Malaysian Sabahan authorities forcefully evict stateless Bajau Laut ‘sea nomads’
Photo via Borneo Komrad / Used with permission

KOTA SAMARAHAN, Malaysia—An eviction operation conducted by authorities in the Malaysian state of Sabah from June 4 to 6 has left hundreds of stateless Bajau Laut people homeless. Sabah’s Tourism, Culture, and Environment Minister Christina Liew has rejected allegations that the operation violated international human rights laws, a claim made by human rights advocacy groups and the Sabahan mutual aid organization Borneo Komrad.

Liew went on to claim egregiously that some Bajau Laut residents razed their own homes “for the purpose of going viral on social media and garnering sympathy and attention from netizens.”

Justifying their actions, Sabahan authorities cited issues of border security, along with illegal fishing and construction of permanent structures within the Tun Sakaran Marine Park off the coast of the Sabahan city of Semporna, a popular tourist destination. Forced eviction and displacement of Indigenous peoples is not new in the context of historical scientific conservation.

Photo via Borneo Komrad / Used with permission

The Bajau Laut are a semi-nomadic people of the Sama-Bajau group who have historically lived throughout the central and eastern Malay Archipelago and Sulu Archipelago of the modern-day Philippines. Today, although some can claim citizenship of Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei, or Indonesia, many Sama-Bajau are effectively stateless, living in stilted houses and houseboats built in shallow shoreline waters at the margins of these four countries.

The issue of statelessness in Malaysia is made more difficult by Malaysian race laws. Ketuanan Melayu, a concept of “Malay Supremacy,” was cultivated as a legal framework by the British administration of Malaya, which has since translated into Malay ethnic control of the federated former British colonies that now constitute Malaysia.

Ketuanan Melayu at the federal level and various interpretations of Bumiputra—a context-dependent legal concept of peoples considered indigenous to Malaysia such as Malays, the indigenous Orang Asli of peninsular Malaysia, and Dayak and other indigenous Borneans—discriminate against Chinese, Indian, and other non-Bumiputra Malaysians.

Affirmative action programs of peoples considered Bumiputra have historically been aimed predominantly at ethnic Malays, and in some states such as Sarawak, children born to only one Dayak parent have only recently begun to have access to such programs. For those not seen to be natives to this or that Malaysian state, like foreign-born Bajau Laut, access to healthcare, schooling, and other basic social services remain out of reach.

Organizations such as Iskul Sama diLaut Omadal and Borneo Komrad’s Sekolah Alternatif have become the source of some of the only social services available to the Bajau Laut, who are commonly treated as social pariahs.

Over the past few centuries, the dissolution of regional sultanates and the succession of Anglo-European colonial administrations has placed the Bajau Laut in the path of territorial disputes between the Philippines and Malaysia.

Photo via Borneo Komrad / Used with permission

Philippine claims on eastern parts of the Malaysian state of Sabah stem from the Sulu Sultanate’s leasing of the region to the British North Borneo Company in the 19th century. Malaysia’s formation in 1963 from the former British colonies of Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak, and North Borneo (Sabah) included this region.

As the territory was never formally ceded to Malaysia, Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos claimed it still rightfully belonged to his country, and a failed attempt in 1967 to instigate political upheaval in Sabah, among other historical grievances, spurred insurgencies throughout the southern Philippine state of Mindanao.

Most notable among these are the independence movements of the Moro, who had resisted earlier occupation by the United States and Spain, as well as protracted peoples’ wars carried out by the Communist Party of the Philippines and its offshoots in opposition to Marcos’ government.

In recent years, though, Sabahan territorial disputes have become the purview of emergent jihadist movements in Muslim-majority Mindanao associated with Islamic State. Abu Sayyaf has employed tactics of piracy and kidnapping throughout the Sulu Archipelago and into Sabah, including against the Bajau Laut.

Caught in the crossfire, Bajau Laut have largely dispersed from the Sulu region of the southern Philippines in recent decades and relocated along the coast of Sabah, North Kalimantan in Indonesia, and other parts of the Philippines.

As Malaysian anti-racism organization Pusat Komas said of the current predicament of stateless Bajau Laut in Sabah, “Moving people out of their homes only serves to move the problem elsewhere, rather than solving it.”

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Eric Brown
Eric Brown

Eric Brown is a PhD student at the University of Maine currently on attachment at Universiti Malaysia Sarawak.