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.
Arun also recalled the inspiration of Mae Chee Wan, a nun who came to volunteer after the tsunami. She had urged Arun and his friends to stop sitting around drinking, cease whining, and start to organize themselves.
Her words stung, but they moved him to act, Arun recalled. "She told us, 'You have to have pride. Otherwise people will say the Moken are dummies who can do nothing but fish. They'll say you're stupid, stupid, stupid!' "
Arun got 114 votes in the July 31 election, winning one of two council seats from candidates supported by Yosapon. Despite Arun's victory, however, the sea gypsies' future is far from certain.
Half of the sea gypsies in Arun's village have taken shelter at the Buddhist temple in Phang Nga province, on the Thai mainland an hour's boat ride away. They fear another tsunami and worry that if they return, they would be further exploited by the island's businessmen and political leaders, whom they call "the capitalists."
The monks have promised to help some of them build houses on the mainland, but they would continue to fish and maintain their huts on the island. The process could take years.
Arun said he was determined to give the sea gypsies a voice. He pledged to protect the rights of the members of his community who remain on the island, as well as those at the temple.
On the morning of the village elections, Arun clipped the amulet he received from the monk to the inside of his blue soccer jersey, strode into an open-air pavilion that served as the village polling station and cast his ballot. Each of the four candidates was identified by a number. He was so nervous, he said, he almost forgot his: 3.
As he walked back toward the village center, greeting friends with blue-inked thumbs who had just voted, he pointed at the creaky huts, some of rusty, corrugated tin, some of rotting wood, where the sea gypsies live when they're not on their boats.
He said he was glad that the huts survived the tsunami, but "at the same time," he said, softly, "I feel sad because our life conditions are the same. Nothing has improved."
Most of all, Arun said, he wanted to protect the ability of the sea gypsies to control their own future. Independence was a simpler concept when his ancestors roamed the seas and moved from fishing ground to fishing ground according to the moon phases, he said.
Now his goals are different. Arun, a ninth grade dropout, said he wants his two young daughters to have a full education. The local school has been rebuilt and enlarged, but he said he does not trust that the education on the island will be as good as on the mainland.
Arun said his priority would be to ensure the housing project at the new community went forward.
But first, he said, he had a more pressing task, fit for a successful politician. "I have to walk around to all the houses and thank people for their support," he said. "And I'll promise to carry out my plans."