Plight of the Badjao: Forgotten, nameless, faceless

Bobby Lagsa

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Plight of the Badjao: Forgotten, nameless, faceless

bobby lagsa

The Sama Dilaut, the formal name of the Badjao, are among the most obscure, misunderstood and marginalized among the Filipino ethnic-linguistic groups. Their story needs to be told.

TAWI-TAWI, Philippines – The plight of the Badjao people, considered as the “Gypsies of the Sea,” was highlighted at the first International Conference on the Sama Dilaut at the Mindanao State University-Tawi-Tawi College of Technology and Oceanography (MSU-TCTO) on December 1.

Lorenzo Reyes, Chancellor of the MSU-TCTO said it is high time for the government to address the plight of the Badjao to correct the neglect and historical injustices it has committed towards the ethnic group.

The Sama Dilaut, the formal name of the Badjao, are among the most obscure, misunderstood and marginalized among the Filipino ethnic-linguistic groups. Their story needs to be told.

The Badjao live in the waters of the Sulu Sea, between Tawi-Tawi and Sabah. But over the decades, wars, piracy, discrimination, and fishing and environmental issues have led them to abandon their nomadic and boat-dwelling life.

SOCIAL JUSTICE. Often considered homeless, nameless, faceless, and unwanted, forgotten people, uprooted by war, piracy, and cultural assimilation and intrusion of the settlers in their ancestral domain – the coastal waters of southern Mindanao.

Reyes said that the conference aims to call the attention of the international community to the plight of the Badjao. “It is not just their citizenship issues but their economic status as a people as well,” he said.

Reyes added that it is high time for the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) to take a second look at the Badjao, for they, too, deserve to be heard.

The Badjao are being kicked out of Malaysia where they are considered illegal immigrants and deported to the Philippines after being jailed.

Reyes suggested that with the onset of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) economic integration by the end of 2015, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia should sit down together and discuss and address the Badjao who are sometimes considered stateless.

The Badjao traditionally crisscrossed the Sulu Sea even before the creation of international borders and have considered the Sulu Seas as their ancestral domain, following the flow of the fish, tides, and seasons.

Stateless vs multistate

Jesuit priest and anthropologist Fr Albert Alejo, however, believes that the Badjao are not actually “stateless” people but are “multistate” people owing to their historical presence even before international borders were drawn.

Leslie Bauzon, chairperson of  Division VIII of the National Research Council of the Philippines (NCRP-DOST), said that because of the non-confrontational nature of the Badjao, they have opted to move out of their traditional grounds.

DISPLACED. The Badjao live on the waters of Sulu Sea but over the decades, wars, piracy, discrimination, and other issues have led them to abandon their nomadic and boat-dwelling life. Photo by Bobby Lagsa/Rappler
Reyes added that the government should take concrete steps and programs to address the Badjao, instead of hiding them away from the eyes of the international community.

“They were kicked out of Malaysia, they came back here, but we have no program for them. They suffer double discrimination,” Reyes said.

“How can we call ourselves a democratic country if some sectors of our society are left out? No one should be left out. The development of the national government should be inclusive,” Reyes added.

Bauzon said, “It is a matter of social justice, inculcating that the 3 countries (Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia) to acknowledge that they are a people that should enjoy the same rights are everyone else.”

Acknowledge the problem

Alejo said that governments cannot just turn a blind eye to the plight of the Badjao.

“Let’s acknowledge it. It is a difficult problem and there are many theories and recommendations that did not work,” Alejo said.

He believes that the solution should also come from empowering the Badjao to band and speak up for themselves. “The way I see it, let’s look for leaders in the Badjao communities and bring them out and support their suggestions.”

Alejo said that there are some educated Badjao like those in Davao City who can become a source of encouragement.

“I think we need to look for these individuals who have deep cultural roots but are now on the edge of breakthrough of change. Let’s find them and support them,” he said.

BADJAO FOOD. A Badjao woman prepares food at a Badjao community in Tawi-Tawi. Photo by Bobby Lagsa/Rappler

Alejo said that governments of the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia should bring key Badjao leaders together to forge a possible solution.

He also suggested that the government should also look for other means of communication so that the dialogues do not just touch on the religious and political dimensions, but also on the intercultural aspect. Here, “cultural neighbors” can discuss solutions.

“Let’s start with Badjao-Tausog-settlers dialogues because all our efforts are religious and political categories. We have too traditional categories,” Alejo said.

He also said that countries must sit down and explore the connection rather than highlight the division: “Let’s not be tied to political boundaries; let’s follow the flow of the people, trade, or the metaphors and explore richness and highways between and among these countries and let’s start with cultural connectivity.”

Social empowerment, government accountability

Bauzon supported the idea that the Badjao community should be empowered and capacitated, especially on their rights as indigenous people under the Indigenous Peoples Rights Act (IPRA).

“The Badjao should band together for them to speak up for themselves and make a point that they should be heard,” he said.

“But it is incumbent for the government and NGOs to engage in development interventions by organizing outreach programs among the Badjao and engage in capacity building activities and empowerment,” Bauzon added.

DIALOGUE. Participants at the International Conference of the Sama Dilaut. Photo by Bobby Lagsa/Rappler

He said that the IPRA law mandated the government to make IPs aware of their rights and privileges under the law.

“Then the Badjao will be able to acquire the necessary capacity to act by themselves to make the government and their leaders accountable for their plight,” Bauzon said.

He said he the does not subscribe to the idea that the Badjao are an inferior people. “Their navigational and boat buildings skills are an indication of their knowledge and creativity,” Bauzon said.

Correct social injustices

Reyes said that the government should correct the injustices committed against the Badjao people by delivering social, educational, and economic development actions to the group. This would address their plight while engaging the international community so that framework can be established to resolve their current state.

Bauzon said that to correct the social stigma, the Department of Education and the Commission on Higher Education should undertake curriculum improvements and corrections to inculcate among students that the Badjao and other cultural minorities are all Filipinos entitled to the same rights.

“That they are Filipinos who should enjoy the same rights and privileges and they should be treated with trust, dignity and respect.” Bauzon said.

“Perhaps after 30-60 years, we should have addressed our social injustices towards them and create a generation with less bigotry and prejudices and figurative attitude towards the Badjao and other indigenous peoples,” he added.

Simply put, Alejo said, “We need to do soul-searching and we need to identify where we made the mistake so we can address the problem.”

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