Low people on the high seas

The Bajo are Southeast Asia’s sea gypsies, resilient remnants from times when national boundaries were porous and ethnic minorities accepted. That’s all changing as many regional governments see nomads as a threat.


The Bajo are hazy about when they first found Rote island welcoming, which is understandable for people who measure time by tides. However, it’s certain these superb seafarers of Southeast Asia’s southern archipelagos, who read oceans like others read books, have been visiting the eastern Indonesian island for decades. The last substantial arrival occurred around 1990.

Clues indicating long use of the north coast settlement of Papela in Rote include the slumping driftwood beach shacks now used as shade areas where women fillet fish and men repair nets. Their newer homes are set back from high water, close to a cemetery with strange bollardlike headstones rarely seen in conventional Islamic graveyards. About 100 bodies rest there, so close to the Bajo living right around it that no family could forget their dead and the perils of life at sea.

The burial ground provides further evidence that the Bajo, who are scorned elsewhere as outsiders, are mercifully accepted on Rote. They even have Indonesian identification cards recognizing them as citizens. This gives them access to crucial government services including health care and schooling for their children. “Rote is for all Indonesians, not just the people of Rote,” barked the no-nonsense district chief, Lens Haning. “We’ve given them certificates for land, helped them with housing and built an ablution block. They are Muslim, and most on Rote are Catholics and Protestants. As long as people respect other cultures, there’s no problem. They are welcome.”

Some Bajo children attend the local school in Papela, where they are taught in the Indonesian language, although their parents tend to speak a mixture of tongues depending on where they grew up and lived before. Their homes are basic: cement blocks, thatch, coarse planks and corrugated iron. There’s a satellite dish to catch television from Jakarta, the Indonesian capital, which is 1,600 miles away, and everything between them is distinctly different culturally. A truck delivers fresh water, and there’s a small cash market where women sell glistening-black bullet tuna at Rp15,000 – a little more than one dollar – per kilogram. The sleek fish are caught using chicken feather lures.

The first impression one gets in Papela is that the Bajo, who historically have been sea gypsies, now live settled lives onshore. But should strife appear on the horizon, they will easily and skillfully bundle up their few belongings into the simple hulls of their boats and swiftly paddle away to other seas, as their forefathers have done for centuries.

Apart from the practical facilities in Rote, they have a kiai, or Islamic preacher, to care for their spiritual needs, although research shows the Bajo are flexible with faith, often worshipping ancestral spirits or practicing animism. Haji Thosin Badjideh is not a Bajo, but speaks for the community. Whether his congregation is happy with this arrangement is difficult to gauge. Badjideh flicked away suggestions that the curiously decorated grave posts implied other beliefs aside from Islam. He said the headstones had only been erected because of a shortage of timber.

Lance Nolde, a history professor at California State University, Los Angeles, disagreed. “Bajo graves throughout eastern Indonesia have a variety of posts, and there are numerous ones I’ve encountered with much the same design,” he said, “including graves that date to the 18th and 19th centuries. Although it is not always clear what element of the boat or ship they are representing, elders have often explained to me that the grave markers represent a part of the boat, and a few have said they are representative of the mooring post. Ship-related motifs of various types are common in Bajo grave sites in Indonesia, including boat-shaped coffins.”

The Bajo in Rote live about 200 meters from a Christian fishing village in Papela where much larger multi-crew sailboats are used. Badjideh said there was no conflict because the locals, who are Protestant, drop their long lines in different areas. The 300 members of the Bajo community span three generations. Although a few have married outside their ethnic group – usually with partners from the island of Alor, about 185 miles to the north – they haven’t moved on from subsistence fishing, and seem at ease in Papela.

For Australian anthropologist Greg Acciaioli, these factors show that Indonesia is taking a practical and humane approach to

these ocean wanderers. In the limited available scientific literature about them, the Bajo get labeled “strand dwellers” because they occupy the margins of the seas. “Strand” is an old English term for foreshore. For them, however, the ocean is home. Ports are just places to land catch and restock with essentials such as cassava flour and vegetables, before heading back to the security of the sea. “Today, minority groups, especially those that have not been accorded citizenship and thus remain effectively stateless, consistently face distrust, discrimination and exploitation from both government authorities and other groups,” Acciaioli said. “As can be seen elsewhere in the world, marginalization can create social unrest and lead to instability at an international level, including conflict and displacement.”

