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Sea gypsy chief Khun Aroon at home in Theppharatt

Cultural Centre Celebrates Sea Gypsies' Spirit

Monday, February 18, 2008
SOME OF the sea gypsies of Phang Nga endured a particularly demanding time after the 2004 tsunami. They had to deal with sorrow and hardship.

As well as losing family and friends to the big wave, they saw their traditional way of life slipping away.

Out of concern that there might one day be another tsunami, most of the sea gypsies from the island of Prathong, off the township of Kuraburi, chose not to return to their low-lying villages, scattered around the island's coastline.

On the mainland, forced to seek refuge, aid for permanent housing for the sea gypsies was a long time coming. Kuraburi is a long way from Phuket and Bangkok.

When substantial aid did arrive, more than one year after the tsunami, there were strings attached.

The Christian group involved in donating the land and the housing left the nub of the deal until late in the discussions, but at the last minute made it clear that they wanted the sea gypsies to convert as part of the arrangement.

No conversion to Christianity, no housing. The sea gypsies considered the option and declined that generous offer.

At the heart of their decision was the knowledge that it was the abbot at the Buddhist wat in Kuraburi who had taken them in unconditionally after the tsunami and helped them find food and the other essentials they needed.

The sea gypsies' decision left them in limbo for a time, dependant on the largesse of others.

But before long, they were given the opportunity to choose their own site for a village by other Western charities, with no conditions attached.

Either way, as converted Christians or as Buddhists, the change to life on the mainland for the sea gypsies involved a serious challenge.

Many observers, and anthropologists especially, feared that the traditional sea gypsy ways would rapidly disappear once they and their children minged on the mainland with people from more conventional backgrounds.

Until then, isolation on the outying island had allowed them to live a simple, nomadic lifestyle, although they paid a price in lack of access to health care, education and local government resources.

More than three years on, the people of the tsunami village of Theppharatt have proved the onlookers and the academics wrong. They have come in from isolation, and flourished.

The community of 43 families, amounting to about 160 adults and children, could not be more content. They are healthier and happier than ever before.

What's more, their grasp of their sea gypsy past remains strong.

While it is still likely that their traditions may ebb as time goes by, the group is united as never before and putting up a fight to retain everyday ties to the life they once loved.

Going up on a large patch of land in a prime spot at the front of the village, not far from the main road, is a three-storey cultural centre, easily the largest building in the village.

The centre will have the sole purpose of helping to preserve the sea gypsy way of life and make it a focus of their collective futures.

The traditional Mokken language will be taught there, along with Thai and the language of the future for many, English.

The happiness of this sea gypsy community and the prospects for brighter tomorrows are remarkable given that not long ago, they were being forced to consider a reluctant conversion to Christianity and a life of problematic piety.

The abbot of the Kuraburi wat, a man of considerable insight, is probably primarily responsible for the success of the sea gypsies' relocation.

Equally so is Aroon Glathalay, the young and energetic village chief, who recently talked at length with Phuketwan about the challenges.

On a previous visit, he escorted us from the Kuraburi wat to Prathong island, where the sea gypsy villages once stood.

Today Khun Aroon has immersed himself in the workings of the local Orbortor council, something the sea gypsies never had the opportunity to do while isolated on the island.

Remarkably, 60 of the 100 children of the sea gypsy village are now living away, in colleges and school dormitories, where for the first time their education is proceeding beyond the basic schooling that was once all they could expect.

Good health care is also close at hand now.

Being a part of the broader Kuraburi community has empowered this group of sea gypsies as never before. For the first time, jobs in the local town have opened up to them.

And because they still have their own language and traditions, the village remains energised and united.

When the older children return from colleges and schools, their traditional education will continue in the cultural centre. And there, they will pass on new skills to their younger brothers and sisters.

At the other end of the village, away from the main road, lies a track leading to a rough pier of branches among the mangroves, where the villagers' longtails are moored.

When weather and tides permit, the men of the village go out to fish the nearby waters, just as their forefathers have always done. The past is never very far away.

There is one distinct irony, however.

Among the sea gypsies who did return to live the old life in repaired villages on Prathong, several families and individuals have converted to Christianity.

Each week, a Thai pastor makes the long drive up from Phuket and the boat journey out to the traditional sea gypsy village on the island to hold a Christian service.


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