The Politics of Belonging: Fearful Nationalism and its Ramifications for Global Stateless Populations
Nationalism is the fruit that blooms from the tree of fear. When populations fear that their resources and government institutions are insufficient to provide for their imagined ‘native’ populations, they subsequently become fearful of the incursion of populations believed to be different from the national ‘in’ group. This fearful, paranoid nationalism leads to discussions of who does or does not belong within a nation, often delineated along ethnic or religious lines. Stateless populations, who exist at the fringes of state control or who are the subject of targeted campaigns of expulsion, face the direct consequences of exclusionary conceptions of the nation state. In the summer of 2018, statelessness catapulted into the international eye through the harrowing escape of the Moo Pa, or ‘Wild Boars,’ soccer team from a flooded cave in the Chiang Rai province of Thailand. This area of Thailand borders Myanmar, and its relative isolation from the metropole of state power in Bangkok results in the local population facing significant difficulties in receiving state support. The territorially-envisioned nation state struggles to adequately accommodate populations such as those in Chiang Rai, whose ethnic and linguistic boundaries do not cleanly align with national boundaries. Some local populations in Chiang Rai are nomadic, and separated from much of the world by treacherous mountainous terrain. Following the rescue of the Moo Pa team, three of the players and their coach were granted citizenship by the Thai government, highlighting many local populations’ struggles with statelessness. While the state may not play a large role in daily life in Chiang Rai, without recognition as citizens, people cannot vote, buy land, travel, or even be legally employed. Stateless populations the world over share these hardships, and the UNHCR identifies Southeast Asia as home to the world’s largest stateless population. Yet, despite this, it is impossible to pinpoint a single cause for statelessness. Statelessness occurs for many disparate reasons, and the analysis of the enclaves along the Indian-Bangladeshi Border, the persecution of the Lhotsampa population in Bhutan, and the nomadic Bajau Laut in the Sulu Sea near Malaysia will exemplify the different causes of statelessness. Through this comparison, an overarching narrative of fearful nationalism counterproductively diverting state efforts away from extending the benefits of citizenship to their populations and instead increasing border security emerges. In order to end statelessness, national governments must reconceptualize their role, prioritizing guaranteeing the right to citizenship over preventing undocumented migration.
Statistics on statelessness fail to paint a full picture of the problem, given that they primarily rely on estimates. Still, Myanmar and Thailand are two of the three nations with the largest stateless populations on the globe. The issue is rife across Southeast Asia, with the majority of Southeast Asian nations hosting stateless populations. UNHCR is unable to calculate the stateless populations in China and India, yet given that these are the two most populous nations, it is safe to assume that both host sizeable stateless populations as well. In Myanmar, the Rohingya population in Rakhine state faces an explicit campaign of expulsion perpetrated by Buddhist state leaders due to the formers Muslim faith, resulting in the majority of all stateless people in Southeast Asia hailing from Myanmar. The Khmer Krom population living in Vietnam similarly faces statelessness, due to the perceived alterity associated with their residence close to the Cambodian-Vietnamese border. Malaysia hosts a sizeable population of descendants of Sri Lankan, Filipino, and Indonesian migrant workers, from both pre- and post-colonial times, who remain stateless. Many Bangladeshi Biharis are stateless, due to beliefs of their ‘otherness’ stemming from the Bangladesh Liberation War nearly half a century ago. Ethnically Han Chinese populations in India and Indonesia are similarly often stateless. A loosely defined area termed ‘Zomia’ that stretches through the remote hill-regions of Vietnam, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar is home to many stateless indigenous peoples known as ‘Hill Tribes.’ Refugee populations across the entire region are also at acute risk of statelessness. All of these populations experience undue difficulties accessing state resources, yet states’ fears of undocumented migration obfuscate efforts to extend citizenship to stateless populations.