He added: “Many states don’t acknowledge itinerants and only recognize terrestrial people as citizens. The Bajo, also known as Bajau and orang laut (sea people), don’t fit into any easy category. The difficulty is how to define boundaries in zones of inequality and conflict. Fortunately, the Indonesian government is handling this fairly – but others are not.”

The Bajo’s traditional fishing grounds lap against the shores of Malaysia, the Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, Australia and Indonesia. Apart from Indonesia, these countries are unsympathetic to the Bajo, finding people whose ancestral domain is the ocean too difficult to handle with conventional tools of social control.

Thai authorities issued the Bajo with the Orwellian-sounding “Zero Card,” which offers minimal protection and no acknowledgement that its holders are citizens of any country. It forbids movement without authorization – impossible for people whose livelihoods depend on constant travel that often takes them across invisible national borders.

The Malaysian version is the equally restrictive and sinister sounding “IMM13 refugee document.” In 2013, a small group of armed Filipino militants tried to install an Islamic sultanate in the eastern region of the state of Sabah, in Malaysian Borneo. After the “Tanduo Incident” was crushed, with more than 70 killed, the Malaysians decided all coastal dwellers considered to be “outsiders” should be deported. The Bajo people on Sabah, known locally as Sama Bajau, were caught up in this edict even though only one man said to be a Bajo was allegedly involved in the incident. They unsuccessfully protested that they had resident rights through centuries of using local seas and beaches in the region.

A night curfew was enforced in the Bajo’s fishing area, forcing them to flee to Indonesian territory. Here, they were labeled as warga tanpa identitas, or residents without identities, and ordered to sail back to Malaysian territory. “Once back in Sabah, these ‘repatriated’ stateless fishers are liable to deportation again, this time to the Philippines as ‘illegal immigrants’ from the region they regard as their home,” Acciaioli said.

Bajos who are denied identification cards can’t access schooling, health care and other government services. They are also locked out of development programs designed to help lift the poor, even though the Bajo fit that category. In reality, they are ungovernable, unwanted outsiders, such as hill tribes in Thailand, “Scheduled Tribes” in India and “national minorities” in China. None get the official recognition that has been given to the Bajo in Indonesia. Acciaioli said the Bajo’s

status had long ago been elevated “to being the iconic Indonesian indigenous people … central to the nation’s heritage.”

To mark the first International Year of the World’s Indigenous People, in 1993, the National Museum in Jakarta staged an exhibit titled “Ilmu Bajau: Setinggi Langit, Sedalam Samudera,” or “Bajo Knowledge:

As High as the Sky, as Deep as the Ocean.” This celebratory acceptance was all the more remarkable because the Bajo didn’t fit into President Soeharto’s social engineering and development policies. These required primary producers to grow more and businesses to expand. The Bajo sailed outside the mainstream into which all other groups were being channeled.

How did they escape the government’s net? Greg Acciaioli reasons that Indonesian nationalism has long defined itself as an archipelagic nation-state for all citizens including land and sea dwellers, and the Bajo fit the model. “A concept of national culture as essentially ‘archipelagic culture’ (kebudayaan nusantara) – a shared heritage rooted in maritime culture – is expressed even by the opening line of its national anthem, ‘Indonesia Raya’ (‘Great Indonesia’),” he said.

The words tanah airku literally mean, “Our land, our water,” although they are normally translated as “homeland.”

Because they don’t live in houses with a street address and mailbox by the gatepost, counting the Bajo population is impossible. The best academic researchers’ guess is that around one million follow a sea huntergatherer existence. Their origins are disputed, but current scholarship suggests people in Borneo turned from tilling the soil to ranging the seas in about AD 800. In 1521, Italian explorer Antonio Pigafetta visited western Mindanao, now the Zamboanga Peninsula in the Philippines. He reported that “people of that island make their dwellings in boats and do not live otherwise.”

What turned them from the plow to the proa? No more land to sow, hostility from other tribes, religious or political disputes? The questions remain unanswered. The Indonesian archipelago is the world’s largest and includes the Coral Triangle, which is rich in foods attractive to those brave enough to venture.

