Lepa lepa identity letters are illegal, says assistant minister

Children from the Bajau Laut or sea gypsy community seen off Omadal island in Semporna. Lepa lepa letters apparently confirms that the holder is a sea gypsy and gives him permission to stay at sea and to go on land occasionally. (Bernama pic)

KOTA KINABALU: The Sabah government has denied knowledge of the issuance of identification documents known as “lepa lepa” to stateless sea gypsies.

If any such document had been issued, it would not be recognised by the government, said Assistant Law and Native Affairs Minister Jannie Lasimbang.

She told FMT she had not even heard of such a document until she read about it in the news.

A recent news report said the 10 Filipino fishermen who were kidnapped off Lahad Datu last month were carrying lepa lepa letters supposed to have been issued by village chiefs or native courts in Sabah.

Such a letter apparently confirms that the holder is a sea gypsy and gives him permission to stay at sea and to go on land occasionally.

Lasimbang said the native affairs department played no part in issuing such letters and any village chief or native court that might have issued them would have done so illegally because they had no such power.

“I suppose the holders of the letters can show them to the police,” she said, adding that she suspected the fishermen made the letters themselves.

She also said she understood why Sabahans, particularly the indigenous peoples, were worried over the alleged existence of the document.

“We would be in trouble if the power to issue documents was abused by certain people,” she added.

Last week, Borneo Dayak Forum spokesman Andrew Atama Ambrose expressed concern over the possibility of the documents being issued to Filipino nationals.

He said it was possible that some native court had abused its power in a “political effort” to recognise foreigners as Sabah natives.

Commenting yesterday on Lasimbang’s denial, he said her ministry must now find out whether lepa lepa documents were being used by illegal immigrants as a way of being recognised as Sabahans.

He accused the government of taking a relaxed attitude towards such matters and said allowing the free movement of people at sea and on land would cause a security problem.