Sunday, 16 February 2014

The Pelauh: Sea Gypsies


This article is from

The Pelauh, the famed sea gypsies who have lived all their lives on boats, are finding their already tough lifestyles even harder as the world shuts them out, forcing them to beg to survive

LAHAD DATU: As dawn breaks, a group of Pelauh or Bajau Laut children, the sea nomads of South East Asia, living by the coast near Lahad Datu town wait to be asked to move from where they are.
“Jalan, jalan” (go away, go away) is the first thing they hear when the shopkeepers arrive to open their stores in the morning. It’s a routine the scruffy looking group aged between seven or eight years and their early teens are used to. With their oversized shirts and light coloured hair ranging from brown to blond they are easily identifiable.
As they saunter away into the back alleys of two rows of shops here, a few pull out plastic bags, the telltale sign of glue sniffing and saunter into the back alleys. Some, after disappearing for awhile, come back with plastic buckets or basins containing handfuls of small fish and shellfish which they attempt to hawk to those coming to the market. All keep a wary eye out for the council enforcement officers.
Widely perceived as scroungers and thieves, they are rarely made welcome. The sight of enforcement officers making their rounds makes them nervous and they quietly slip out of sight. But according to their elders, the children dare not steal for fear of bringing attention to the community and enraging their parents.
The glue-sniffing, some say, is to mask their hunger. Many spend their days on land and return to their small family boats at night, packed inside like sardines if its a large family. Their night’s rest also depends on the weather. Strong winds and rain means they will have to take refuge at shopfronts, sleeping on the five-foot-ways on pieces of cardboard until its safe to go back to their boats.
That’s been the drill for all for the few years they can remember because their parent’s nomadic lifestyle has doomed them to remain on the fringes of society.
Apart from begging, the children are usually seen digging through rubbish bins for scraps like aluminum cans and discarded odds and ends to add to their parents stockpile to be sold for a few ringgit to recycling centres. The monsoon season has forced most of the community to stay near shore and limited their catch and hunger can be seen in the children’s faces.
Occasionally they get a break from this terrible routine when members of the Society for Education of Underprivileged Children (PKPKM) conduct reading classes for them. Food and a bath is part of the welcome offering .

Looking ahead
Their future is bleak and their parents know it. But there may be a glimmer of hope after generations of self-effacing passivity by the community. Some of the elders in the usually reserved community are finding the courage to ask for help to fight off discrimination.
The trigger for this change in outlook comes from a combination of factors and chief among these is the increasing scrutiny the community has come under following the incursion and takeover of a remote village both of here by a group of armed Filipino militants last year.
At present, most make a living going through people’s rubbish. Every morning they set off before bins are collected and search for scrap metal, which they then sell for RM50 a kilogram.
“We are pleading with the government to grant us some form of documents that will allow us to work and earn a living,” Sitolonina, a spokesperson for a group within the community, told the Borneo Insider last week.
“We have been here for as long as we can remember and don’t see any reason why we should not be given these documents.”
She pulled out a British North Borneo currency note she said was given to her by her grandmother, as though it proved she is ‘local’. Her grandmother had told her to show this to anyone who asked about her status.
She said those in her community were desperate to work but were to scared to venture far from the sea as they could be stopped and questioned. But at the same time if they did not veure out to find work they were finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet.
“With work, we will be able to feed ourselves and make a living rather than like this begging for food around the town because no one dares to hire us to work,” she explained.
She said the local authorities had tried to get them to shift to Kunak, but when they had gone there they had nowhere to stay nor could they place their children in school.
But here her story raises questions about how the ‘government’ help was organised, coordinated and offered. While in Kunak, she said, her husband and others were asked to meet a local government representative and they were given RM500 “just for show”.
“The man who gave it to us then took it back. He said it was for show. My husband was puzzled. He asked his why and told him we are not actors but are really looking for help,” she said.
“So, we came back by ourselves here,” said Sitolonina as she showed a news report recounting the incident.
Despite the controversy, there was no official explanation of what transpired and why the transplanted community returned to Lahad Datu town.
Sitolonina says if they can get some form of documentation legalising their stay in Sabah they could try help themselves and gain access to basic facilities such as houses, mosque, school and other just like others without any middleman.
“No one seems to care for us and help us to apply. I am trying to do all the application myself … sometimes they’re people like you come and I ask them advice how to go on from here.”
The conundrum she is now facing is a typically bureaucratic one. She can’t submit her application without a guarantor. But who other than the government or someone in the closed community could act as one for people such as herself?
Hard life
Life has never been easy for the ‘Pelauh’ but it is even more desperate now. Unlike in the past when they could go into the jungle and caught down a tree or two to mend their boats, now they need to buy the wood but don’t have the money to do so. All they can now do is patch the boats as best as they can which makes it dangerous for them to go too far out to sea.
Other than fishing and sifting through garbage, members of the community also try to get employment. But getting proper work is difficult for a number of reasons. Though they say they would do any job they can find, potential employers lose interest as soon as they find out they do not have proper identification.
Sitolonina claims a cousin who ventured too far inland to find work was arrested as he had no identity papers. He is now at a detention centre for illegal immigrants in Tawau Tawau.
“He just went inland to find work as just living in a boat will not earn you money. That’s why he went and now he is in detention in Tawau.
“He is not (a) Philippines (citizen) but was arrested just because he doesn’t have a document. He doesn’t even know how to speak their language,” she said.
During the Kampung Tanduo incident, she said some of their people also got arrested because they were caught inside the restricted area.
“How can our people know about the restricted area? They don’t know anything about the law or weapons and even not dare kill animals. We just catch fish and try to earn a living.”

Education outlook
Many of the children would like to get an education, but face serious obstacles. They cannot enroll in schools because local authorities are reluctant to recognise them as residents. Without official residency, they are also not entitled to any social benefits.
Sitolonina hopes the government authorities will step in and start a programme to help their children learn to read and write and gain some religious knowledge which she believes is important for their wellbeing.
With an education, she hopes the children of the community can find work and a decent salary instead of frittering their lives away.
“If we have documents we can do that.
Asked how it feels to be treated as outcasts, Sitolonina shrugs: “Nothing. we’ve always lived like this.”
But she’s insistent they not be labelled criminal. “We are not thieves … we beg for money from people like you because we have no choice.”
Without residency documents the cycle of exploitation, nomadic wandering and poverty remains firmly in place. – JJ/CA

No comments: