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Book Review

Book Review

28 May 2013

“Orang Suku Laut” By Lioba Lenhart:

Fliessende Grenzen – Konstruktion, Oszillation und Wandel ethnischer Identitaet der Orang Suku Laut im Riau-Archipel, Indonesien.

Published by Shaker Verlag, Aachen 2002, 642 pages, 49.80Euro!

A Book Review by Reinhard Hohler, Chiang Mai
The dissertation work of German ethnologist Lioba Lenhart about the elusive “Orang Suku Laut”, a regional group of sea nomads in the Indonesian Riau-Archipelago, was made possible to publish in the new series TerraMare: Studies in maritime ethnology (Volume 1), edited by Professor Dr. Kurt Tauchmann, who formerly taught ethnology at the University of Cologne in Germany. Under the title “Flowing borders – construction, oscillation and change of the identity of the Orang Suku Laut” the work seems to have only one serious flaw! It was published in the German language and therefore misses to get to know to more academics and readers in Southeast Asia and the world beyond, who are eager to know more about this valuable subject.

The author lived within the settlement of the Orang Suku Laut in Air Kelobi and surroundings, actually on the east coast of Bintan Island not far from Singapore (see map on pages 172 and 173), between April 1989 and May 1990, as well as February and March 1991. The settlement was later chosen to become a project village by the Government of Indonesia. Interesting to note are the few photographs taken on pages 3-6 of the book.

The book, showing an exhibition logo of the National Museum in Jakarta in 1993 on the front cover, is now the revision of the doctoral dissertation by Lioba Lenhart, submitted to the Philosophical Faculty of the University of Cologne in 1999.    
The book’s contents are divided into four parts all divided in chapters and a bibliography. It also offers 11 maps, 37 illustrations and 19 tables. In her opening remark, the author notes that she aims to explore the sea nomads or sea gypsies in Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia, and how they get integrated in a nation-state. In the same time, she wants to contribute to the modern discussion of ethnic identity.         

To facilitate discussion, Lioba Lenhart begins in Part One comprising chapters 1 and 2 with an introduction of the theoretical and methodical background of her exploration and discusses the theories of ethnic and social identity. Very important here are the theses of Frederic Barth from his edited publication “Ethnic Groups and Boundaries (Bergen-Oslo 1969).

In Part Two comprising chapters 3 and 4, the author describes the macro- and micro-context of her field work. Within her macro-context she mentions Indonesia as a state, the Riau-Archipelago as a region of the republic, and the Orang Suku Laut as a section of the sea nomads of Southeast Asia. Important is to know that sea nomads today live in five countries, namely Myanmar, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines and are splitting into three main groups. These are (see page 119):

1.     Moken and Moklen, who live in Myanmar’s Myeik Archipelago and also can be found in the island world of Southwest Thailand.
2.     Orang (Suku) Laut, who live in the old “Malay” island world of Johor (Malaysia), East Sumatra, Bangka and Belitung, as well as Riau-Lingga-Archipelago and Pulau-Tujuh (Indonesia). A splitter group living in Southwest Thailand is called Urak Lawoi.  
3.     Bajau (Sama) Laut, who live on the east coast of Borneo, Sulawesi and beyond, as well as in the Sulu Archipelago of the Philippines.

There are a myriad of sub-groups, but most of them live through a maritime orientated subsistence economy and have their own history that was influenced by the religions of Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and Christianity, not to forget Taoism practiced by the Chinese merchants. Thus, a kind of syncretism is obvious in the religion of the sea nomads, who are basically animist. Their numbers are not exactly known. In her micro-context, Lioba Lenhart only explores the visited Orang Suku Laut on Bintan Island in the northern part of the Riau-Archipelago.

In the third part of her monumental work comprising chapters 5 to 7, the author emphasizes the ethnic identity of the Orang Suku Laut in an intra- and inter-ethnical perspective. It is here that she delves into the specific world-view of the sea nomads and into their religion and magic. She also talks about childhood, marriage, sickness, old age and death.          
Finally, there appears in Part Four of the book comprising chapters 8 and 9 a complete picture of the Orang Suku Laut identity in the conflict zone of contacts with their own groups and foreigners. And there are the flowing borders she aptly tried to paint accordingly and cultural change seems imminent.   

The very useful bibliography at the end of the book should encourage scholars and students alike to dig even deeper into this neglected but prominent theme of “maritime ethnology”. Last not least, the book should not be missed in any library with books on Southeast Asia and should be read side by side with the classical work of Hugo Adolf Bernatzik titled “Die Geister der Gelben Blaetter” (Muenchen 1939), which was later translated as “The Spirits of the Yellow Leaves”. Strange enough Lioba Lenhart has this entry not in her bibliography.

Reinhard Hohler studied ethnology, geography and political science of Southeast Asia at Heidelberg University in Germany from 1979-1989 and lives now in Chiang Mai/Thailand. For more information, please contact by e-mail:

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