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What’s Happening in Sabah, and Why You Should Care

By JONATHAN LEE RONG SHENG


Forceful eviction: Screenshot from a video showing local authorities evicting the Bajau Laut tribe from their home.


SINCE volunteering in Sabah as part of Project Anak Malaysia, an initiative organised by Charisma Movement, the state has always held a special place in my heart for its inexplicable charm and natural beauty.


However, beneath its stunning landscapes lies a state steeped in poverty and statelessness. According to New Naratif, one out of every three people in Sabah is undocumented, amounting to about one million individuals with no proper legal identity. This makes Sabah the state with the highest stateless population in Malaysia.


The ruthless combination of poverty and statelessness often leads to heartbreaking situations. One such incident occurred on June 4 and 5, when around 500 Bajau Laut people, or sea nomads, living off the shore of the Tun Sakaran Marine Park in Semporna, Sabah, were forcibly evicted. The authorities responsible for this brutal eviction remain unnamed but are believed to be part of the local enforcement force, likely targeting undocumented migrants in Malaysia.


This issue is deeply troubling and highlights the lasting ramifications of colonialism, as well as the need for humanity and empathy.


First, a little history: The Bajau Laut people are estimated to have originated around 1000 AD to 1200 AD, based on their deep-rooted seafaring traditions, linguistic ties, and historical references from Chinese and European explorers from the 16th century onwards. Their presence was especially prominent in the maritime regions of Southeast Asia, particularly around the southern Philippines, Malaysia (Sabah), and Indonesia.


The Bajau Laut community is a historically vulnerable and stateless group in Malaysia. They have faced systemic discrimination due to their lack of documentation, which denies them basic human rights such as healthcare, education, and legal protection.


Before British colonisation, the nomadic lifestyle of the Bajau Laut people was well accepted in this region. However, colonisation brought about redefined sovereignty and citizenship regulations. The formalising of borders across Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines created significant complications for these nomadic people.


Mukmin Nantang, a prominent activist and founder of Borneo Komrad, described the Bajau Laut's indigeneity and deep connection to our local seas best. "Malaysia has only been a federation for 60 years. The Bajau Laut people have not encroached on our national borders, but rather our national borders have encroached on their lives," he says.


Another worrying aspect of this incident is what transpired afterward. Mukmin, who was among the most outspoken activists who brought the eviction incident to light, was arrested at the Semporna district police headquarters on June 27 under the Sedition Act. He has since been released on police bail.


For the uninitiated, the Sedition Act is highly controversial due to its perceived use to stifle free speech, its vague and broad definitions, and its historical application as a political tool against activists and political opponents. It surprised me that speaking out for compassion could have such severe consequences, especially when there was video evidence that the eviction took place.


Pakatan Harapan’s 15th General Election manifesto promised to advance the interests of rural and remote populations in Sabah and Sarawak. Notably, the manifesto acknowledged that poverty in Sabah has contributed to a rise in stateless children and pledged to recognize the plight of those born in Malaysia without citizenship due to a lack of documentation.


Statelessness denies individuals education and other basic rights, leading to social and economic marginalisation, discrimination, and exploitation. This lack of legal protection perpetuates a cycle of poverty that can extend across generations. Addressing this issue requires legal reforms and inclusive policies to ensure access to basic services, along with support from organisations to improve the socio-economic conditions of stateless populations.


More importantly, our compassion and aid should not be drawn along bureaucratic lines such as citizenship or borders, especially when it pertains to a community like the Bajau Laut who have always been there. Their plight calls for a collective effort to provide the recognition and support they deserve, fostering a more inclusive and humane society.

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