Statelessness primarily stems from targeted discrimination, exclusionary legal structures, complex histories, and inadequate state capacity, and each of these causes fall under the larger umbrella of fearful nationalism, for nations focus on keeping perceived outsiders out of their nations. Nations fears’ of undocumented members of groups outside of their imagined national ‘in’ group result in policies that overemphasize bureaucratic procedures and documentation that stateless populations are often unable to produce, and fail to achieve nations’ core goal of providing for their populations’ basic needs. Willem Van Schendel explains in his writing in The Journal of Asian Studies that “the contiguous, uninterrupted homeland is a fiction, as is obvious from the fact that many nations and states have learned to live with discontinuous territories,” yet still, states focus on preventing undocumented migration from these discontinuous territories rather than developing solutions to extend citizenship to the residents of such areas.
The politics of belonging plays a key role in this securitization, because groups native to a nation may be deemed ‘outsiders’ and thus forcefully expelled from states in the purported interest of security. The well-documented plight of the Rohingya population in Myanmar exhibits the most pronounced example of this, with the discriminatory 1982 Burmese citizenship law delineating citizenship as exclusively open to 135 recognized ethnic groups. The Rohingya population is not one of these recognized groups, and thus the 1.1 million Burmese Rohingya have no documentation to verify their legal residence, and can thereby be forcefully expelled through targeted military action. The government’s refusal to grant them citizenship results in the Rohingya’s inability to legally marry or own property. The government claims that they are all illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, referencing the similarities between the Rohingya’s language and the Bangladeshi language Chittagong, despite the long history that the Rohingya have in Myanmar. Based on these claims, the Burmese government inhibits the Rohingya’s movement, healthcare, and education. Following the Burmese military’s systematic campaigns of expulsion, nearly one million Rohingya fled to Bangladesh, yet the Bangladeshi government prohibited these refugees from marrying its own citizens, hoping to prevent them from gaining Bangladeshi citizenship. These actions are the direct result of fearful conceptions of the nation state that attempt to exclude populations deemed to not belong from utilizing state institutions.
Fearful nationalism further incurs statelessness in areas on the fringes of state control. This fear motivates states to dedicate efforts to combatting undocumented migration that would be more effectively spent building state institutional capacity in such areas. In Chiang Rai, Thailand, where the Moo Pa soccer team hails from, more than half a million members of Thai minority hill tribes are stateless, despite generations of residence in Thailand. The bureaucratic process to obtain citizenship in Thailand is especially arduous, in an attempt to ensure that economic migrants deemed to ‘illegitimate’ cannot gain citizenship. No matter the number of ancestral generations who lived in Thailand, Thai citizenship is inseparably tied to possession of a blue citizenship ID card. Procuring such an ID card no small task, with the required paperwork stretching roughly 50 pages, and a stateless hill tribe population that has little access to the formal schooling necessary to successfully complete such paperwork. While the application process for citizenship is intended to last three months, some applications have floundered in administrative limbo for up to 15 years. Lucy McCray of the International Justice Mission (IJM) elucidates that this protracted application process results from the fact that “district officers’ confusion about the law frequently leads to the refusal in acceptance of citizenship applications. While the punishment for approving ineligible citizenship application can result in the officers’ dismissal, there is no punishment for inaction.” While Thailand’s government has a stated goal of eradicating statelessness by 2024, the obstacles faced by rural populations near Thailand’s borders illustrate how fearful nationalism drives nations to prioritize securitization of the expansion of state capacity.
