Navigating Life Amid Storms of Stigma
Since about 10 years ago, approximately 17 families of Suku Laut people have settled there. The settlement is administratively part of the Tajur Biru village, Temiang Pesisir district, Lingga regency, Riau Islands.
Suku Laut (literally sea tribe), the indigenous-seafaring people in the Riau Islands, have been wandering the sea for centuries. Wading through the waves, they risk their lives in sea storms; but the toughest challenge they face actually comes on the land, where they endure persistent stigmatization.
That afternoon, several children of Suku Laut ran around merrily in defiance of their parents’ admonitions. Barefooted, they were nimbly dodging the holes in the floor made from worn-out wood planks.
"Be careful, you may stumble down to the rock," said Ida, her hands grabbing one of them, who was the youngest among them, and carrying the child into the house. It was Monday (18/7/2022).
There are dozens of unpainted-wooden houses on stilts built in the water, on the edge of an unidentified island. The houses are connected to each other by a wooden crossing that also serves to tether the boats.
Since about 10 years ago, approximately 17 families of Suku Laut people have settled there. The settlement is administratively part of the Tajur Biru village, Temiang Pesisir district, Lingga regency, Riau Islands province.
The settlement houses three generations of Suku Laut. Ida is the second generation. In her 30s, she is the youngest of Akub’s children. He is the community head.
"For father Akub's children, none of us go to school. We used to live in a canoe as nomads,” Ida said.
Until around 2010, Ida, with her parents and six older siblings, had been mobile-boat-dwelling people, wandering the sea for their livelihood and performing their daily activities on traditional boats. The family used three boats, each approximately 9.5 meters long.
The boats were roofed with pandan leaves. They did not only fish, but they also cooked, slept, even gave birth in the boats. They use spears to catch fish, squid and turtles. A spearhead could have up to five pointed blades.
In the boats, the sea nomads kept dogs (locally known as koyok) and parrots. Dogs helped them to hunt on the land. Parrots were believed to be able to read natural signs that would allow them to take precaution in advance against incoming bad weather while at sea.
Akub said Suku Laut people could navigate the direction and predict the monsoons by reading the star constellations in the sky. They were very knowledgeable about the marine landscape, which helped them determine when and where to go for fishing.
"We used the spear to stab the fish. We did not have any other [fishing] tools. When fishing, we never took the fish excessively. The important thing was that it was enough to cater one day’s meal," Akub said.
They were known to possess an awareness about natural, ecological preservation, refraining from catching fish in several identified locations for fear of damaging coral reefs.
The sea nomads’ life was once summed up in an adage: “The world of the Suku Laut is the size of a boat.” They lived their lives simply in the minimalist space. They were known to possess an awareness about natural, ecological preservation, refraining from catching fish in several identified locations for fear of damaging coral reefs. They saw the coral reef-filled locations as sacred, believing that there resided the sea ghosts.
Stigma and poverty
In the 1970s, the New Order government initiated a poverty-eradication program for Suku Laut in Riau Islands under the Welfare Development for Isolated Communities. Thousands of houses were built to accommodate sea nomads in the hope that they would abandon their boat-dwelling life and settled on land.
After the collapse of the New Order, the program carried over to the following government regime. Ida and her family received housing assistance during the administration of President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
They currently live across Tajur Biru village, which is predominantly inhabited by Malays. Both communities are separated by the about 300 m wide strait. The irony is that Suku Laut people are still deprived of electricity. Every night, the dwellers end up staring in envy the lights across from them. In fact, the electricity-installation network from Timiang Island to Tajur Biru passes through their settlement. However, while living under the stretching wires and nearby the pegged power poles, they cannot access the electrical power for light because they cannot afford the installation fee of Rp 2.5 million (US$168.09).
In addition, few Suku Laut children can attend secondary school. Most did not finish elementary school. In fact, education infrastructure up to senior high school (SMA) is available in Tajur Biru village.
"They mock us Suku Laut people as dirty, backward. The houses are in disarray. Because of that, the children felt uncomfortable and stopped going to school,” Ida said.
Cynthia Chou, professor of anthropology at the University of Iowa, in her book Indonesian Sea Nomads: Money, Magic and Fear of Orang Suku Laut, published two decades ago, noted that there had always been fear among outsiders toward Suku Laut people. They were considered to possess supernatural power and accused of practicing black magic.
The fear of Suku Laut people has deplorably built into sentiments of underestimation until today.
Fish-pooling agents take fish at a lower price if the fish shows scars of a spear. In Riau Islands, only Suku Laut people use spears to catch fish.
Social marginalization is found in trade engagement. Fish-pooling agents take fish at a lower price if the fish shows scars of a spear. In Riau Islands, only Suku Laut people use spears to catch fish. "The price of cuttlefish [normally] is Rp 40,000 per kilogram, but if there is a spear scar, it drops to Rp 25,000," Akub said.
Voice for equality
Wengki Ariando, a sea-nomad researcher from Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, said that Suku Laut people should be given access to just education in the hope that they would be able to liberate themselves from poverty. Being educated, he said, Suku Laut people would be able to voice their community’s rights.
“Currently, those who speak out for Suku Laut are outsiders like me or you. If it continues like this, for decades into the future, there will be no significant changes. In the future, the struggle must begin from themselves," Wengki said.
He attributed the pathetic condition of Suku Laut to government’s biased policy that failed to value the culture of respective communities, such as that of Suku Laut. He hoped that such treatment of the community by the government would not continue.
(This article was translated by Musthofid)