The cave boys and statelessness in Asia

For the Wild Boars soccer team, it was quite the summer. Not only were they rescued from a flooded cave in northern Thailand, but three of the boys – and their coach – were subsequently granted Thai citizenship. Yet heart-warming as this case may be, it has also exposed the scourge of statelessness in Southeast Asia.

The Wild Boars are made up of children from ethnic minorities and underprivileged communities in Mae Sai district of Chiang Rai province, on Thailand’s remote border with Myanmar. The various nomadic hill tribes in this mountainous region have their own distinct languages and cultures, and they form a complex ethnic patchwork of communities that cannot be neatly defined by national borders. Many of them are stateless, just like the three Wild Boars and their coach.

This lack of citizenship deprives them of access to basic rights and benefits. They face restrictions on voting, buying land, seeking legal employment, working in certain occupations, or even traveling freely. As the Wild Boars’ coach observed, if the boys eventually decide on a career outside soccer, Thai citizenship will mean “they can take exams to become public officials or find good work that is related to their field of studies.”

The statelessness nightmare isn’t limited to the tribes on the Thailand-Myanmar border. There are now more than 10 million stateless people worldwide, most of them in Southeast Asia.

The largest group – in the region and in the world – is Myanmar’s 1.1 million Rohingya. Myanmar’s deliberately regressive and racialist citizenship law of 1982 restricts citizenship to 135 ethnic groups in the country: it makes no mention of the Rohingya. Unable to attain citizenship at the most basic level of naturalization, the Rohingya people were never issued the nationality and identity documents that would allow them to prove they had resided in the country since independence.

Thanks to their statelessness, the Rohingya are generally regarded as no more than squatters. This attitude has been responsible for a major refugee crisis, with the Myanmar military conducting mass pogroms of rape and murder to drive the Rohingya away. To date, more than half a million Rohingya have fled to Bangladesh and India, overwhelming border guards who have been ordered to deploy “rude and crude” measures like “chili and stun grenades.”

Statelessness has impacts beyond these obvious disasters. For the Rohingya, it means they cannot marry, own property, or effectively contribute to the societies in which they live. Bangladesh has denied Rohingya refugees the right to marry its citizens, viewing it as an unscrupulous attempt to gain citizenship. In an ironic twist, India’s plan to strip millions of illegal Bangladeshi immigrants in Assam of their Indian citizenship will leave them suddenly unable to own property.

So what’s behind the statelessness problem in Southeast Asia? There are several, interconnected factors, perhaps most significantly the near-impossibility of policing national borders in such difficult terrain. The result is groups of people who do not belong to any country, and are recognized by none. Being left stateless is not a violation of international law, despite all the problems it creates. It is not forbidden as such, and every country has its own requirements to obtain citizenship.

And even when citizenship is not at stake, forms of statelessness can take root. Take the Lai Dai Han, the mixed-race children of Vietnamese women raped by South Korean troops during the Vietnam War. In a highly ethnocentric region like Southeast Asia, these people have been treated as outsiders, enduring discrimination and abuse despite being no less Vietnamese than their tormentors. Meanwhile, the South Korean government has steadfastly refused to acknowledge their plight, even though they are technically entitled to citizenship of that country.

Despite their Vietnamese citizenship, the Lai Dai Han are no better off than the Thai hill tribes or the Rohingya, facing the same battles for legal recognition and protection. Unwanted by Vietnam and unrecognized by South Korea, they are in essence stateless as well.

As a sardonic postscript of sorts to the cave rescue, Somsak Kanakam, the chief of Mae Sai district, claimed that the three Wild Boars and their coach were granted citizenship not because of the publicity generated by the cave rescue, but because they had “all the qualifications” required. What these qualifications are – and whether half a million of their fellow tribesmen share them – are questions that remain unanswered.

While campaigns like the United Nations’ #IBELONG have all the right intentions, it sometimes seems that the fastest and most efficient way to solve statelessness is to be trapped in a cave for two weeks.