Lessons from History

By Raffy Tima, Jr.

SURIN, Thailand – The earth beneath their feet rumbled. Coconuts began falling from trees lining the beach on the small island. Startled, the Mokens or sea gypsies of the Andaman Sea hastily gathered nuts and then quickly headed for their kabang, a local boat.

Fearful but calm, they headed out to sea. Half an hour away from the shore, they felt a slight movement underneath their boat. An elder frantically waved to everyone in the group and pointed to the island they just left. The water from the beach had considerably receded. Minutes later a huge wave as high as the coconut trees engulfed the whole island.

The Mokens had just encountered and survived a tsunami or laboon in their language.

But that was not December 26, 2004 when giant waves triggered by an 8.9 magnitude underwater earthquake crashed against coastal villages in southwestern Thailand. This happened hundreds of years ago, or so a Moken legend says.

Saolam Hantalay, a Moken from the Surin Islands off the coast of Phang Nga province in southern Thailand, says this is just one of several laboon legends and stories he had heard from his grandfather when he was young.

Monster waves, he remembers his grandfather telling him, visit once in a while, sent by Katoy Oken, the spirit of the sea, to cleanse them physically and spiritually. Most Mokens, animists who value their traditions know this by heart, Saolam says.

In the morning of December 26, 2004, when they noticed seawaters receding, the Mokens recalled the folklore and instinctively ran towards the highest point on the island, taking with them nothing but the clothes on their backs.

Of the more than 200 individuals living in the Moken village in Surin, only one died — a crippled young man left behind in the village at the height of the confusion during the evacuation.

This is in stark contrast to the fate that befell more than 5,000 people who drowned when huge waves swamped the southwestern coastline of Thailand. Up to 220,000 people were killed and tens of thousands more wounded and left homeless after the tsunami, one of the most powerful in history, hit countries lying on the Indian Ocean – from Sri Lanka in South Asia to Indonesia in Southeast Asia to Somalia in East Africa.

After the tsunami, the entire Moken population was given temporary shelter in refugee camps in mainland Phang Nga. The near 100 percent survival of this tribe made them a celebrity of sorts. Members of the Thai royal family visited them, local Thai celebrities had pictures taken with them, foreign aid workers marveled at how they were able to survive the killer tsunami.

But another group of sea gypsies called the Moklens were not as fortunate. In the seaside village of Tabtawan in Phang Nga province, more than 20 Moklens were killed and dozens went missing when the tidal waves hit.

Taohit Hantalay, a traditional village doctor, said he knew something was wrong when the water receded on that fateful morning, but he was at a loss as to what was going on. Meanwhile, Moklen women and children innnocently went to the beach and started picking up fish and crabs.

Taohit barely survived the tsunami. As he was being swept inland by the churning waters of the first wave, he clung on to a coconut tree and held on to it while other people were being tossed around. The second wave was so strong, the 80-year-old shaman told this writer, that his clothes were ripped off his back.

Dr. Narumon Arunotai, Assistant Director of Research and Foreign Affairs at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok who has long studied the Mokens said both the Mokens and the Moklens have laboon stories.

How the Mokens were forewarned and the Moklens seemed to have overlooked the signs reveals much about how the two groups have preserved indigenous knowledge and ancestral teachings, Dr Narumon explains.

“The Moklens in Tabtawan have stories, but they have been forgotten because they have been integrated into the Thai main society. Old generations, especially the storytellers have passed away. The Mokens in Surin Island were able to preserve their knowledge about the laboon because they were secluded from the main society, therefore their stories were handed down from generation to generation,” the social scientist said in an interview.

The Mokens’ ancestors are believed to have lived a nomadic life on the seas off Burma and western Thailand. The present tribe, though still dependent on the sea for its sustenance, has given up its nomadic life and has settled in clusters of huts along the coast. Some of the younger ones are slowly moving inland.

Saved by Knowledge/Folklore

Thai disaster experts like Dr Smith Dharmasaroja, former chief of Thailand’s Meteorological Department, acknowledge the Mokens were saved by their indigenous knowledge of the laboon. Knowledge rooted in folklore.

The head of the newly-formed Thailand National Disaster Warning Center theorized Thailand may have been hit by a huge tsunami 150 to 200 years ago. But with no records of such disaster, Thais hardly have any knowledge or understanding of tsunamis. Worse, they pay no attention to warnings, he said.

But not the sea gypsies. The 70-year-old self-taught seismologist who was called a “mad dog” after he predicted several years ago that Phuket could be hit by a tsunami, said Mokens heeded ominous
signs that were told to them by their ancestors. This indigenous knowledge had evolved through generations into legends.

Dr. Naroman couldn’t agree more. She said story telling is very much a part of the Moken culture. It is one of the few forms of entertainment for the reclusive sea gypsies.

Legends rooted in history are not uncommon. But the lessons derived from these legends are often overlooked.

Dr. Naroman says this is usually the case especially among people who have acquired higher education. Legends are treated as mere stories, their significance often limited to their cultural importance. “There are some things you don’t usually identify as useful, but then if you analyze the myths and legends, then you see the importance,” she says.