The ramifications of stateless status inimically propel populations into cyclical poverty without the documentation necessary to access state resources during times of hardship. These ramifications are far reaching, with Robyn N. Lui identifying that stateless populations have no legal protection, face impaired physical, economic, and psycho-social well-being, and often strain both their own and their host communities. Furthermore, the populations who incur these negative consequences often became stateless when fleeing even more hostile circumstances. Emphasizing the prevention of undocumented migration rather than the protection of human rights directly harms stateless refugee populations such as the Rohingya currently living in refugee camps in Bangladesh near the border to Myanmar. Stateless populations’ economic potential is incredibly diminished by their lack of documentation. In Thailand, national immigration law that originally restricted stateless people’s movement to the district they lived in was amended in 2016 to allow travel through their entire province, yet this limited mobility still impairs their ability to seek adequate work and receive government-sponsored education and training. Moreover, without legal status, stateless populations have no access to credit or land ownership, both of which are important prerequisites for upward economic mobility in rural economies. Without sufficient documentation and resources, many stateless people are forced to participate in the informal economy. They may seek work through a third party, and without legal protections such third parties can exploit the stateless. Stateless women, in particular, are at risk of exploitation, leading to high rates of sex trafficking. This begins a ruinous cycle, for women may see the paltry pay received through sex work as preferable to destitution, yet this survival sex forces its participants to avoid government interaction for fear of arrest and lost income, thereby preventing trafficked stateless women from ever receiving the benefits of citizenship through official channels. A Thai hill tribe member succinctly explains the harm caused by statelessness, saying that “my life would’ve been very different if I had citizenship from when I was born, because then, I would’ve been able to plan and dream about what I wanted to do in the future. Instead I have spent my life chasing after citizenship, using a lot of money, and losing out on so many opportunities.”
A global obsession with who belongs rather than what rights are guaranteed equally harms stateless populations resulting from complex history, exclusionary legal structures, and insufficient state capacity, as demonstrated through analysis of the enclaves of India and Bangladesh, the Lhotsampa of Bhutan, and the Bajau Laut of Malaysia.
The Enclaves of India and Bangladesh
The idiosyncrasies of India’s decolonization, the partition of India and Pakistan, and the Bangladesh Liberation War left borders that do not neatly conform to Westphalian visions of territorial continuity, yet parochial machinations of border protection fail to adequately adapt to such incongruous state borders. In India, the estimated size of the stateless population ranges from four to ten million people. Significant efforts have been made to combat undocumented migration, with more than 100 special courts established near the borders to Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh to decide who legally belongs in the nation, declaring upwards of 85,000 people foreigners since 1985. Yet, there have not been similar efforts dedicated to resolving the tribulations of the populations living in the 123 Indian enclaves in Bangladesh and the 74 Bangladeshi enclaves in India. These populations are isolated from their own state resources by their territorial separation, and common Indian and Bangladeshi emphasis on border security inhibits the free movement of the sequestered enclave populations. Entirely surrounded by foreign nations hostile to their passage, the enclaves’ populations’ access to resources is exclusively limited to those in their own town. The enclaves do not have their own independent passport offices, nor do they have consular offices for the nation surrounding them. As a result, in order to receive the documentation necessary to access their own state’s resources, enclave populations must break the law of the nation that surrounds them and cross through it illegally to reach their own nation’s main territory. There, they can either break their own nation’s law by entering illegally, or travel long distances to reach an official entry point and hope that the border guards will be sympathetic to their situation. After entering their own nation, enclave people must first apply for and receive a national passport, and then travel a long distance to a consular office of the nation that surrounds their enclave and apply for a visa. This visa will allow them the freedom of movement necessary to access their own nation’s institutions, yet when the visa expires, the entire cycle starts over. The strong emphasis both India and Bangladesh place on combating undocumented migration places enclave populations at risk of being shot and killed if they are discovered crossing through the nation that surrounds them without the proper documentation, documentation that is not available to them within their enclave. An opportunity to resolve this problem presented itself at the 1953 passport conference, where ‘multiple entry visas’ were proposed to allow the free movement of enclave peoples, yet this was never implemented, and the situation persists more than half a century later. Willem Van Schendel explains the ramifications of this failure, for “…by omitting the enclave people from the passport agreement, both India and Pakistan abandoned them as citizens. Marooned in their enclaves, they could not leave without infringing the laws of both countries.” Without freedom of movement, the enclaves persist without access to their own governments’ institutions, rendering their populations stateless. The enclaves’ residents cannot register new births, attend state universities, or even vote in their own nation’s elections, highlighting how fearful nationalism that emphasizes border protection damages populations living in territorial gray areas due to complex histories.
