The Bajau Laut or Sama Dilaut, also known as sea gypsies, are an indigenous ethnic group who have retained their seaborne lifestyle. They are boat dwellers who roam the Coral Triangle (a triangular expanse of tropical marine waters encompassing Indonesia, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, the Solomon Islands, and Timor-Leste) or settle in small stilt houses erected on the reef or islands. They are traditionally from the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines, the coastal areas of Mindanao, and northern Borneo. The Bajau are currently considered to be the second largest ethnic group in the Malaysian state of Sabah, although the exact figures of their population is unknown.
Life on the water
According to legend, a princess from Johor, Malaysia, was washed away during a flash flood. Her mourning father ordered his subjects to search for his daughter, forbidding them from returning to the kingdom until she had been found, and they’ve been wandering the seas ever since.
“The Bajau Laut are like the American Red Indians or Australian Aborigines. It’s just that much harder to track them and explore their culture, because they are always on the move,” says Suhaime Bin Ejip, the mayor of Semporna. The ocean is everything to the Bajau. It’s their home, a playground for their children, and their main source of food and income.
Most Bajau are unaware of their age, have but one name, and are unable to read or write. On top of this, many have no formal documents to speak of or know where they were born. A few years ago, special Bajau Laut documents began being issued in Sabah. The government now registers the sea nomads officially as Bajau Laut.
“I’ve been told I am 32 years old now,” says Agunnay, who now lives on Mabul Island with his family. Remarking on his experience of receiving his official document he continues, “They just looked at me and decided that I should be around that age.”
The issue of Bajau Laut documents has now been suspended. “A lot of people wanted to take advantage of Bajau Laut papers because they allow people to move freely between Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. So they would just turn up and say that they were Bajau Laut and want to receive papers, even though they clearly were from the land,” says Bin Ejip.
No documents mean no education or health care. The Sama Dilaut are unable to live a regular life and are continually forced to face difficulties. “They have almost no rights, are very poor, and they have to make a living with limited material resources. They are also uneducated and have no experience of other kind of works than fishing,” says Erik Abrahamsson, a Swedish anthropologist who has spent some time with the Sama Dilaut learning one of their dialects and studying their life and culture.