Sabah’s tough stance on Bajau Laut tribe raises questions about how the state should treat the stateless, with the world watching

Malay Mail
Malay Mail

COMMENTARY, June 30 — It has been three weeks since the demolition and eviction of hundreds of Bajau Laut homes on the picturesque white sand beaches off Semporna, Sabah grabbed headlines on the internet and it has all but died down.

Authorities were within their rights to take down the illegal structures which were within the gazetted Tun Sakaran Marine Park, although the burning of one home that had gone viral on the internet was generally seen as uncalled for.

The issue was a polarising one — dividing many Sabahans who understood the plight of the stateless, and those who see them as second or third class citizens who do not have any contribution to Malaysia.

Although the sea-faring Bajau Laut people whose homes were destroyed will likely survive the ordeal by finding new locales or relegate themselves to their houseboats for now, it does shine a spotlight on how the state will handle the many stateless people living in Sabah.

The plight of the Bajau Laut is unique given their nomadic ways; it cannot be denied that many have settled in the waters of Sabah’s east coast where they live off the sea, and sometimes venture to land where they sell their fresh catches to locals and tourists.

They, like many impoverished communities, are at the mercy of the country’s immigration and citizenship laws, which do not always distinguish between asylum seekers, refugees, irregular migrants and undocumented or stateless individuals.

Their lifestyle may be primitive but they cannot be dismissed, and thankfully, there are vocal and strong-willed few who agree.

Mukmin Nantang, the Tawau-born activist who has been among the loudest during this controversy speaks of the Bajau with compassion, humanity and appreciation of their ancestral traditions.

When delving deeper into the myriad of articles and essays by photojournalists and anthropologists who speak of the Bajau Laut with the same fascination — touching on their warmth and friendliness, but also of their innate connection to the sea.

Their connection extends to their biological make-up, having larger spleens than most humans, enabling them to hold their breath and free dive for their livelihood.

Known for a wide-ranging cultural make up, Sabah has been welcoming of all its tribes and races; from the horse-riding Bajau Sama of the west coast, the paddy-planting, merry making Kadazan Dusuns, the Brunei Malays, the Lundayehs, the Muruts, Iranuns, Bisaya, Bugis and everything in between, it is hoped that the Bajau Laut, be extended the same social status.

Chief Minister Datuk Seri Hajiji Noor has quelled the noise from human rights groups by promising to provide them with assistance and it is a step closer to the long time hope for a solution to Sabah’s perennial statelessness.

It may not be popular but it is necessary. And as seen by recent events, the world is watching.

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