Malaysia’s Sea Nomads: Trapped Between Southeast Asia’s High and Low Politics

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Malaysia’s Sea Nomads: Trapped Between Southeast Asia’s High and Low Politics

Sea nomads have faced decades of discrimination in postcolonial Southeast Asia. Malaysia’s recent mass evictions of the Bajau Laut are just the latest example.

Malaysia’s Sea Nomads: Trapped Between Southeast Asia’s High and Low Politics

Two lepa, the traditional boats of the Bajau Laut people, take part in the Regatta Lepa festibal in Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia, April 25, 2015.

Credit: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Earlier this month, Reuters reported the forced eviction of hundreds of “sea nomads” in the Malaysian state of Sabah. The news was based on reports by local activists who received videos directly from the communities affected. They stated that authorities have set fire to and torn down houses belonging to the stateless Bajau Laut, an ethnolinguistic group in Southeast Asia with a historical presence around the Sulu and Timor Seas.

The videos went viral on social media, garnering national attention in Malaysia of the Bajau Laut’s plight. Since then, they have sparked a “high politics” debate on Indigenous maritime communities’ rights, citizenship, and national security, as the government considers the area a “hotspot” for cross-border crime and criminal hideouts.

However, the nomadic history and culture of the Bajau Laut, which are deeply rooted in and oriented toward the sea, distinguish them from other undocumented communities that traditionally pose a threat to Malaysia’s national sovereignty.

Widely known for their unrivaled navigation and sailing skills since as far back as the 13th century, the Bajau Laut (or Sama Bajau, as they are known in Indonesia) are dispersed across the Philippines, Malaysia, and 14 provinces in Indonesia, with a population of around 500,000 (reliable data is unavailable). The other two linguistic sub-groups of sea nomads are the Moken or Moklen in Thailand and Myanmar and the Orang Laut in Thailand, Malaysia, and Indonesia.

In the past, these sea-faring skills allowed these groups to play an important role in protecting maritime routes, transporting goods, and communicating across international waters, making them indispensable as a source of power and prestige for their land-based allies.

Today, however, most have settled on the coast and small islands, and their way of life has also adapted to align with the mainland-dominant society. Despite this, a few still practice nomadic or semi-nomadic traditions, such as those living in the Riau Islands and the borders between Sabah and Indonesia’s East Kalimantan Province.

A Regional Issue

The recent eviction was not an isolated event. It is part of a larger systematic displacement of Malaysia’s Indigenous seafaring community, carried out under the guise of security and development.

In the wake of the evictions, Malaysia’s Housing and Urban Development Board announced the development of a new township in Sabah’s Kampung Air. This again puts the local Bajau Laut, who are already regarded as non-citizens, at risk of displacement. The government plans to resettle them and the other locals to make way for facilities such as hotels and offices to boost Semporna’s tourism industry.

Indeed, sea nomads are often at odds with local and national development projects. Similar cases faced by the sea nomads in neighboring Indonesia are a testament to this.

When the controversial Rempang Eco City, a designated national strategic project, was announced in early 2023, the local Riau Islands government planned to evict the uninformed locals. This includes the indigenous Orang Laut, who have resided in the area for centuries. The area’s ongoing reclamation projects and industrial development are also causing environmental degradation. This has forced the Orang Laut fisherfolk to fish further towards the Malaysian border, with some seeking alternative livelihoods as scavengers at disposal sites.

Elsewhere in eastern Indonesia, the Sama Bajau are indirectly pushed to relocate, sacrificing their homes and livelihoods due to the government’s ambitions for nickel and green technology. This ambition is fueled by the country’s status as the world’s largest nickel producer, placing it in a prime position to dominate the market for raw battery materials amid increased global electric vehicle demand and a car-centric infrastructure and planning.

Unfortunately, most nickel mining explorations occur in the Sulawesi and Maluku Islands. These islands are located within the Coral Triangle, a region of rich biological and cultural diversity, home to the Sama Bajau people. The community thus faces significant challenges as its fishing catches have been affected by the pollution and damage caused by ore processing industries.


More than a hundred civil society groups and activists, including former law minister Zaid Ibrahim, have condemned the eviction and are calling for the recognition of Bajau Laut as an Indigenous community deserving of citizenship. Citizens have since also used the hashtag #PandangkeSabah, or “Look at Sabah,” to raise solidarity and maintain momentum and awareness of the issue.

However, solving the issue of recognition has not been easy.

In Malaysia, not everyone agrees on whether to grant the Bajau Laut national identity cards. As they straddle the international borders of Malaysia and the Philippines, it can be difficult to determine their nationality under the modern concept of citizenship. Additionally, some do not possess the marriage or birth certificates necessary to fulfill citizenship requirements.

In Indonesia, most sea nomads are formally recognized as citizens. However, to be officially identified as Indigenous communities, or masyarakat hukum adat, communities must have a land-based ancestral domain, which sea nomads lack. This absence means that sea nomads cannot be legally recognized as Indigenous in Indonesia.

Alternatively, to solve the issue of ‘illegal” housing, in 2022, Indonesia’s Agrarian Reform Task Force provided the Sama Bajau community in the Wakatobi Regency of Southeast Sulawesi Province with individual land certificates. These lands are made up of stone reefs piled up in the sea to create artificial ground that can be certified, proving their legal occupation and granting the Sama Bajau a sense of security that allows them to continue their livelihoods.

Unfortunately, this initiative faces challenges, such as overlapping nomenclature, social inequality at the community level, conflicts of interest, and changes in behavior regarding temporary ownership of buildings in coastal areas.

What Next?

Following the eviction in Sabah, there is currently momentum to propel the issues affecting sea nomads further into mainstream discussions. At the same time, the history of sea nomads and their current challenges have yet to be widely understood in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as in Southeast Asia as a whole.

Promoting education, capacity-building initiatives, and inclusive policies to circumvent the classical issues of weak governance and inadequate legal frameworks will not suffice. To overcome the narrative of illegality and “security concerns,” a diplomatic approach involving all three neighboring countries – Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines – is also necessary.

Domestically, current efforts to document local news, including investigative journalism and knowledge-sharing with various stakeholders, are essential to raising awareness, advocating on national, regional, and international platforms, and holding parties responsible for the damages inflicted upon the sea nomads.

Such an all-encompassing strategy is essential for meaningful and lasting improvement in their cultural resilience and socio-economic welfare. Otherwise, the sea nomads may remain “invisible,” and they will continue to be seen as a people without histories, and be vulnerable to exploitation and displacement by external actors.

Guest Author

Mustika Indah Khairina

Mustika Indah Khairina is a graduate of ASEAN Studies, Asia-Europe Institute, Malaysia. For the past two years, she has been researching sea nomads (Sama-Bajau) from the perspective of international relations and development.

Guest Author

Wengki Ariando

Wengki Ariando is an affiliated researcher at the Asian Research Center for Migration, Institute of Asian Studies, Chulalongkorn University, Thailand. For the past seven years, he has worked on sea nomads’ development issues in Southeast Asia.