Re-imagining Myanmar citizenship in times of transition

The democratisation of Myanmar will necessarily require addressing its citizenship crisis. Addressing Myanmar´s decades-old statelessness question (a record number of one million persons without citizenship) will require significant changes in the way its law and policy makers –as well as their fellow citizens– understand its root causes.1 In order to find some clues that enrich and expand the debate a good point of departure may be an analysis of both its legal framework in relation to the way Myanmar nationhood has been recently conceptualised. While all citizenship laws are intrinsically Janus-faced tools of both exclusion and inclusion, a reasonably inclusive framework based on citizenship as equal membership is necessary to ensure democratic governance.2 As Lord Acton famously stated, “[T]he most certain test by which we judge whether a country is really free is the amount of security enjoyed by minorities”. Thus, in countries like Myanmar where statelessness is significantly present, reforms towards more inclusive legal frameworks concerning nationality are an essential component of advocacy efforts for the prevention and reduction of statelessness.

Citizenship is a clear legal bond between an individual and a State, and is thus important in fostering a sense of belonging to a political community. However, citizenship is not only a legal status, it is also an enabler for access to a bundle of rights and duties as well as a civic, law and customs-abiding attitude. Finally, it represents also a collective identity. And such identity may be defined in more ethnicised, blood-based links or more civic and voluntarist ones.  A distinction is often used between civic conceptions of citizenship and ethnic ones, where the latter invoke the image of a tightly woven organic community—often perennial—with a unanimously shared conception of the good.3 Conceptions of nationhood have then a role in shaping citizenship laws.

In recently created or post-colonial states (which sometimes are also what Rogers Brubaker would call ‘nationalising states’) polities are often in a deep search for their own national identity.5 If, as proposed by Ernest Gellner, nationalism is the political principle that seeks to make the political and the national congruent, the will of a nationalising state’s citizenship law aims to define the membership of the ‘national’ or the ‘indigenous’ in the ethnic sense of the term, excluding any element which is not understood as part of the political community.6 The legislator aims to define, in other terms, who is part of the polis and who is not, where only those considered ‘autochthonous’  or ‘indigenous’ have a right to belong and be full citizens. Such a definition of ‘us’ and ‘them’ is the cornerstone of ethnic identity politics.

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