monk in a saffron robe clasped his hands in blessing as a young man with a sun-leathered face knelt before him. The monk gave an amulet in the shape of a golden Buddha to the man, Arun Khlatalay, a sea gypsy whose nomadic ancestors roamed the Andaman Sea for millennia.

Later in the day, Arun, a 24-year-old fisherman, made history. He became the first of the sea gypsies, an impoverished, indigenous people with their own language and animist traditions, elected to a village council on Golden Buddha Island, also called Koh Phra Thong.

Arun's political awakening followed a tragedy: the Dec. 26 tsunami that hit 11 countries and, along Thailand's southwest coast, left at least 5,500 dead, more than 2,000 missing and more than 100,000 jobless in an economy dependent on tourist resorts. An estimated 200,000 people around the Indian Ocean were killed by the tsunami. No sea gypsy died in Arun's village, Ta Pae Yoi. About 300 of the 500 people in the village are sea gypsies. They attributed their survival to the food and homemade alcohol they offered the spirits of their ancestors at their full moon festival last November.

But the waves wrecked fleets of boats, destroyed two other villages and killed more than 100 people elsewhere on the island. The sea gypsies lost their boats, nets and squid traps, and with them, their livelihoods. After that, some members of Arun's community fled to the mainland, an hour away, where they sought shelter with local Buddhist monks.

There are more than 8,000 sea gypsies in Thailand, some of whom, like Arun, are members of the Moken community. Over generations, some gypsies have abandoned their nomadic ways and moved to huts on the shore. But the fishermen among them still spend long periods at sea.

Before the disaster, Arun said he never would have thought to run for office. But, he added, he was angered at learning from aid workers and others that tsunami relief intended for his people was being diverted by greedy businessmen. Arun said he found out in March that village leaders were skimming government funds intended to compensate the sea gypsies for their damaged and destroyed boats.

It was the ultimate injustice to the sea gypsies, Arun said. They had suffered years of exploitation by the island elite, who paid the gypsies a pittance for their fish and made usurious loans when they wanted to buy their own boats.

"It made me realize that we had to change," said Arun, whose surname means bravery at sea. "We cannot be enslaved anymore."

Relief workers said there was evidence of corruption. The chief of the village, Yosapon Sae-Daeng, "directly admitted to me taking a 20 percent commission from government tsunami aid meant for the villagers," said Bodhi Garrett, director of North Andaman Tsunami Relief, who had lived on the island. "And he was laughing as he said it, pointing to his new gold chain."

In an interview, Yosapon, 34, a local businessman and the village chief, denied that he cheated the sea gypsies but implied that some money was diverted. "I didn't take compensation for myself," he said, barefoot and smoking a cigarette on the breezy verandah of his beachfront house.

"But I needed money to lobby other people to pay compensations to the villagers."

Arun was nudged along in his new political career by the monks. "You have to teach them that they have rights as Thai citizens and they have to use and preserve them," said the abbot who blessed him, Phrakru Suwatthithammarat, 44, whose shaved head and gaunt frame belie his past as a civil engineer and self-described playboy.

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