Cultural Overview

The Orang Suku Laut of the Indonesian Riau Archipelago (Chou, 1997; Lenhart, 1997, 2001, 2002a, 2002b; Sather, 1998, 1999; Sudarman Sembiring, 1993; Wee, 1985) belong to the boat-dwelling, fishing, and foraging communities of sea nomads found in the territories of five Southeast Asian states, namely Myanmar (Burma), Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines (Sather, 1995; Sopher, 1965/1977; Tauchmann, 1992). These groups have several features in common, including relatively egalitarian gender relations.

In the middle of the 1990s, the Orang Suku Laut were estimated to number about 5,000 people, or about 1% of the total population of the Riau Islands. Since the close of the 19th century and in fairly large proportions during the 1990s, most of the Orang Suku Laut gradually shifted from living entirely as sea nomads to becoming seminomadic. Today, the majority have settled in pile-dwellings built over the water on the seafront, while others have moved to recently built villages on land given to them by the government. But they still leave their settlements for seasonal fishing trips that may last for only a short while or for many months.

The Orang Suku Laut make their living in small groups of kinsmen by exploiting the natural resources of the sea, mangrove swamps, and adjacent coastal areas. Their environmental knowledge is immense, and comprises ocean currents and tides, winds, fishing grounds, and the position of the sun, moon, and stars by which they find their way during their journeys through the archipelago. They are also familiar with freshwater sources at the shore and numerous species of flora and fauna of sea and coast, including edible species and species for medical use. Also, their beliefs and convictions refer to their natural environment which they experience as animated nature, and are adhered to even by those who have become converts to Islam or Christianity.

Orang Suku Laut modes of earning a livelihood are spear fishing, collecting marine and forest products, and hunting sea mammals and coastal animals for both subsistence and small-scale trading with Chinese middlemen. Their social organization is based on ties of kinship and the ideal of endogamy. Nuclear families are the basic social units. A few nuclear families of close kinsmen join together into mobile groups that travel on their own, each led by an elder, or live in corresponding groupings in settlements ashore. Every family and every group of kinsmen is socially and economically similar and independent.

Most Orang Suku Laut are not yet formally educated, and in many respects follow a way of life apart from the mainstream society. Until recently, interethnic contacts have mostly been avoided, because the regional Muslim Malay majority are prejudiced against the Orang Suku Laut who are regarded as a primitive people without religion or culture—an assessment made by referring to their mobile way of life in small boats, under allegedly poor hygienic conditions, their habit of hunting wild pigs for meat, drinking alcohol, and keeping dogs, as well as their extraordinary magical powers. However, since the 1990s, interethnic contact has intensified as a consequence of ambitious government programs for the region's economic development and special projects of directed change which aim at assimilation.

Modernization projects have included the excessive exploitation of the natural resources of the islands and the sea, and the establishment of industrial estates and tourist resorts run by big Jakarta-based and Singapore-based business groups. Since then, the local people, mostly fishermen and horticulturalists, whose livelihood depends on the natural resources, have had to cope with the pollution of the environment which has already led to a loss of biodiversity, and have difficulties in finding alternative jobs because of the enormous influx of migrant workers from other parts of Indonesia. In the last few years, with economic recession and political instability, their situation has deteriorated even further (Chou & Wee, 2002; Lenhart, 1997, 2001; Wee & Chou, 1997). The projects for the Orang Suku Laut were conducted during the late 1980s and the 1990s under the auspices of the Department of Social Welfare and associated government institutions that classified the Orang Suku Laut as masyarakat suku terasing ("isolated tribal community"), or a marginal and backward minority whose culture and way of life prove a hindrance to regional modernization and nation-building and have thus to be developed. The main efforts to bring about cultural change were sedentarization at special resettlement sites, efforts to change their modes of livelihood, introduction of medical care, and formal education in schools (including the teaching of civics and religious instruction). At the beginning of the 1990s, about 20% of the Orang Suku Laut could be motivated to move to resettlement sites on land. However, after the fall of Soeharto in 1998 and owing to a lack of financial resources in times of recession, the development of resettlement sites and other measures of directed change were stopped (Lenhart, 1994, 1997, 2002a).

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