KOTA KINABALU, June 7 – The state government is denying any human rights violation in the eviction of hundreds of Bajau Laut people from the islands around Semporna which have recently caught international spotlight.

Tourism, Culture and Environment minister Datuk Christina Liew said that there was no violation of human rights but that her ministry officials were looking deeper into the incident that has sparked controversy.

“In this sense, I don’t see any human rights violation. If you talk about that ...yes, I admit they have been staying there for a long time. But... human right violations I would say we would talk about this when we come to the discussion table.

“There is a lot of technical issues behind it. First we need to identify what are their nationalities, what kind of human rights violations are we talking about? Have they been offered to move and live inland and they refused as they prefer that kind of lifestyle?” she said when met at the inaugural International Wholistic Wellness Conference and Expo 2024 here.

Advertisement

In a statement later, she said that authorities had the right to take action as the protected marine park prohibited many activities deemed destructive.

“From the perspective of compliance with the Parks Enactment 1984, Tun Sakaran Marine Park is one of the areas proclaimed as a Park area or a State Park. Any violations of provisions under the enactment, such as fishing, erecting structures without permission, and farming, empower Sabah Parks to take actions accordingly.

“The issue of deforestation on Bodgaya Island for agricultural purposes and the construction of over 200 structures without permission is an example of a violation against the enactment,” she said.

Advertisement

Liew said that notices to empty the premises were issued to some 273 homes built within the restricted Tun Sakaran Marine Park from May 2 to May 4.

“The demolition and evacuation of unauthorised settlements began from June 4 to 6, 2024, with 138 unauthorised settlements demolished in the hot zone. Meanwhile, other houses were demolished by the owners themselves, and some owners left their homes as is.

“According to sources from the PDRM involved in the operation, some homeowners burned their houses during the absence of the OPS team in the area for the purpose of going viral on social media and garnering sympathy and attention from netizens,” she said.

Liew said the operations were carried out due to security issues at the district level, following shooting incidents in Darvel Bay and cross-border criminal activities in the unauthorised settlement locations. The sovereignty of the nation’s laws in force in this issue must be upheld.

The operations took place after meetings between Sabah Parks and the Semporna police and involved the PDRM, marine police, Semporna District Office, ESSCom, Immigration Department, National Registration Department, and Semporna District Council.

“All actions that have been implemented have been agreed upon by the relevant agencies in several meeting sessions, including eight legitimate representatives of the TSMP community who unanimously requested the immediate removal of the unauthorized community from the area,” she said.

The eviction exercise earned some criticism after videos showing the homes being demolished, some by plainclothes men, were spread on social media.

The Bajau Laut are a sea-faring community, many living offshore in wooden houseboats or huts built on stilts in and around Semporna island. Their nomadic culture dates back centuries prior to sea borders and they have earned a reputation for their ability to hold their breaths underwater for extended periods to time.

Activists are calling for more humane treatment as the community, born at sea, have no identification documents or access to basic facilities such as education, financial or health services, making them vulnerable to deportation and any enforcement exercise.