Transborder Illegalities: Dilemmas Faced By The Bajau Laut at the Peripheries of Their Marine Domain

Greg Acciaioli (The University of Western Australia)


Complementing his analysis of terrestrial subsistence adaptations, such as the harvesting of palm sap in eastern Indonesia, Professor Fox has also published a series of articles dealing with maritime adaptations in eastern Indonesia. His descriptions of the dilemmas facing smallscale fishers in Indonesia have led to his analyses and policy recommendations concerning the incursions of eastern Indonesian fishers,  particularly the Bajau Laut, into transborder waters claimed by Australia in which access is only allowed by various agreements (e.g. an MOU on fisheries surveillance and enforcement). Nevertheless, with
increasing restrictions, such as the declaration of Ashmore Reef as a national fishing reserve, many of these fishers’ activities are classified as illegal and thus subject to sanctions by the Australian government.

Inspired by those accounts, this paper examines the historical and continuing plight of the Bajau Laut at the other (western) end of their maritime domain, the transborder region of the Sulu Sea shared among the Philippines, Malaysia and Indonesia. After treating the ethnogenesis of this group, the paper analyses the processes of marginalisation to which Bajau Laut have been subjected historically, concentrating in the contemporary period primarily upon the effects of their stateless status in eastern Malaysia, particularly Sabah. Processes of exclusion focused upon them are linked to how the Bajau Laut are differentiated from related sedentary groups (e.g. the Bajau Tempatan) whose members are recognized as citizens of Malaysia. In particular, the paper focuses on the impacts of conservation and securitisation initiatives upon the livelihoods and identity of the Bajau Laut, drawing parallels and distinctions with the effects of (somewhat) analogous restrictions in the transborder area of Indonesia and Australia analysed by Professor Fox.

Keywords: Bajau Laut, Transborder, Marine Adaptation,
Securitisation, Conservation