In 2014, newly elected President Joko Widodo surprised political observers with a policy focus on the protection of maritime resources. As an inland urbanite from Solo, in Central Java Province, why would he prioritize the needs of coastal fishing communities? This also puzzles Acciaioli, who teaches at the University of Western Australia and has spent years researching sea nomads, particularly those in the Sulu Sea. “I don’t know why this interest, but it has certainly been effective with Susi Pudjiastuti in charge,” he said, referring to Indonesia’s unconventional minister of maritime affairs and fisheries. A commercial airline owner, she has won star status for blowing up foreign fishing vessels caught in Indonesian waters and inviting television crews to cover the spectacle. Viewers loved the shots of red flashes and black smoke, while politicians wearing helmets preened before cameras on fighting ships sinking empty rust buckets and rotting hulks. These were once owned by Vietnamese and Thai poachers accused of raping the resources of the Indonesian people – including the Bajo group.

For perhaps 12 centuries, the ocean gypsies of Southeast Asia have lived a seminomadic existence in the ever-rolling seas. To those who relate to hills and valleys and trees and pasture, the ocean is gray and drab. But to the Bajo the seas are as full of features as any landscape is to farmers.

Yet, Indonesia’s acceptance isn’t the only issue that has encouraged some Bajo to move to places such as Rote, which is 746 square miles and largely arid. There’s also another push factor along with the expulsions from East Sabah. In 2004, Tun Sakaran Marine Park was created inside the Sulu-Sulawesi Marine Ecoregion. This covers the waters between the southern Philippines, Sabah and Indonesia’s Sulawesi island.

Most of the 2,500 people living within the park are Bajo. Despite their history, lifestyle and economy, these indigenous people are now forbidden to continue scouring the shorelines for crab and shellfish (a job often done by women), fishing in spawning areas or

growing seaweed. Nor are they allowed to fell timber to build and repair boats. Acciaioli calls these conservation controls another way of “disciplining people” who don’t fit government ideas of how humans should live inside their borders.

The biodiversity of the area that determined it should become a park are the attractions which long ago made it rich for the Bajo; that the resources remain suggests they’ve been good custodians. Their small numbers and past actions seem too minor to warrant concerns that the nomads might turn to vacuuming the sea floor and clear-felling forests. Just 17 percent of them are Malaysian citizens, while 40 percent have no documents. Acciaioli says this means “a large majority of the park’s population is highly likely to be stateless.”

Some have been employed catering for visitors, but have found this unsatisfactory. Picking up tourist trash is a demeaning task for people who normally collect shellfish and understand what’s edible and what’s toxic. Few Bajo speak English, so can’t work as tour guides.

The Bajo have problems with rigid Malaysian authorities who seem to be more concerned with paperwork than people’s welfare. The wanderers have no fixed address. They can’t be contacted by email. Today on a Malaysian backwater, tomorrow in Indonesian mangroves. Birth certificates are rare. They work from light on one- or two-man lippalippa (a term absorbed by northern Australian Aborigines for canoes – another indicator of long contact) and fish about 10 nautical miles offshore.

The 19th century British and Dutch colonialists thought the Bajo too few and dispersed to cause concern. The group came to wider notice about 25 years ago when the late Australian adventurer John Darling made the documentary “Below the Wind.” This was shown on British, European and Australasian television, highlighting the Bajo’s new problem: the Australian government. The Bajo had been periodically visiting Australian reefs for at least six centuries to scavenge the socalled sea cucumbers. But fears of incursions by foreign asylum seekers pushed the government to make these traditional visits illegal.

Darling came across the Bajo by chance. He was sailing with Indonesian friends through the archipelago when they wrecked on a small island where Bajo families were sheltering. They told Darling they were on a 620-mile journey to Rote because fish stocks were dropping. They also said they were getting hassled by Malaysian authorities but believed Indonesians would be more accepting. Without maps, GPS or compasses, and only ancient wisdom that included encyclopedic knowledge of stars and winds, swells and tides, the seafarers navigated their tiny shallow-draught craft to Rote.

