14 March 2020

The Sea Tribe, Ancestral Promise and Nearly Extinct Heirs


“We only preserve rare animals and plants, should we leave an almost extinct tribe, the Sea Tribe, alone?”

Dr. Lie A. Dharmawan Ph.D, FICS, Sp.BTKV’s slow but confident voice slipped between the guests who had gathered around him that evening. Aboard the Nusa Waluya II Floating Hospital that was anchored in Jakarta Bay on March 3, 2020, the vibration of the message floated slowly and then pierced my heart.

I was standing among a crowd of guests who were celebrating 10 years of service to doctorSHARE, a non-profit foundation founded by Dr. Lie to provide medical services to those in need, but without access in remote areas of the country.

“Whether things become extinct or not, it depends on the survival of the fittest.” I unconsciously whispered to myself – though I later felt sickened by the carelessness of my own thoughts.

And sure enough, ‘karma’ worked super fast. Little did I know that a week later I would be rewarded in kind – going down with a group of doctorSHARE volunteers to the Riau Islands. And my assignment? Of course, to report on the Orang Suku Laut!

God truly has an unexpected sense of humor. For two weeks, my heart was battered and broken by what I believed to be an easy-sounding theory – survival of the fittest. But for the Orang Suku Laut, it was a matter of life and death.

An example is immediately present. One morning, a very slow knock sounded on the door of Lensi Fluzianti’s home in Daik, the capital of Lingga Regency, Riau Islands. When the head of the Kajang Foundation – a foundation that assists and defends the rights of the Orang Suku Laut – peered in, there were three scruffy, shabby men standing in front of her house, nervous and hesitant.

“We have been at sea for three days and nights, Mother, without getting anything,” said one of them. “If we didn’t have to, we wouldn’t have knocked on your door.”

Hearing the story told by Lensi, who is usually called Mother Densi, I gaped. The Orang Suku Laut no longer get fish from the sea? Who exactly are the Sea Tribe People?

Orang Suku Laut are people from the Malay family who inhabit the coastal islands and live in sampans or kajang boats. Their origins are not widely recorded in history, but they have long lived nomadically in groups of sampans in the Strait of Johor, Riau Islands, on the coasts of Sumatra, Bangka and Belitung.

In the 17th century during the Riau Sultanate of Lingga-Johor-Pahang ruled by Sultan Mahmud, the Orang Suku Laut were the Sultan’s supporting force both militarily and economically.

They were the spearhead of security in the coastal area, guardians of the oceanic region from pirates and included in the Sultan’s army.

A British source said that in the early 19th century there were 42,000 Orang Suku Laut living in Bintan and Riau, and 24,000 around Lingga. They are highly respected because they are believed to have mystical powers and are unequaled sailors.

For their services in protecting the coasts and seas, the Riau Sultanate of Lingga-Johor-Pahang granted the Orang Suku Laut the right to control their territory, which was written in an ancient manuscript and map of the area. The manuscript is still in existence and is currently held by Tengku Fahmi of the Customary Institute of the Riau Sultanate of Lingga on Penyengat Island, Tanjung Pinang. Meanwhile, the map of the area is called ‘Map of the Takluk Region of Sultan Abdurrahman Muazzamsyah 1885’.

This customary right was used by the Orang Suku Laut to prosper in the sea for decades until the collapse of the Sultanate due to Dutch divide-and-rule politics. In 1913 there was an exodus of the Sultan’s family to Singapore and the sultanate was closed. After that, the Orang Suku Laut slowly scattered like chicks losing their mother. Their numbers dwindled to just 3,931 people or 806 households in Lingga Regency in 2018.

Although the government has been trying to ‘house’ the Orang Suku Laut since 2008 – relocating them from a life in mobile canoes to a settled community and trying to ‘humanize’ and ‘civilize’ them – my two-week trip to Lingga revealed many stories of confused Orang Suku Laut. Why are the Sea Tribes finding it difficult to fish in the sea? Why are they marginalized in their own homes? That’s a story for another post.


Source: Kajang Foundation and other sources