The Lhotsampa of Bhutan
The global emphasis on the politics of belonging also allows nations to construct narratives of alterity to justify the expulsion of unwanted populations, and such is the case with the Lhotsampa of Bhutan. Although similar to the recent expulsion of the Rohingya population in Myanmar, the persecution of the Lhotsampa began in the 1980s and receives far less attention. Currently, there are more than 120,000 exiled Lhotsampa living in Nepal and between 15,000 and 30,000 living in India. The Lhotsampa practice Hindu traditions and speak Nepali, neither of which were problems until a new king assumed the throne and began to implement nationalist policies based on support for the Drukpa sect of Buddhism. Previously, King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck held a pluralistic view of Bhutanese society, and worked with the Bhutan National Assembly to pass the Royal Edict on Lhotsampa Citizenship Act, which granted citizenship to migrants from Nepal who were living and working in the country. King Jigme Dorji Wangchuck also enacted several reforms that began to secularize the nation. In 1972, he died and power transferred to his son, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck. Initially, King Jigme Singye Wangchuck continued his father’s legacy, but the Drukpa political elite gained the new king’s support in the late 1980s, resulting in resurgence in fearful nationalism that felt intimidated by the presence of the Hindu Lhotsampa. The Drukpa and the Lhotsampa are not the only populations in Bhutan, with other ethnic groups such as the Ngalung, the Sharchop, and multiple groups of indigenous peoples, yet under guidance by the Drukpa elite, the king adopted a ‘One Nation, One People’ policy that heavy-handedly glossed over such ethnic differences. Under this policy, Buddhism became the national religion and Drukpa symbols and traditions became national, ignoring the multifaceted heritage of the Bhutanese population. Part and parcel with this shift came a new fear of the Lhotsampa minority, who were the second largest group to the Drukpa, and thus perceived as the most threatening.
The government of Bhutan weaponized citizenship laws to achieve their goal of Buddhist supremacy, constructing a narrative that the Hindu Lhotsampa did not belong in the country. In 1985, a new Citizenship Act was passed that restricted routes to citizenship to those that the Lhotsampa cannot fulfill: birth, registration, and naturalization. Birth citizenship in Bhutan is based on jus sanguinis, or blood, requiring that both parents of a child be Bhutanese citizens for a child to receive citizenship, rather than jus soli, or soil, where all children born in a nation receive citizenship, as guaranteed by the American 14th amendment. Registering for citizenship requires land-tax receipts from before 1958 to prove historical residence in Bhutan, which is excessively difficult for Lhotsampa to produce in 1985 not only because of the nearly 30 years passed, but also because some Lhotsampa only began to pay taxes after they were granted citizenship by royal edict in 1958. Even in cases where Lhotsampa could produce such documentation, government officials have evicted them nonetheless. Finally, the prerequisites for naturalization are designed to exclude the Lhotsampa, including a requirement to speak Dzongkha, given that the majority of Lhotsampa speak only Nepali. These laws rendered the majority of the Bhutanese Lhotsampa population stateless, forcing the majority of the Lhotsampa to flee to refugee camps in Nepal. Fearful nationalist leaders also attempted to deter Bhutanese citizens from marrying Lhotsampa, with the constitution declaring that you cannot receive land or loans from the state or hold an elected office if you marry a non-citizen. The systematic discrimination against the Lhotsampa is evidenced by the almost total lack of representation of Lhotsampa in public offices, as illustrated by the image below. In 1990, the Lhotsampa population demonstrated for the restoration of their rights, yet the government instead reacted with punitive measures that require Lhotsampa to carry No Objection Certificates in order to receive a passport, receive scholarships, apply for government jobs, or even for their children to attend school. These policies demonstrate how narratives of belonging and state security allow for the use of citizenship laws to exclude populations, ignoring the denial of human rights that such laws incur.
