Published: April 2005
Tsunami Update
Saved by Knowledge of the Sea
By Jennifer S. Holland
National Geographic Staff

The tsunami that devastated coastlines and swallowed hundreds of thousands of lives in December appears to have spared the Moken of Southeast Asia, according to recent reports. Known as sea gypsies, these elusive nomads number between 2,000 and 3,000 and are divided into traditional seafaring groups off Myanmar (formerly Burma) in the Andaman Sea and smaller groups settled on the coast of Thailand.

In the disaster's wake the Moken made headlines. Despite their proximity to the water, only one—a disabled man in a Thai settlement—was known to be killed by the wave. Hundreds of others, relying on their deep knowledge of the sea, ran to high ground. "They read nature's signals: the silence, the receding of the water, the color of the sea, the strong current," says anthropologist Jacques Ivanoff, who since January has been surveying the damage to the islands in the Andaman and the traditional Moken who live there. "They have collective memory of the multiple rolls of a tsunami. They knew the second wave was the killer, so they had time to escape before it came."

The Moken weren't left entirely unscathed. Ivanoff reports that many of their coastal settlements were destroyed, as were perhaps a fifth of their boats. "Some were taken by the waves," he says. "There was no way to resist." The wooden houseboats, known as kabang—which the Moken spend at least four months carving by hand—aren't just a nuclear family's transportation. They're a place to cook, eat, sleep, raise children, and, in a larger cultural context, to link families to each other and to the life-giving sea.

In addition, the islands off Myanmar, where many Moken collect food and take refuge during the monsoons, were hard-hit, leaving debris fields where productive tidal flats and forests once offered these hunter-gatherers sources of nourishment and building materials.

But the lighter human toll has raised awareness about and lent credence to Moken traditional knowledge, bringing new respect to a people often deemed by neighboring countries as unsophisticated drifters. Ironically, says Ivanoff, the attention and subsequent aid coming their way may ultimately erode the remaining crumbs of their culture. That culture is already under siege by the Thai and Burmese governments, which have tried with some success to assimilate the Moken into mainstream society. Aid money sent with the best of intentions—to help the Moken rebuild—may be used in ways counter to their wishes. "Doing the right thing for the Moken isn't easy," Ivanoff says. "If you bring them too much help, you may make the spirits of their ancestors angry. The Moken, according to their own creation myth, are meant to be poor, to take only what they need, to remain outsiders. This is how they've survived all this time."