The Bajau of the Celebes Sea

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The Bajau of the Celebes Sea

Photographer: Ahmad Yusni


The Bajau, or Bajaw, who live near Semporna, east coast of Sabah state, Borneo, Malaysia, are an indigenous ethnic group of Maritime Southeast Asians.

Due to escalated conflicts in their native Sulu Archipelago, and discrimination suffered by Muslim groups in the Philippines with regards to education and employment, most of the Bajau have migrated to neighboring Malaysia over the course of 50 years. Currently they are the second largest ethnic group in the state of Sabah, making up 13.4 per cent of the total population.

Groups of Bajau have also migrated to Sulawesi and Kalimantan in Indonesia, although figures of their exact population are unknown. They were sometimes referred to as the Sea Gypsies, although the term has been used to encompass a number of non-related ethnic groups with similar traditional lifestyles, such as the Moken of the Burmese-Thai Mergui Archipelago and the Orang Laut of southeastern Sumatra and the Riau Islands of Indonesia. The modern outward spread of the Bajau from older inhabited areas seems to have been associated with the development of sea trade in trepang.