The Bajau Laut in Eastern Sabah, Malaysia
Legal statehood is often tied to a fixed, terrestrial home, and the seafaring, nomadic Bajau Laut who live in floating villages in the Sulu Sea near Eastern Sabah, Malaysia, suffer from statelessness due to the Malaysian state’s inability to accommodate their non-terrestrial residence. The Sulu Sea sits between the Malaysian portion of the island of Borneo and the Philippines, although the Bajau Laut are not strictly confined to this region, and can sometimes be found as far north as the South China Sea and as far south as the Arafura sea between Papua New Guinea and Australia. The Bajau Laut did not always live an exclusively aquatic lifestyle, initially splitting their time between cultivating rice on land during the wet season and living at sea to fish during the dry season, yet the addition of ‘laut’ to Bajau specifically denotes ‘sea Bajau.’ Today, some Bajau Laut still blur the line between Bajau and Bajau Laut, living on houseboats in port towns such as Semporna, Malaysia, or living along the eastern coast of Sabah and only occasionally venturing out to sea. Still, the majority of the Bajau Laut live at sea in transborder regions, beyond the reach of many Malaysian state institutions.
The Bajau Laut’s aquatic home outside of traditional territorial delineations results in the Malaysian government’s reticence to extend them the rights of citizenship, electing to prioritize strict immigration policy over provision for the Bajau Laut’s needs. Malaysian immigration policy makes no distinction between undocumented immigrants, stateless people, refugees, and asylum seekers, because Malaysia is neither a signatory to the 1951 UN Refugee Convention nor to the 1954 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons. Combined with the Malaysian government’s characterization of the Bajau Laut as illegal immigrants and recent transplants, the Bajau Laut have little protection from arbitrary arrest and no guarantee of legal due process. Indeed, their stateless status impairs the wellbeing of the Bajau Laut in many ways, for, as Greg Acciaioli, Helen Brunt, and Julian Clifton explain in the Journal of Immigrant & Refugee Studies, “where only ‘genuine’ or ‘authentic’ citizens have access to civil registration, education, legal employment, and affordable health care, groups such as the Bajau Laut face insurmountable barriers when even attempting to register their births.” Beyond this, new discussions surrounding environmental protection areas intersect with the Bajau Laut’s subsistence, for it is entirely possible that fishing in traditional areas may be banned under new protections dictated by a political process that the Bajau Laut are deprived any say in. The alterity of the Bajau Laut was heightened by the ‘Tanduo Incident’ in 2013, wherein rogue Filipino militants invaded eastern Sabah, and the Malaysia military was forced to intervene. Following this, fears of foreign incursion and migration control efforts intensified, damaging the Bajau Laut, who are perceived as outsiders by the Malaysian government. A security zone established in the sea between the Philippines and Borneo following the Tanduo Incident restricts all nighttime sea travel, limiting the Bajau Laut’s ability to both work and live in waters in which some have spent their entire lives. This security zone increased the number of undocumented migrants in neighboring areas of Indonesian Borneo, plausibly the result of Bajau Laut attempting to comply with the curfew. Yet, Indonesia deports these undocumented immigrants to Malaysian Borneo, where Malaysian authorities may subsequently deport them again to the Philippines, with all governments involved persistently avoiding the root cause of the problem: a lack of adequate state capacity to accommodate populations who do not fit into traditional territorial ideas of statehood. As further explained by Acciaioli, Brunt, and Clifton, “against a backdrop of ultranationalism, ethnocentrism, and the politics of alterity, groups such as the Bajau Laut, living in…the ‘ungoverned periphery’ of contemporary nation-states, are rejected as ‘outsiders’ and subjected to either forced sedentarization or expulsion.” Categorizing the Bajau Laut as ‘outsiders’ allows governments to justify choosing the solution nearest at hand and increase border security rather than undertaking the more difficult process of expanding state capacity to extend the rights of citizenship to the Bajau Laut.
Prioritizing Belonging over Borders
Beginning the work to end statelessness entails a three-pronged approach, wherein national birth registration programs must be established to ensure that all people born within nations receive citizenship, regional funding mechanism must be established to prevent implementation costs from inhibiting birth registration programs, and, most importantly, nations must prioritize belonging over borders.