Darling described the Bajo as “gallant … retiring but daring people” living a “hard but cheerful and dignified life.” Years later he met them again in east Indonesia’s East Nusa Tenggara Province. Darwin, the capital of Australia’s Northern Territory, is about 500 miles to the south, although remote areas of Australia are just half that distance. In this zone, the Bajo sought trepang – marine animals also known as beche-de-mer – which are used in Chinese cooking and medicine. They are seabed scavengers that thrive on rotting fish and plants. Enthusiasts claim aphrodisiac qualities, although this reputation may depend more on the phallic shape than any vitamin values.

In 1981, with the agreement of the Indonesian government, the Australian Fishing Zone was pushed out to around 200 miles offshore. Indonesia picked up some aid programs and Australia got around 80 percent of the fishing grounds between their shorelines. It then set about creating total exclusion. For a while, traditional fishers, meaning sail-only craft, were allowed to drop their lines in a specified area around Ashmore Reef.

But when bigger boats used by deepsea fishers started ferrying Middle Eastern asylum seekers across the Arafura Sea, the Australian government got tough, arresting and imprisoning crewmen who ventured too far. Like Indonesian minister Susi Pudjiastuti, Australian border patrols enjoyed good media coverage by torching the Indonesians’ boats. These had often been bought on credit, so the men’s families back home were sentenced to suffer financially for years. “Stop the boats” and “protect our borders” are now powerful slogans in Australia, embraced by the two main political parties and robustly supported by the electorate.

Another reason offered for repelling the Bajo was to encourage a local trepang industry. Attempts to start trading have failed; paying Australian wages to prepare the creatures would push the price out of the range of the international market. Bajo interviewed in “Below the Wind” claimed they could fill a boat with trepang in three days working along Australian beaches, compared with three weeks at other sites, making the risks worthwhile. Australia expects the Bajo to stay in Indonesia. The Malaysians reckon the Philippines is the right place for them, although that country labels the sea nomads as “illegal migrants.”

Apart from Indonesia, authorities in Southeast Asia want the Bajo to beach their craft and settle inland. Then they’d become a vulnerable underclass lacking wanted skills and so unemployable. They’d lose their health and dignity. Resettlement is not an option for people who get landsick without feeling the

motion of the ocean beneath their soles. A Bajo proverb explains their philosophy: “Fish today, food tomorrow. Sow today, food in six months.”

According to Thosin Badjideh, the Islamic preacher in Rote, “Because there’s no cold store in Papela, we cannot preserve the catch. Unless there are many buyers, we have to accept whatever is offered, or dry the fish we don’t sell.” Some catch gets packed in Styrofoam boxes packed with ice to add another day of shelf life. Prices for commercial solar-powered cool rooms start at around $1,500, a cost that can be covered by many aid agencies. However, that sort of capital investment, like a school and satellite dish, would quietly add to the deterioration of the Bajo’s lifestyle and curb their wandering ways. Ironically, that might get the results lawmakers have yet to achieve.

The kids splashing across the screen in John Darling’s documentary look fit and lively despite – or because of – their limited diet. Those now living in Papela are sprightly; no hollow chests and refugee camp eyes are obvious, although a health professional might spot deficiencies.

They go to school but need no lessons in swimming. Some men have hearing problems from deep diving to scavenge for shells and trepang. The women who look like extras in a vampire movie have plastered their faces with the homemade sunblock burak, a powder of ground rice and herbs. This isn’t an exclusive Bajo practice, however. Current medical research suggests regular meals of fish reduce the chances of strokes that plague sedentary city folk; seafood contains omega-3 fatty acids. Bajo men are small, lean and alert. The main dangers they face are in their workplace.

Four years ago, several boats went missing in a storm. No search was organized because no alerts were sounded, and they had not filed any plan of their destination. About 20 men sailed away and failed to return, destroyed by the fickle ocean that had turned from nurturer to killer. “This is a village of widows,” said Baid Muin, a Bajo woman in Papela, who is among them. “There’s one man for every three women and many children without fathers.”

So far, the Bajo have resisted attempts to alter their lifestyle, not through confrontation but by quietly slipping their craft into the waves and pushing off to secret sand spits and dark estuaries. Here, they are beyond the reach of authority. The Bajo have no economic clout or political support, so governments around the region are deaf to their plea, which would be something like this: “We’re OK, thanks, not hurting anyone or anything. Just leave us alone.”

Duncan Graham is an Australian journalist based in Malang, East Java Province, who has been writing about Indonesia for the past 22 years.

You need to login to write a comment!