The Second Wave : The Urak Lawoi After the Tsunami in Thailand

Abstract: On 26 December 2004, the Urak Lawoi sea people were hit by a huge tsunami that overwhelmed all of Southeast Asia causing the deaths of more than 350,000 people across the region. If the tsunami was the disaster, the “first wave”, the relief efforts and the assistance that came with it became the “second wave”, due to the social and economic changes that followed. The Urak Lawoi have for centuries, resided on the Andaman Sea, off western Thailand. They have long lived on islands, that today are popular touristic destinations, such as Phuket, Phi Phi, and Ko Lanta Yai. Here, they have long shared resources that the ocean can offer for subsistence. Living next to the sea is central to their identity; here, they fish, gather at the shore, and perform ancestor-spirit worship. Although they are a minority in Thailand, they maintain a culture, language, and lifestyle apart from Thai society. In this dissertation I discuss how the post-tsunami reforms, relief efforts and outside attention have affected everyday life among the Urak Lawoi on the island of Ko Lanta Yai. The dissertation is based on 36 months of ethnographic fieldwork that stretches over a decade (2002-2013), before and after the tsunami. I have used video cameras to film, providing a deeper understanding of the empirical data collected. The monograph provides an empirical understanding of how global economic interests and transnational migration influence local communities. Examples from fieldwork are used to demonstrate how an indigenous people were deprived of their territory (which in this case includes the sea), and how this affected their religion but also hampered their self-sufficient economy as they became increasingly dependent on a solid monetary income. The analysis reveals how a response to a natural disaster can accelerate the integration of local people into the global economic arena under the conditions of tourism development. The rebuilding activities, new regulations, and social integration processes became catalysts for the local government to implement desired changes that suited tourism growth. The study demonstrates how development increased the inequalities of people’s living conditions and made people without land entitlements more vulnerable. Those who have access to land were the best at integrating with Thai society, but they were also the best at preserving their identity.Thus, I argue, a natural disaster can be used as a pretext for exploitation in favor of tourism development in the affected area, and speed up the process of change. I conclude that outsiders have a desire to create stereotypes of the Urak Lawoi, who only have the “right” to retain their identity as “sea people” if they adapt their traditions and culture to suit tourism development. Although vulnerable, the Urak Lawoi do not see themselves as victims but show strong agency and creativity to act within limitations in society.

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