Inter-area/Border Crossing

Organized Panel Session

2 - The Orang Suku Laut: Navigating Identity Across Boundaries

Friday, March 23
10:30 AM - 12:30 PM
Location: Jackson, Mezzanine Level

Sea nomadism has been common within the waters of Southeast Asia for centuries. Until today, numerous communities of sea nomads can be found across the region. One such group is the Orang Suku Laut (People of the Sea), who live throughout the Riau-Lingga Archipelago of Indonesia and the southern coasts of the Malay Peninsula. They were once highly appreciated in the royal Malay courts. These days, they are scorned by the wider Malay and Indonesian society as a backward people. Their ethnic identity and current marginal status have been socio-politically constructed through shifts in political powers and their attending social ideologies. Much scholarly attention has been on the story of historically changing commitments and actions of power holders in the Malay World that have forged the seafarers’ rise when they were favored subjects of the Srivijayan empire to their decline in the nineteenth century when European colonialists despised them as pirates. Less though has been documented on how present-day changes that are transforming the seascape of the Malay World are impacting on their ethnic identity.

This paper examines how projects of modernization are attempting to change the seascape of Southeast Asia and to reshape the lives of local inhabitants. Against this backdrop, this paper discusses: (i) How do the Orang Suku Laut see themselves and those who are infringing on their life and living spaces? (ii) How have they come to act on these perceptions; and (iii) How are they navigating their identity in view of these changes?

Cynthia Chou

University of Iowa, Iowa

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