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Stateless in Sabah: Malaysia’s Bajau Laut eviction sparks rights issues as protest march looms

The demolition of a Bajau Laut settlement in Sabah has put the spotlight on statelessness in Malaysian Borneo, as activists threaten to march on parliament to demand recognition for marginalised communities in the state.

Authorities were heavily criticised in early June after videos went viral showing uniformed personnel tearing down wooden houses – and allegedly torching others – in an operation to clear alleged squatter colonies on islands off the coast of Semporna district in Sabah’s east coast.

Rights activists alleged heavy-handed treatment, including destroying crops grown by the Bajau Laut, famed for being expert divers able to hold their breath underwater for more than 10 minutes, a trait shared by related communities living in neighbouring Philippines and Indonesia.

The group, known as “sea gypsies”, now had no shelter, a rights defender said.

“Many of them are just scattered and living out in the open since the operation. Some went to Semporna town, some moved to nearby villages,” Mukmin Nantang, the founder of rights group Borneo Komrad, told This Week in Asia.

“Some chose to stay on rocky outcrops on the beach. Those who have some canvas could build makeshift roofs to shelter from the rain, but those who don’t just have to deal with the weather.”

Hundreds more in the area could face another round of evictions, which Mukmin said was unacceptable without government aid for a largely undocumented and illiterate group due to their nomadic lifestyle out at sea.

“We don’t know when they will do it, but they could come at any time,” said Mukmin, who was slapped with a sedition probe on Thursday for raising the issue on his group’s social media accounts.

“If the issue is still not settled, we may carry out a demonstration at