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Malaysian state officials defend demolitions that left hundreds of ‘sea gypsies’ homeless in Borneo

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KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia (AP) — Rights activists have slammed the displacement of hundreds of sea nomads after their stilt homes in a Malaysian marine park on Borneo island were demolished. But the state government Friday defended its move to tear down the unauthorized settlements, saying it was aimed at bolstering security.

Social advocacy group Borneo Komrad said on its Facebook page that the Bajau Laut people, a semi-nomadic community that is mostly stateless, have been left homeless after authorities destroyed and burned their homes and boats.

Known as sea gypsies, the Bajau Laut community live in stilt huts in floating villages or on wooden longboats off the east coast of Sabah state. Despite records of their presence in the region dating back for centuries, many Bajau Laut have no legal nationality documents.

Sabah Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister Christina Liew said Friday that the operation was carried out according to the law. She said evacuation notices were sent a month ago to 273 “unauthorized settlements” on islands in the Tun Sakaran Marine Park, renowned for its clear waters and diving spots.

She said activities such as fishing, erecting structures without permission and farming in the protected marine park area violated state laws and empower Sabah Parks to take action accordingly.

In a three-day operation from Tuesday, she said authorities demolished 138 illegal structures. She said police had told her that some people set fire to their own homes to gain sympathy and attention on social media.

“This operation was carried out due to security issues,” Liew said in a statement, citing shooting incidents and cross-border criminal activities in the area. She didn’t elaborate. The Sabah town of Semporna is just a short boat ride from the southern Philippines.

Local activists have called for more humane solutions. Rights group Pusat Komas said the state should address documentation issues to ensure that the Bajau Laut people receive fair treatment and access to essential services.

Mukmin Nantang, who heads Borneo Komrad, said on Facebook that evicted families are now sleeping on the beach or in the remains of their homes, hungry and lost. “There is no compensation and no other alternative to find them shelter,” he said.