BURMA’s government considers the Rohingya illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. But like Burma, Bangladesh rejects them. And here lies the pivotal problem of the Rohingya ethnic group: for them to fully live a dignified life, they must be fully accepted as legitimate members of a political community.
In 1982, Burma enacted a citizenship law which specifically indicates the ethnic groups that would be granted citizenship. It also gives the Council of State the power to decide which ethnic group could be considered as Burmese citizens.
This law resulted in the exclusion of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority living in the westernmost part of Burma. They are not included in the official list of 135 “national races” who are guaranteed full citizenship. Consequently, the Rohingya are experiencing what Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben calls the “bare life”. Those who live a bare life could be subject to the power of the state, but they lack the political subjectivity that gives them a voice against that power.
However, Burma’s exclusionary policy is not peculiar to it. Statelessness, the condition produced by territorial sovereignty, is ingrained in the current international political order. Analyzing Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism, Patrick Hayden, professor of political theory and international relations, argued in From Exclusion to Containment: Arendt, Sovereign Power, and Statelessness, that:
“[S]tatelessness is not an aberrant or accidental phenomenon occurring despite the best efforts of states to prevent it, but a ‘normalized’ systemic condition produced upon the power to exclude [which flows from territorial sovereignty]as the essence of statist politics.”
Statelessness is not an unintended consequence but a necessary consequence of territorial sovereignty. Current sovereign states, Hayden wrote, practice an exclusionary logic that defines “in advance the existence of a class of human beings who do not belong, because they lack the illusive national…identity that supposedly undergirds it.”
The state, Hayden continues, is transformed “from an impartial instrument of the law committed to the equal protection of each individual’s rights, into an ideological instrument of the ‘pseudo-mystical’ nation whose ‘will’ and interests were committed to protecting only the members of this nation”. This logic informs the exercise of territorial sovereignty, which entails the power to exclude. This power confers on states the power to determine for whom it will be responsible.
Stateless peoples, such as the Rohingya, demonstrate that a state’s responsibility does not extend to all humans as such, but only to humans who are its citizens (those who are legally recognized members of its political community) or those who are legally allowed to stay within its territory.
It is the state that guarantees human rights. Without a political community to enforce them, Hayden argued, human rights only exist in “metaphysical terms”. Because the Rohingya, and other stateless people, do not belong to a political community that can guarantee their rights, they are not citizens who have enforceable rights, only humans who have rights that exist in a metaphysical realm. The Rohingya are human beings, yes, but in the current international political order, it is not human beings per se that are subjects of states’ responsibility—as citizens are.
Without citizenship, the Rohingya are denied what Arendt called, “the right to have rights”. Without any state giving the Rohingya the privilege of full citizenship, they will be condemned to encounter an endless slew of “discriminatory obstacles in access to education, health, travel, many areas of employment and even in terms of receiving permits allowing them to get married,” Minority Group International reported in the 2008 World Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.
Can the international community pressure Burma to give full citizenship to the Rohingya? I doubt it, given that citizenship is one of the essential functions of state sovereignty. As such, no one can compel you to take someone as your citizen. What the rest of the world needs to do is to give the Rohingya the privilege of citizenship in their own countries. Any action less than that would not make a radical difference to the lives of these people.