“Who is Stateless in Myanmar?” – Revolutionary Film Provokes Unexpected Debate

Nyi Nyi Kyaw

June 2022

In this blog, Nyi Nyi Kyaw, Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study in the Humanities (Kulturwissenschaftliches Institut, KWI) in Essen, Germany, discusses the new short film ‘Stateless - နိုင်ငံပျောက်သူ Naing-Ngan Pyauk-Thu’ and the debate that quickly followed its release, which raises questions around the value, contradictions and confusion of the term ‘stateless’, particularly in light of the real life experiences of the actors and director concerned.

Recently, a short film honouring the Spring Revolution against the military rule in Myanmar sparked an unexpected and critical debate about who is to be considered stateless in the country. Released via YouTube on 30 May 2022, the seven-minute Myanmar film immediately went viral, receiving more than a million views in six hours. The film entitled ‘“Stateless” Short Film - Naing-Ngan Pyauk-Thu’ is viewable with English subtitles. Even though the audience of the film is mostly Myanmar people, its English title and subtitles imply that it is also meant for a non-Myanmar audience. In this blog I explore the content and title of the film and the debates they stimulate about the diverse understandings and experiences of statelessness held by the director, actors, and their audience.

The film, by director Nga Gyi, was most likely produced on the Thai-Myanmar border, and features well-known actor Daung and actress Paing Pyo Thu. In the highly sentimental movie, Daung continuously haunts his friend and comrade Paing Phyo Thu. Daung, however, had already died days earlier during an airstrike by the Myanmar military, and Paing Phyo Thu eventually has to tell Daung that he is no more. Myanmar netizens reported being left in floods of tears. Meant as a tribute to the fallen heroes of the Spring Revolution, and to urge the bereaved to continue to fight against the military rule, the film has successfully delivered its message.

Quite unexpectedly the title of the short film, ‘Stateless/Naing-Ngan Pyauk-Thu’, became the subject of debate within the Myanmar Facebook sphere. There is no literal or standard Myanmar translation of stateless or statelessness. ‘Naing-Ngan Pyauk-Thu’ used in the title of the film as the Myanmar equivalent for ‘Stateless’is one of many possible translations for the term. The phraseliterally means ‘one who has lost one’s country or nation’. In spite of the standard, rather simplified legal definition, provided in the 1954 Convention, the English term ‘statelessness’ is “a concept that evokes different kinds of political and legal states of being, such as individuals without citizenship, groups that aspire to obtain a state of their own, but also various individual and collective forms of dispossession, exclusion, and exile.” Researchers have pointed out how the daily experiences of statelessness for Palestinian and Romani peoples may have led to different understandings of the phenomenon. In the same way, the debates among the Myanmar audience most likely stem from multifarious understandings, or experiences, of statelessness or alienation and loss of or removal from one’s country or nation. As I will soon demonstrate, this is certainly the case for the director and actors involved in this short film.

The questions raised about the film were: are the director and the stars “genuinely” stateless; who is “literally” stateless, and who is “more stateless”? Critics of the film highlight the plight of ethnic, ethnoreligious, and religious minorities who have faced discrimination, persecution and/or deprivation of citizenship rights and documentation. They spotlight the notorious treatment of the Rohingya, who since at least the 1990s have been arbitrarily and increasingly deprived of citizenship in Myanmar, horribly persecuted, and driven away into Bangladesh and other countries. Some people argue that the Bamar majority (to which both actors, Daung and Paing Phyo Thu, are understood to belong or represent) never experienced the same, or similar, level of persecution by the military that minorities have been experiencing for decades. It has only been for a short period, most notably since the Spring Revolution, that the Bamar have experienced such suffering. The core argument of the critics is that those minorities, including the Rohingya, are the ones that are genuinely or literally stateless, or rather more stateless, compared to the director and the two stars. Statelessness debated here is not necessarily exclusively about one’s legal eligilibity or ineligibility for Myanmar citizenship, but more about personal, lived experiences of individuals and communities. Statelessness is experiential, and there is a spectrum of understanding because different people may experience it differently in terms of degree, duration, etc. Therefore, a community may think and argue that they are the ones who are genuinely or literally stateless, or even more stateless compared to other communities.

Since independence in 1948, Myanmar has not found a common identity that may be shared by all its diverse peoples. The country has also been ravaged by a long-running civil war. The military-led nation-building project since the 1960s disproportionately targets minorities, and has been violent and oppressive. Against this backdrop, Facebook debates on who in Myanmar has suffered more, and longer, and thus deserves to be acknowledged as the genuinely stateless or the historically stateless are understandable. While the Spring Revolution continues to grapple with building a common identity that may be shared by most – if not all – of the peoples who call Myanmar home, such identity debates will arise from time to time. The latest online debates, as this short film went viral, are just one example.

While it remains critical to stay cognisant of the unique and severe experiences of Rohingya’s statelessness, and that of other minorities in Myanmar, looking at the personal experiences of the actors and director sheds light on some of the present day complexities around statelessness and belonging under Myanmar’s military junta. The real-life couple, director Nga Gyi and actress Paing Pyo Thu, had to go into hiding within Myanmar in mid-February 2021. They face arrest there because of their direct, or indirect, participation in the Spring Revolution as protesters, flagbearers, promoters and/or fundraisers. They are now believed to be in exile in Thailand where Daung was filming since before the military coup on 1 February 2021. Nga Gyi and Paing Phyo Thu must be feeling uprooted and homeless and this is perhaps why the title of the film, ‘to lose one’s country’ was chosen. Illegal migrants to, or residents in, Thailand, the reality is they may now find themselves in legal limbo.

In the film, Paing Phyo Thu stops a man singing the famous Myanmar song Amay Eain(Mum’s Home) by Htoo Eain Thin that is about longing to return home or to mum’s home. Apparently, she just can’t tolerate the lyrics of tremendous emotion. She then says to herself or the audience, “I can’t help but long to return home. I don’t have my own bed, nor my own home, nor my own country. It has been more than a year. I have become illegal since crossing the Thaungyin (Moei) (to Thailand).” All these words convey that the film is more a popular cultural presentation of personal experiences of uprootedness and homelessness.

The case of actor Daung is more extreme and he is indeed now stateless. Due to his unrelenting support for the revolution, Daung was denationalised on 2 April 2022 by the State Administration Council, the Myanmar military junta, that uses the notorious Myanmar Citizenship Law (1982) as a tool of warfare against the Spring Revolution. Daung cannot return home and he, too, has lost his country and home.

To conclude, as shown in the film and the debates on its content and message, understandings of statelessness may vary from person to person, community to community, and from time to time. Also, the translation of the concept of statelessness into other languages is not always standard, and it could lead to different interpretation and perception when the concept travels from one user to another.

More from the Critical Statelessness Studies Blog Series

The CSS Blog serves as a space for short reflective pieces by individuals working on statelessness from a critical perspective. Click here to learn more about the CSS project or here to read about how to contribute to the blog.