- Hasan Suroor
IN Steven Spielberg’s film, The Terminal, a man from a politically unstable East European country steps off the plane in New York only to be taken aside and given the bad news that he would not be allowed to enter or leave America because while he was in the air his country had fallen off the map. A civil war had broken out and the US no longer recognised it as a sovereign country, thus rendering him a stateless person. His situation, a legal non-entity stuck in a no-man’s land, makes a fascinating study into the plight of stateless people. In the film, it all ends well eventually, but in real life of course it’s a different story.
The Rohingya crisis has revived the debate on the condition of stateless people with the UN High Commissioner for Refugees promising to end all statelessness by 2024, but it is not clear how. In the absence of any mandatory powers to force countries to accept them it can only appeal to them on moral grounds but when even the saintly Aung San Suu Kyi can cynically turn a deaf ear to such appeals there’s little hope others will bother. If anything, her defiant stance will only embolden them.
It’s estimated that there are more than 10 million stateless people globally. Like the Rohingya in Myanmar, many face persecution, xenophobia and discrimination in the countries where they’re settled. According to the UN, they are denied basic rights such as education, healthcare, employment and freedom of movement. “Without these things, they can face a lifetime of obstacles and disappointment,” it says.
But it is only in extreme cases that they are expelled as a matter of state policy, as in Myanmar. A comparable example was the expulsion of 70,000 blacks from Mauritania — a former French colony divided between Arab-Berber and black African ethnic groups — in 1989-1990. Although they have since been allowed to return, they are still struggling to gain nationality. The mass exodus of the Rohingya from Myanmar’s Rakhine state following a wave of attacks by the security forces and militant Buddhist nationalists has been called a “textbook case of ethnic cleansing” by a UN official in what’s seen as a direct indictment of Suu Kyi, her country’s presumed moral conscience.
Bizarrely, she has responded to the mounting international pressure to intervene to stop the atrocities by dismissing the killings, rape and torture of some 1.5 million Muslims as fake news. Her claim that the Rohingya are leaving of their own accord is contradicted by independent witnesses, western intelligence agencies, and TV footage of burnt down villages and charred bodies. Myanmar’s refusal to agree to an independent international investigation speaks for itself: it doesn’t want the world to know the truth.
It has not gone unnoticed that India is the only liberal democracy which has so unequivocally endorsed the Myanmar government’s stand blaming the crisis entirely on Rohingya terrorists. During his visit to Myanmar last month, Narendra Modi told Suu Kyi, “We share your concern about the extremist violence in the Rakhine state and especially the violence against the security forces and how innocent lives have been affected and killed.”
His host, facing international isolation, was naturally ecstatic and profusely thanked him for his “strong stance”.
Suu Kyi’s cynical indifference to the suffering of thousands of innocent people has surprised many, but those who know her say she has always been extremely pragmatic, with a strong instinct for self-preservation. She dumped her ailing British husband Michael Aris, an Oxford historian, and her two sons when she had to choose between living in Myanmar and visiting Aris after he was diagnosed with cancer in the 1980s. She feared that the junta would not allow her to return if she left. He died in 1999. Rebecca Frayn, who made a film on her, has written that “when she accepted his proposal (to marry him) she struck a deal: if her country should ever need her, she would have to go. And Michael readily agreed.” She defended her decision in the name of her love for her people.
But, returning to the problem of stateless people, a distinction must be made between individuals, who may had their nationality revoked for a specific reason, and stateless ethnic groups such as Sri Lankan Tamils, the Ahmadiyyas, Uighurs, Kurds, Catalans, and the Rohingya. They are the most contentious category and at the heart of many serious ethnic conflicts. Palestinians are unique in that they had their homeland taken away from them to create a Jewish state. Some 70 years later, Palestinians are still fighting for justice. Today, they are the best-known ethnic group without a properly defined state. Israel’s own behaviour illustrates how even the once-oppressed people can themselves turn into oppressors when their circumstances change.
Meanwhile, there’s a notion that all stateless people are innocent victims engaged in a just and righteous struggle, but the reality is that among them are a lot of dubious claimants wearing the halo of stateless martyrs. Often militant separatists on the run declare themselves stateless, go into “exile” abroad to carry on their propaganda. It’s important, therefore, to distinguish between stateless people defined by the UN as those “not considered as a national by any state under the operation of its law” and other categories of refugees and asylum-seekers — all of whom are routinely lumped together by relief agencies and rights groups. They are a booming cottage industry with thousands of jobs at stake and bosses of some international charities earning eye-watering salaries. No wonder, they love a good crisis. The bigger a humanitarian crisis the more funding they hope to get; hence the temptation to exaggerate. This is not to play down the seriousness of the problem but there is need to understand its unique nature if the international community is serious about tackling it. Treating stateless people simply as refugees who only need temporary shelter and food is the wrong way to go about it. The problem has its roots in the concerned nations’ colonial histories, and must be tackled politically.
The UN’s pledge to eradicate statelessness by 2024 is the sort of unrealistic target that has made the world body look such a failure. The Rohingya crisis is the latest addition to the long catalogue of its failures. Finally, India’s stand has dealt a serious blow to its reputation as a moral force in international politics. It stands enormously diminished in the eyes of the world.