From a large boat, a wailing infant, glistening with birth fluid, is pitched into a churning sea. Two men dive after it. One rises triumphant from the water, the newborn in his hands, and presents it to the tribal chief on the boat. By virtue of this ritual, a Bajau is welcomed into this life.
This is the opening scene of a famed 1950s Filipino movie, “Badjao,” in which the character actor Tony Santos plays a Bajau prince and screen siren Rosa Rosal takes the role of a Tausog aristocrat. By the way, in her youth, Rose bore the title “Asia’s Best Actress.” She won it in a film festival hosted by a filmmaker named Norodom Sihanouk, then also a Cambodian monarch.
The plot of “Badjao” is old Romeo and Juliet against a backdrop of communal tensions between the Tausog and the Bajau in southern Philippines.
In the film as in real life, the Bajau are poor, persecuted, forbidden to bear arms, exploited and treated with contempt. Unlike the martial Tausog and the Bajau’s warlike cousins, the Samal, the Bajau respond to conflict by sailing away.
That’s why most of them have always lived mid-sea in boats. The land is crowded with persecutors of all stripes. The sea is wide as eternity and offers freedom from tormentors as well as a living. They come on land only to gather firewood, trade for necessities and build boats. On solid ground most Bajau walk with a peculiar gait on unsteady legs. Their spines have been warped from sitting in a boat day and night.
Like the Kurds of the Middle East, the Bajau form one nation but are scattered in several countries. The Bajau are in the maritime parts of Brunei, Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia.
I met some of them years ago during a sojourn in Simunul, Tawi-Tawi — including a pair of giggly teen-aged girls bathing fully clothed at an artesian well while their father nearby polished the hull of a boat he was building. He worked with the focus of a man building not just a boat but a home for his family.
I was therefore aghast when told several days ago that Indonesian authorities have sunk six boats owned by Filipino Bajau now under detention for illegal fishing. It doesn’t matter if the Bajau is Bruneian, Filipino, Indonesian or Malaysian. You sink his boat, you’ve sunk a home. Sink six and you’ve submerged a housing complex.
If it’s the law that a boat used in illegal fishing must be sunk, and if authorities have no discretion on the matter, so be it. Dura lex sed lex. A harsh law but the law.
But these Bajau must not be sacrificial lambs to tokenism in law enforcement. The law must also be fully applied to big ships that are illegally fishing on Indonesian waters. These must not be allowed to violate the law with impunity. Indonesia’s neighbors are therefore looking forward to such a firm demonstration of impartiality.
Moreover, all Asean states are signatories to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The Declaration affirms the rights of indigenous peoples like the Bajau to, among others, culture, identity, health care, and livelihood.
OK, the Declaration isn’t legally binding. But among signatories, the spirit of the Declaration shouldn’t count for nothing. Let’s hope the states that are home to Bajau communities get together and do something creative so in the case of these unfortunate, justice is tempered with mercy.
For “in the course of justice, none of us should see salvation: we do pray for mercy and that same prayer doth teach us all to render the deeds of mercy.”
In the end, as human beings, we’re all in the same boat. Think before you sink.
Jamil Maidan Flores is a Jakarta-based literary writer whose interests include philosophy and foreign policy. The views expressed here are his own.