Bajau Laut community deserves more humane treatment

Bajau Laut community deserves more humane treatment

The Bajau Laut are a sea-faring community in which many live offshore in wooden houseboats or huts built on stilts in and around Semporna island. – The Malaysian Insight file pic, June 10, 2024.

A FEW days ago, the news broke out that more than 500 people from the Bajau Laut community in Sabah state had been evicted from their homes this week.

According to Borneo Komrad – a Sabah-based NGO that provides education to stateless Bajau Laut children – men believed to be from an enforcement task force arrived at the Bajau Laut community’s homes on Tuesday, and demolished and burnt their homes to drive them out.

It is understood that some in the communities had received prior notice of the operation from Sabah Parks, a conservation body managed by the state government.

The Bajau Laut are a sea-faring community in which many live offshore in wooden houseboats or huts built on stilts in and around Semporna island.

Nicknamed “Sea Gypsies”, their nomadic culture dates back centuries prior to the existence of modern nation-states and maritime borders, straddling the borders of modern-day Malaysia, Brunei, Philippines and Indonesia.

Since the emergence of these nation-states and the formalisation of territorial boundaries, the Bajau Laut have faced constant challenges in attaining legal recognition as citizens of any state.

Their ability to hold their breath underwater for extended periods of time has been a constant source of amazement and studies done by researchers have speculated that this could probably be attributed to their genes which have adapted to their lifestyle as sea nomads.

The state government has come under fire from many quarters since the news of the incident broke.

However, the state government appeared unrepentant. According to the state minister of tourism, culture and environment, Christina Liew, the authorities are empowered to take action against illegal activities, such as fishing, building structures and farming without permission, in protected areas controlled by Sabah Parks.

She also claimed that, according to sources from the police, some of them had burned their own houses in order to go viral on social media and gain sympathy and attention from netizens.

It is very ironic that she would make such a claim. She comes from PKR, a party known for its eye-like logo which symbolises its founder Anwar Ibrahim’s black eye after being beaten by the then inspector-general of the police.

The then prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, initially denied any wrongdoing by the police and suggested that Anwar may have deliberately injured himself to garner public sympathy.

As a politician from this party, she should be the one to be sceptical of any allegation that people would sabotage themselves to gain public sympathy.

Another reason why her statement sounded ironic is that she was the deputy chief minister of Sabah during the Warisan-PH government of 2018-2020, during which the opposition was making constant irresponsible allegations that undocumented migrants in Sabah (mainly from the Philippines, though there were also many undocumented migrants in Sabah that were from other countries such as Indonesia) were burning down their own homes so that they could claim to be Malaysians whose identity card (IC) had been destroyed in the fire, after which the government would issue new identity cards for them.

This allegation has no basis but had been used extensively by the then opposition to fan racist sentiments against the Warisan-PH government from the time the ruling coalition started their term in 2018 until the 2020 state election which saw their defeat.

It is ironic that, now that she is once again a state minister, albeit this time without the deputy chief minister position, and a colleague of the same people who made baseless accusations against her previous government, she is now also singing a similar tune about undocumented communities burning down their own homes for nefarious purposes.  

The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) has said that it is closely monitoring the case and that there is a need to assess the broader humanitarian impact of these actions despite prior notice being given to the affected communities.

It has also stated that there is a need for ongoing dialogue and cooperation between the state government, the Bajau Laut community, and humanitarian organisations.

This is necessary to develop sustainable and inclusive strategies that address broader issues while respecting the rights and dignity of all individuals involved.

The stateless issue of the Bajau Laut has lingered for far too long. It is about time to come up with a permanent solution that will save this community from being continuously marginalised. – June 10, 2024.

* Rayner Sylvester Yeo is a member of Agora Society. He was born in Sabah and is currently residing in Kuala Lumpur. Having grown up in a mixed-ethnic, multi-faith family and spent his working life in public, private and non-profit sectors, he believes diversity is the spice of life.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight. Article may be edited for brevity and clarity.

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