Lending legitimacy to a murderous military: What is in the “stateless” label for Rohingyas?

Natalie Brinham & Ali Johar

September 2021

Critiquing the widely accepted understanding of “statelessness” as a rights claim, Natalie Brinham, PhD student at Queen Mary University of London, and Ali Johar, a Rohingya youth leader, call our attention to the ways in which labelling the Rohingya ethnic community as stateless undermines belonging and legitimises the power of the Myanmar military to exclude.

“We are not stateless. Stop calling us that! So, we want to go home…with our rights and our citizenship. You can call us what you like – we are citizens of Myanmar.” - Mohibullah, Rohingya leader, Human Rights Council in Geneva, March 2019. Killed 29/09/2021. Rest in Peace.

To be Rohingya means to belong to Arakan or Rakhine – a geographical region which today falls within the territorial borders of modern-day Myanmar. As a Rohingya, when the world calls you stateless, it hurts.

The Rohingya ethnic community was deliberately excluded from Myanmar citizenship and from recognition of indigenous status by the military junta which seized power in 1962. Since then, the military has continuously dominated the ethnic, political, and legal landscape of Myanmar. Technically, according to the international legal definition of “stateless person”, it is true that most Rohingya are stateless as they are not recognised as citizens by any recognised state. But “stateless”, as Rohingyas know well, is not just a technical legal term, it is also a social label that feeds the popular imagination and sets parameters for policy discussions. We argue that archetypal notions of “the stateless person” as an object of global governance have produced inappropriate policy approaches which have by-passed the role of state organizations as perpetrators of crime.

Stateless people are often conceptualised as “invisible” - overlooked or neglected by the state - less often as hyper-visible people directly targeted by state actors. In this blog, however, we ask you to refocus your attention onto the state and think about how visible the state really is in statelessness work. We invite you to question how the state and the behaviours of state organisations are perceived within statelessness work, and to consider how decontextualised notions of statelessness can serve to legitimise abusive regimes and their exclusionary discourses.

Roger Zetter’s seminal work on the formation and transformation of bureaucratic identities explored how the category “refugee” and prescriptive policy-making processes interacted to produce standardised “refugee” identities. Through these processes, “needs and aspirations became structured into technocratically manageable programmes with unwanted effects on the lives of the refugees.”  Liisa Malkki’s 1996 essay on the institutionalisation of “the refugee” additionally shows how de-historicised and de-politicised discourses of universal humanitarianism side-lined the lived experiences of survivors of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, producing an “archetypal” refugee. Likewise, statelessness is a discursive category that produces certain policy responses based on archetypal, de-historicized and de-politicised notions.

When the world calls Rohingyas “stateless” without also naming the citizenship-strippers or labelling their crimes, it can undermine belonging. Instead of being a rights claim, the term stateless can underline and privilege the Myanmar military’s false historic claims that Rohingyas are foreign infiltrators in their own homeland. It can also lend a harmful legitimacy to the discriminatory 1982 Citizenship law that was enacted under a military regime intent on persecuting Rohingyas. For Rohingyas, citizenship stripping and identity destruction in Myanmar came hand in hand with genocide. Yet “stateless” is a neutral term that lifts the lived experiences of those it frames out of their historic and political contexts. Prescriptive international policy approaches to Rohingya statelessness in Myanmar have been based on homogenised notions that treat “the stateless person” the same, regardless of whether their statelessness resulted from state oversight or genocide. Such policy recommendations have included: more “state” identity documents and citizenship verification; expansion of existing “naturalisation” provisions within the hierarchical citizenship law; and “pathways to citizenship”. All of these have been contested by Rohingyas. Such policy responses treat Rohingyas as foreigners who need to apply for citizenship – serving to further undermine their ethnic and citizenship status in Myanmar.

Many words and terms have decontextualised and reframed Rohingya experiences of military violence. The word Rohingya was avoided by international agencies in Myanmar in case it offended those in power. The term “communal violence” was used in 2012 to describe what Rohingyas experienced as military-led abuses. This served to divert attention away from the perpetrators, as the international community pursued “constructive engagement” in “transitioning” Myanmar. The genocidal violence of 2017 is still called “ethnic cleansing” by the UK and the US as they attempt to maintain diplomatic relations. The term ethnic cleansing does not denote a crime under international law. According to the president of Genocide Watch, the term was used by Milosevic in an attempt to deflect responsibility for the crimes of genocide in the former Yugoslavia context. We argue that the statelessness discourse has so far proved yet another deflection from criminal responsibility.

If you put yourself in the shoes of a Rohingya who has been told over again that you are part of an “illegal” people in the wrong land, the label of stateless is hard to wear. It makes it easier for the law makers to criminalize your everyday activities - like visiting relatives or making a living. It makes it easier for administrators to bar access to national identity and travel documents, and easier for “Buddhist nationalists” to deny you a decent life in the county of your forefathers. It cuts away at the foundations of your distinct group identity and makes people see you as a “nowhere person”.

If the bureaucratic category of stateless was, instead, a steppingstone that provided you with hope of justice and restitution, a chance of citizenship restoration, wearing the label would feel different. If “stateless” granted you durable solutions or access to decent work, rights and services – if it let you travel safely and protected you from arrest as an “illegal immigrant”, or indefinite detention, then the label might feel more comfortable. But in the shoes of a “stateless” Rohingya, you know your kids will grow up with the same insecurities and barriers as you did, whatever people call you.

Since the coup of Feb 1st 2021, the legitimacy of the military coup-group as representatives of the state has been challenged at the UN. The military or “terrorist group”, as many people in Myanmar call them, does not enjoy control over either the population or the territory. Whether other states are willing to enter into relations with them and treat them as state representatives is currently up for grabs. The National Unity Government, the elected government, has been set up as an alternative state representative under a Federal Democracy Charter, and allied itself with alternative national armed forces, the People’s Defence Force. In fact, the legitimacy of the military government has long been contested domestically. The 1982 Citizenship law, drafted and enacted under Ne Win’s military dictatorship, is sometimes referred to as “the General’s law” or the “genocide law” – reflecting the fact that the law and policy framework was designed to oppress and exclude and does not enjoy legitimacy. Rohingya presence in the Arakan region by far pre-dates the central Burmese and their soldiers – the army is seen by many as an occupying force. The militarized “state” in Myanmar has, over the years, enjoyed far more legitimacy internationally than it has domestically.

So, before you call people stateless, think first who are you calling a state? Whose laws are you analysing? And do your policy recommendations offer legitimacy to abusers or remedies to survivors?

This article is based on qualitative research with Rohingya communities and discussion between the co-authors. Findings on the topic are also published in a chapter of Statelessness, Governance and the Problem of Citizenship, edited by Tendayi Bloom and Lindsay N. Kingston.

More from the Critical Statelessness Studies Blog Series

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