The Curious Story of The Sea Gypsies of Borneo
Borneo, best known for it’s pristine beaches and ancient, biodiversity-rich rainforests including orangutans and clouded leopards, is also home to a unique community of stateless citizens who are born, live and die at sea. Recently Mark Lehn, a Vancouver-born Western Australia-based photographer, visited the Sabah region of Borneo to capture a unique community of Sea Gypsies known as Bajau Laut.
Traditionally, these boat-dwelling nomadic groups, known more broadly as Sama-Bajau, are from the many islands of the Sulu Archipelago in the Philippines. Many have migrated to the neighboring area in Sabah, Borneo due to the conflict in Muslim Mindanao.
Mark said he has been fascinated with the group in South East Asia for a long time, and with their numbers diminishing he set out to photograph them before he no longer had the opportunity. “There are reduced opportunities to interact with this fascinating and traditional culture, with increasing numbers moving to the mainland to seek work”.
“The Sea Gypsies of Sabah face ongoing instability and continue to seek security for their families. Their close proximity to the Southern Philippines which homes Abu Sayyaf, a Muslim extremist network with international links, has led to an increased presence in the area of Malaysian Military and curfews are being enforced, restricting movements for the Bajau people,” he added.
“The group’s dependence upon marine resources is presenting further challenges, with depleting trade and food sources. There are also outside pressures for cultural assimilation and modernisation, presenting more reasons for many of the local sea gypsies to abandon their culture and lifestyle and move to nearby towns to find work.”