Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Positioning of Murut and Bajau Identities in State Forest Reserves and Marine Parks in Sabah, East Malaysia

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Positioning of Murut and Bajau Identities in State Forest Reserves and Marine Parks in Sabah, East Malaysia

Article excerpt

Contemporary analyses of Indigenous Peoples in Malaysia (be they majority or minority indigenous) as in other countries, have shown that biases emanating from colonial officials and politically acceptable local ideologues about 'race' and identity have been extended and reappropriated by officials and ideologues of postcolonial governments. (1) Indigenous characteristics and identities were mostly prescribed by outsiders depending on colonial geopolitical and economic interests and often fed by the needs of local elites and patrons as well as, to some extent, by members of other Indigenous groups who came into contact with them, (2) a pattern that has continued today. Historically, externally imposed names are at best unfamiliar to Indigenous Peoples themselves who tend to link their identities to a locality (for example, valleys, rivers, mountains, island groups) and at worst they are seen as pejorative by those being labelled. (3) I refer to this method of governing that involves the creation of discourses and practices about indigeneity as ethnicising.

In the postcolonial period, the positioning of identities, (4) namely being treated as a minority either through colonisation or by internally dominant groups or both, is key to being defined as Indigenous. For the subordinate groups in this heirarchy, being Indigenous also depends, however, on the management of their situation. (5)

This article deals with the ethnicising of Indigenous identities by internally dominant Indigenous groups in Malaysia generally, and in Sabah in particular; and the strategies used by affected groups to make their claims to indigeneity viable. By doing so, the article engages with scholarly interest in understanding the complexities that drive Indigenous Peoples to make identity claims based on attachment to place, and the limits of such strategising. (6) Tania Li argues that claims about attachment to place supported by the conservation movement in the 1990s set limits on those 'natives' who largely 'do not fit the places of recognition' set by the conservation agenda (such as 'natives in nature' or being a natural part of a park). (7) However, as pointed out by Michael Dove, (8) despite academic hesitation, Indigenous Peoples persist with the making of such claims, perhaps because of material or symbolic gains made, even if small. (9) This conservation agenda of being tied to place as an environmental subject may be difficult for many Indigenous Peoples who have a history of movement, fragmentation, displacement, the root cause of which lies in insecurity of tenure, even if as in Sabah, native customary rights are acknowledged in the Sabah Land Ordinance of 1930. (10) For smaller groups of non-land based 'Others', such as some 'Bajau' and other groups who have remained relatively mobile at sea, other bases for claims-making have to be found.

In recent years, such limits might have been overcome by those who work in the area of environmental justice. At least in discourse, environmental justice (described below), has freed indigeneity from being solely tied to place. As well, the international discourses of environmental justice, including the Convention on Biological Diversity, have paved the way for addressing social injustice through the use of common law in land disputes.

In Malaysia, the ethnicising Bumiputra policy seeks to legitimise the centralisation of social and environmental control via the classification of the population as well as of natural resources in order to control access to, use and conservation of the latter. Categorisation as a 'native', a 'Malay' or a 'non-Malay' affects one's entitlements and privileges as a citizen of Malaysia. Similarly, conservation policy based on the identification and categorisation of forests and coastal or marine areas as forest reserves or national parks translates into the privileging of 'modern' usages allowed in these parks such as research and ecotourism. …

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