Expanding birth registration addresses statelessness at the root, laying the foundation for a future without statelessness. Any initiative seeking to expand access to birth registration must not only expedite the registration process, but also build state capacity to reach populations on the fringes of tradition state power, such as the Bajau Laut and the Thai hill tribes. Birth registration initiatives should focus on areas and times where their efforts will yield the most benefit, such as at marketplaces on holidays when remote populations are likely to congregate. Technology should concurrently be used to increase awareness of registration campaigns, utilizing the types of technology that remote populations are most likely to have access to, such as radios. Registration programs must also be open to adults in order to retroactively address those who were not registered at their time of birth. Cambodia exhibits the efficacy of a robust state effort to prioritize birth registration. A team of 13,000 people was trained to begin a massive registration campaign, transforming the nation from having less than 5 percent of births registered before 2000 to having 91 percent of all people registered by 2005, with an astounding 7 million people registered in the first 10 months of the initiative. Crucially, the program coordinated cross-cutting participation from the entire population, including monks and school teachers. Registration was also made free for newborns and financially accessible for late registrations, ensuring that poverty would not preclude citizenship. Funding from the Asian Development Bank also rewarded those volunteers who registered more than 100 people, ensuring high participation. The important role of the Asian Development Bank in the success of Cambodia’s registration drive highlights the importance of funding mechanisms.
Nations must be enabled to enact birth registration programs without fear of sacrificing other national initiatives through regionally coordinated funding mechanisms. ASEAN’s regional immigration agreements focus almost exclusively on skilled migration, neglecting to address the prevention of statelessness. Adopting a regional policy on statelessness is difficult because ASEAN operates based on consensus, yet establishing a regional funding mechanism to allow nations to independently undertake their own birth registration programs would conform to the ‘ASEAN way’ of emphasizing national sovereignty. ASEAN is not the only multilateral organization that should fund such initiatives, given that the problem extends far beyond the organization’s bounds, as evidenced by Bhutan, which is not an ASEAN member. Given the incongruity of Southeast Asian states’ ratification of international conventions, a funding mechanism could also enable a regional review of legal shortcomings.
Above all else, a new conception of the nation state must be promoted that emphasizes citizenship as an inalienable right, transcending legal structures that currently reinforce ethnic nepotism and the patrilineal passage of citizenship. While it is impossible to entirely transcend the divided sovereignty of the global nation state system, it is possible to reconceptualize ‘belonging’ as a right for all people rather than a guarded quantity. Thailand is a clear example of a successful reconception of the right to statehood as universal. The 2008 Civil Registration Act confirms a jus soli idea of citizenship, with all children born in Thailand receiving Thai citizenship, regardless of the status of their parents. While questions still linger regarding the total implementation of this law, with populations in remote areas often still not receiving birth registration, this legal change is a crucial step to eliminating statelessness in Thailand. Indonesia also took a productive step in the year 2000 when it naturalized 110,000 stateless ethnic Chinese living within its borders. Fearful nationalism can be stifled by a destigmatization of migrants and a change in tone in the rhetoric surrounding migration. Rather than discussing the ‘threat’ of migrants, political leaders and media outlets should make a conscious effort to emphasize the ‘deservingness’ of all people of a set of basic rights, including citizenship. Too often, nations conflate people's’ identity with their right to belong, as was the case in India after partition, where Hindus were assumed to be Indian and Muslims were assumed to be Pakistani, regardless of their actual place of residence. Acciaioli, Brunt, and Clifton expound that “such policies, based on the necessity of extruding an alien ‘Other’ to bolster the sense of security of an increasingly demoralized citizenry, have contributed to the increasing pressures to deny political belonging to groups such as the Bajau Laut.” Nations must adopt the not-so-radical stance that all humans deserve to belong somewhere, and develop policies that reflect such an attitude. Citizenship cannot be restricted to pass through only one parent, as this perpetuates pernicious gender disparities. Legal structures must ensure to remove all exclusionary requirements from citizenship, such as requirements of any specific ethnicity, religion, or language. The development of the state capacity required to permanently end statelessness can only occur through a shift away from a fearful nationalism that emphasizes border security to a progressive nationalism that extends the right to belong to all people.