Pirates & Sea Gypsies – Semporna Island Hopping

Mar 12, 2024 | Blog

There are few reasons why Semporna in Sabah, Malaysia was peculiar to me. First of all, I could meet Sea Gypsies or Sea Nomads which is fascinating ethnic group. Secondly, Semporna island hopping took me to the pristine waters and white sand beaches with incredibly rich marine life. I didn’t expect such paradise islands near Borneo, which for the reason are called Maldives of Malaysia. Thirdly, it’s the most dirty city in Malaysia, sinking in trash. Walking along the port in Semporna city center was shocking with the mess of the streets, water and Sea Gypsy kids running around and begging for money. Moreover, area gained bad reputation due to the kidnapping issues, so that lots of people were asking me, whether Semporna is safe to travel or not. Let me tell you more about my trip to the balmy islands, safety in Semporna and the Sea Nomads.

Just before coming to Kota Kinabalu, the capital of Sabah and starting my trip in Borneo, I was traveling in the Philippines. I was surprised that there is no simple ferry connection between Palawan in the Philippines and the north-east of Sabah, which in straight line are within 50 km distance. Instead, I had to fly to Manila and transfer to Kota Kinabalu, which didn’t make any sense for me in terms of carbon footprint I produce as well as money and time I have to spend. I started to dig in information why there is no ferry connecting Palawan and Sabah, even though it makes a perfect logistical and touristic sense.

This is how I learnt about the conflict between those two lands, which is connected with issues of piracy in Sabah. Some time ago, the east part of Sabah belonged to the Philippines, before to the Sultanate of Sulu. The pirates often calling themselves the “Royal Security Forces of the Sultanate of Sulu and North Borneo”. Obviously, they don’t accept their country is gone from the map of Borneo.

If you look at the map, Semporna is very near islands on the Philippines’ territory and according to the pirates they belong to the Sultanate of Sulu. I am not talking about pirate with a talking parrot on his shoulder, but about uncontrolled groups penetrating the area by boats. Kidnapping in Semporna started in the 70′ and since then there were several detain cases with a ransom demand.

In 2013 there was a big conflict when 235 militants arrived by boats from Simunul and Tawi Tawi islands, on the south-est of the Philippines. They surrounded a village near Lahad Datu and wanted to resolve the territorial claim of East of Sabah. One local man told me that they had almost succeded taking over as the military and police of Malaysia couldn’t decide who will deal with the intruders. I prefer to belive this information is not true. Anyhow, the negotiations finished with death of over 60 people and sending pirates back to where they came from, leaving few claimants to the throne of the sultanate unfulfilled.

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