Thanks to the indigenous knowledge that saved the lives of the Mokens, folklore normally regarded with incredulity will no longer be casually dismissed. One such legend tells of a whole city in northern Thailand that was swallowed up during a huge earthquake. The area eventually became a lake, according to the lore. That catastrophe is believed to have occurred in Chiang Rai province, around 800 kms from Bangkok.

Dr. Smith is planning an excavation in Chiang Rai in partnership with a university up north. “We will make a case study, we will try to drill in the area and see what is down there. Maybe there are wreckage of old buildings.”

There had been no powerful earthquakes recorded in the area for the past century, leading locals to believe they are immune to earthquakes, said Dr Smith. If the legend turns out to be true, then one thing is for sure: Having been hit by a powerful earthquake before, the disaster could strike again, he added.

Philippine Experience

In the Philippines, an indigenous tribal group called the Aeta strongly objected to a geothermal power plant project the Philippine government wanted to undertake on Mt. Pinatubo, then an inactive volcano in central Luzon, about 100 km north of Manila.

Village elders warned officials from the Philippine National Oil Company against disturbing the tranquility of the mountain, the highest peak in the province on whose slopes hundreds of Aeta families live. The natives also consider Pinatubo the home of their departed ancestors.

Dr. Rufino Tima, an anthropologist working with the Aetas, recalls one elder was particularly adamant in his objection.

Pan Key-Ang, then 70 year old, visited him frequently, literally begging that the project be stopped or else, “a great disaster never before witnessed in our lifetime will descend upon us”. The warning was echoed by other Aeta elders, most remembering how their ancestors told them of a great tragedy that befell the province when the mountain was disturbed hundreds of years ago.

Despite objections from the Aetas, the project continued. Three sites around the mountain were drilled. Pipes several kilometers long reached into the bowels of the sleeping volcano.
Several years into the project, however, engineers working on the geothermal power plant discovered the steam coming out of the mountain was too acidic. The project was not viable.
In the late 1980’s, the geothermal power plant was abandoned.

In 1990, several months after a magnitude 7.7 earthquake hit central and northern Luzon, Mt. Pinatubo started to show signs of activity. The volcano, dormant for nearly 600 years, was waking up. Rumblings were heard almost daily, the smell of sulfur permeated the air. Aeta elders took these as signs of an impending disaster. Local officials quickly dismissed the talk as rubbish.

Then in the summer of 1991, three geothermal explosions rocked Mt. Pinatubo. Super hot steam started billowing out of the mountain. Curiously enough, the three explosions took place in the three sites where the geothermal power plant pipes were drilled.

In June and July of that year, Mt. Pinatubo erupted several times, throwing millions of tons of ash and volcanic materials 15 kilometers into the air. It also emitted such a large amount of sulfur dioxide that it formed a veil of sulfuric acid in the Earth’s upper atmosphere, leading to a considerable cooling of the planet’s surface for about a year.

The huge eruption killed up to 700 people, displaced tens of thousands of families and destroyed property worth millions of dollars. It has been classified as one of the worst volcanic eruptions in history.

Just as Pan Key-Ang warned.

Volcanologists in the Philippines insist that Mt. Pinatubo’s eruption was not caused by any external disturbance but was a natural occurrence.

The Aetas still think otherwise. According to Dr. Tima, the natives maintain Mount Pinatubo could have remained silent had the government listened to them, trusted their grasp of history and left the mountain alone.

Learning from History

Indigenous knowledge may have no basis in science, but it is based on tribal people’s distinct observations of the laws of nature that are passed on from one generation to another.

This fundamental and basic principle has been the cornerstone of the Mokens and the Aeta’s culture and tradition through the ages, a principle they share with thousands of other indigenous people in Southeast Asia.

And Dr. Smith thinks this may be one of the keys in unlocking many great mysteries in our time specifically in the aspect of disaster prediction. Indigenous tribal groups are a repository of thousands of years of knowledge and information.

Dr. Smith says,”We have to call an international meeting or workshop in order to go through or look back in history. Even if there is no record, maybe we can interview old people to try to get information. Maybe a record has been made but is hidden somewhere.”

But time may be running out. According to Dr. Naroman, many of these indigenous peoples are slowly being eaten up by modernization. Their culture and tradition, particularly their stories and tales, are slowly being threatened into extinction.

She warns, “Tribal people worldwide are being corrupted with the coming of television, radio, pop music, movies, video. They become more and more attracted to the new form of media.”

Sadly, the first to go are their legends and stories. This is very evident with the Moklens in Tabtawan.

According to Dr. Naroman, even the Mokens are in danger of losing whatever folklore they still have left. A lot has changed with this group. She recounts: “Traditionally, when they are travelling on boats and travelling long distances, they tell stories and tales to pass the time. But now, they are using power boats, the engine is very noisy.” And so, most have stopped the practice of  storytelling.

A simple change with potentially immense consequences.

But all is not lost. With the newfound fame of the Mokens because of their amazing tale of survival, they now have a chance of preserving their culture and traditional stories and may even be called upon to do so.

Funds are now being reserved so the Mokens can learn to write in Thai script. “If they want to record their history on their own, they can,” Dr. Naroman says.

Learning from history has been such an overused cliché that its essence has already been lost. But for a region constantly struggling with natural and man-made disasters, history could still be our greatest source of lesson and understanding.

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