For humans, can the sea be treated as a territory of its own?
They are known as the Sama Bajau, the Orang Laut, and the Moken. Three groups of around a million people across Asia regarded as the “sea nomads”.
Along the coasts and off the islands of South East Asia there are populations who have lived a marine nomadic lifestyle for thousands of years.
Choosing to inhabit such a volatile environment, their very survival has depended on their ability to adapt.
But Asia’s sea nomads face change , forced by regional governments to abandon their way of life, and their location.
There are three main areas of Asia where sea nomads are still active today. One of them is the Mergui Archipelago in the Andaman Sea off the coast of southern Myanmar and Thailand, where the Moken and Urak Lawoi people live.
Sea nomads are also active in Indonesian waters between Riau and Sumatra islands, home to the Orang Laut, and also in the large marine area between northeast Borneo, the Sulu Archi, and northwest Papua, where various Sama populations are found.
Although many people in the region know little about the nomads’ lifestyle or traditions, the groups are long-standing political and cultural actors..
Historically, sea nomads did good business supplying maritime traders with commodities, and also forming a seaborne force to secure and protect sea lanes that were regarded as vital to the development of maritime Southeast Asia.
In the end, they transformed the region, by embracing a multiplicity of roles – from guardians of the sea-lanes, fending off pirates which were a constant threat to merchants and explorers.
All that was centuries ago, and much of the lifestyle and history has now disappeared.
But perhaps not all of it.
Writer and archeologist Jean-Christophe Galipaud is an editor of the recently released book “Sea Nomads of Southeast Asia. From the Past to the Present”. He admits that for him “trying to understand the past history of sea nomads or their influence on the histories of islands is a challenge.”
Co-editor Bérénice Bellina-Pryce echoes that view, adding that “sea nomads spend a lot of time on boats, so their material culture was said to be poor”.
For a long time, archeologists believed that the sea nomads left no material evidence to history, but this joint publication by Galipaud, Bellina-Pryce and Blench is a first attempt to refute the claim – they say that there is historical, archaeological, and genetic data exploring sea nomads’ historical place, their movement through time, and their role in the development of the Asian region.
Contributors to the book track down sea nomads through archaeology and historical sources, and uncover their contribution in regional socio-political landscapes, past and present.
Two thousand years ago there was a fundamental change in Asian trade patterns. The Maritime Silk Road linking the South China Sea with India was developed, and from then on, sea nomads became an integral part of region.
Srivijaya, a Malay Buddhist maritime empire based on the island of Sumatra, rose to prominence as early as the 7th century.
In its heyday, Srivijaya held vast influence in the archipelago, with its territory stretching from Cambodia, Southern Thailand, the Malay Peninsula, Sumatra, and parts of Java. The Srivijaya government also managed to control a large amount of maritime trade in Southeast Asia, using the skills of the sea nomads.
In return, they enabled the sea nomads to acquire key technologies, such as iron tools and improved boat-building techniques, which in turn helped them extend the range and diversity of their commercial activities.
Elsewhere in the region, a group of seafarers called Orang Laut (“sea people” in Malay) contributed to the founding of Malacca in about 1400.
The Orang Laut patrolled the Straits of Malacca, repelling pirates and maintaining the dominance of ports like Malacca, which rose to be one of the most influential trading hubs in Asia.
Their symbiosis with the rising trading states is confirmed by the linguistic evidence, which links sea nomads to well-established languages such as Malay. Sea nomads depended on the Malays as buyers of fish and other aquatic resources, and also carried valuable trade goods like pepper from one region to another.
Both the nomads and the traders benefitted from the arrangements, and the Orang Laut took a degree of pride and prestige from their role.
But the sea nomads are not entirely separated from the land. In fact, they traverse land and seascape, often consisting of small islets, sandbanks or mangroves, and this is where they operate but also bury their dead. The sea serves as a reservoir for obtaining resources as well as a sacred place.
Paradoxically, as modern states emerged, sea nomads became progressively marginalized and impoverished, following the breaking down of the long-standing cooperation with the land-based communities.
Nowadays the Moken nomads in Myanmar number around 2000 people.
In recent years, they have faced the migration of thousands of Burmese fishermen south to the Mergui archipelago, which has seen a huge development in fishing operations and tourist facilities.
The Bajau people, who represent the largest sea nomad community in the world, can still be encountered in several scattered hamlets and villages along the coasts of Indonesia, The Philippines and Malaysia.
In the Sulu Sea between the island of Borneo and the Southern Philippines, an insurgency led by the Abu Sayyaf insurgent group has brought the Indonesian and Philippine Navy into the area. Curfews have been enforced which restrict movement in both countries – but also for the Bajau nomads.
Indonesian authorities have relocated some Bajau on small islands. Currently, many of them live in tiny houses on stilts, exposed to adverse weather, and prone to attack by pirates.
Their fate is similar to a number of traditional communities in Indonesia and Malaysia , where central government policymakers attempt to dislocate communities from a traditional way of life, and settle them in permanent housing.
For the researchers though, the story of the nomads is not over. “The sea nomads are not vanishing, merely changing their strategies and locations,” says Roger Blench, one of the editors.
“I hope we might in the future unravel unsuspected aspects of cultural exchange and the role all these small non-state-level groups played in the regional trajectory,” Bellina-Pryce says.
Let us not forget the sea nomads – they might surprise us with their determination and adaptability.
The rising sea levels around the globe will force us soon to rethink our own way of living, letting us learn from their rich past.