Malaysia’s demolition of stilt houses leaves 1,000 stateless ‘sea gypsies’ homeless

Authorities warned that Bajau Laut houses in Sabah could be used as criminals’ hideouts.
Iman Muttaqin Yusof
Kuala Lumpur
Malaysia’s demolition of stilt houses leaves 1,000 stateless ‘sea gypsies’ homeless Remnants of Bajau Laut stilt houses litter a beach in Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia, June 9, 2024.
Courtesy of Borneo Komrad

A defense official overseeing waters off Sabah on Tuesday defended Malaysia’s demolition of hundreds of wooden homes built on stilts by the stateless Bajau Laut people, saying these could harbor cross-border criminals, damage coral and pollute a marine park.

The Malaysian human rights commission has called for an investigation of the action, carried out by marine park rangers last week, where 237 structures were destroyed and, according to activists, more than 1,000 people were left homeless.

“The likelihood of smugglers and criminals using [Bajau Laut] houses for shelter is possible. It will be challenging for the authorities’ boats to conduct inspections because the houses were built in shallow areas,” Victor Sanjos, commander of the Eastern Sabah Security Command (ESSCOM), told BenarNews.

The Bajau Laut, also known as sea gypsies, lead a nomadic ocean-based life. In the Malaysian section of Borneo island, they live in wooden boats or stilt houses around Semporna, a district in Sabah state. Malaysia does not have official data on the number of Bajau Laut people who live in Sabah, neighboring Sarawak state and smaller islands off Borneo.

“For the Bajau Laut community, their homes are actually on boats. So, it’s not true to say they don’t have homes, as their culture and way of life is typically living on boats. We don’t interfere with their boats and don’t prevent them from settling on land,” Sanjos said, adding that the huts on stilts were in a state park where there should have been no construction.

Over a decade ago, Sabah’s coastline became the scene of a protracted armed standoff lasting over six weeks between Malaysian security forces and a group of fighters from the Sulu islands in the nearby far southern Philippines. 

The borderland in eastern Sabah between the two neighboring countries has long been the focus of a bilateral territorial dispute

Malaysian authorities have taken steps to crack down on criminal activities such as smuggling and kidnapping in the region. In May 2022, ESSCOM launched a large-scale operation to dismantle illegal sea huts in waters off Sabah to combat such cross-border criminal activities.

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Houses that had been built on stilts have been pulled into waters off Semporna, Sabah, Malaysia, June 9, 2024. [Courtesy of Borneo Komrad]

Last week, members of the seafaring Bajau Laut community who lived on Bohey Dulang, Maiga, Bodgaya, Sebangkat and Sibuan islands were “forcibly evicted” from their homes, according to activists. They said Sabah Parks, a state government conservation body overseeing the marine areas in Semporna, had ordered the action. 

An eviction notice issued last month noted that the residents had built their homes in the state park without permits.

Videos and photos shared by Borneo Komrad, a local NGO, showed a group of men, believed to be Sabah Parks enforcement, apparently demolishing and burning the houses. Another video showed a boat pulling down a house.

“Currently, most of the community are relocating to nearby islands to seek shelter in places where they can find refuge. Some are also going to other villages around the town, while others are squatting in areas of Semporna town,” Mukmin Nantang, president of the group, told BenarNews. 

“Bajau Laut are accused of being illegal settlers in Sabah Parks, but they lived there long before the parks were established,” he said.

Extending help

After critics called the action insensitive, Sabah Chief Minister Hajiji Noor said Tuesday that the state would assist those whose homes were demolished.

“We are making plans to help them. But what was done was because it involves the safety of our nation’s sovereignty,” he told reporters without elaborating further. 


On Friday, Sabah Tourism Minister Christina Liew said the demolition was justified because the settlements were situated illegally within a protected marine area. 

Over the weekend, government spokesman Fahmi Fadzil reiterated that the country would not compromise on security matters.

Human rights groups, on the other hand, urged improved treatment for seafaring communities lacking identification documents or access to education, finance and health care, leaving them vulnerable during enforcement actions.

That request came after U.N Human Rights chief Volker Türk called to end statelessness in all forms, during a visit to Malaysia last week.

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A Bajau Laut girl basks on her boat in her neighborhood in the Sulawesi Sea in the Malaysian state of Sabah on Borneo island, Feb. 17, 2009. [Bazuki Muhammad/Reuters file photo]

On Sunday, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) said it was monitoring recent actions taken against the Bajau Laut. It urged immediate assistance for those affected by the demolitions.

“The Bajau Laut are a unique and historically marginalized community facing significant challenges, including limited access to basic services such as health care and education.”

“While recognizing the state government’s intention to enhance security, we emphasize the importance of a balanced approach that addresses the immediate needs of those affected by the demolitions,” it said in a statement. 

Rights group Pusat Komas called on the government to engage in dialogue with the community to find humane and just solutions.

“The eviction of the Bajau Laut community without adequate consultation or solutions for alternative housing exemplifies a failure to balance development with social justice,” it said last week.


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