Since March, the military regime in Myanmar has announced the termination of citizenship of 33 high-profile dissidents, a move critics have described as an abuse of human rights and a breach of international law.
Those targeted include diplomats refusing to work for the military, members of a parallel government set up in opposition to last year’s coup, outspoken celebrities and prominent activists. Three separate notices in state media said their citizenship was terminated because they committed “acts that could harm the interests of Myanmar”.
The military seized power in February 2021, after the National League for Democracy (NLD) under Aung San Suu Kyi won a landslide reelection victory, which the military refused to recognise. The coup sparked a political crisis – hundreds of thousands of civil servants went on strike, millions took to the streets to protest and peaceful demonstrations transformed to take up arms following brutal military crackdowns.
Among those stripped of citizenship is Kyaw Moe Tun, Myanmar’s ambassador to the United Nations, who dramatically declared his continued loyalty to the overthrown government shortly after the coup. He has been allowed to retain his seat at the UN as the military struggles for formal recognition internationally. Other diplomats stripped of citizenship include Myanmar Ambassador to the United Kingdom Kyaw Zwar Minn, and Thet Htar Mya Yee San, a second secretary at the Myanmar embassy in the United States.
The policy has also targeted prominent members of the National Unity Government – a rival cabinet set up by some politicians elected in the November 2020 polls.
“The junta’s desperate attempts to harm us and make us stateless are totally illegal and will not deter me, nor my colleagues from our work for the brave people of Myanmar who have suffered so much for so long. Indeed, it strengthens our resolve,” Dr Sasa, NUG spokesperson and minister of international cooperation, told Al Jazeera.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, says the policy is just the latest example of the military “using citizenship as a weapon”.
“There are still many activists from previous generations of democracy protesters in the 1990s and early 2000s who still have not had their Burmese citizenship restored,” he said, adding that these issues are unlikely to be resolved until democracy is restored.
Emerlynne Gil, deputy regional director for research at Amnesty International, says terminating citizenship is “inconsistent with international law” if it leaves the victims stateless.
“This is the likely outcome for those targeted by the Myanmar military since the country does not allow dual citizenship,” Gil said.
She adds that the citizenship terminations “appear to be part of a climate of retribution in the country, where military authorities use any means no matter how cruel or unlawful to silence opposition” to the coup.
Sasa notes depriving people of their nationality has long been a tactic for the “genocidal” Myanmar military.
“Hundreds of thousands of Myanmar people, particularly our Rohingya brothers and sisters have suffered the same fate. Living stateless in the country they were born in. The only country they have ever known,” he said.
Many in the NLD previously defended the military’s violent 2017 crackdown on the Rohingya, which the US recently declared a genocide.
Many within the pro-democracy movement labelled the primarily Muslim Rohingya as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh in an attempt to justify their lack of citizenship rights and treatment that Amnesty International once described as “apartheid”. Aung San Suu Kyi even defended the military at the International Court of Justice in The Hague.
But following the coup, the NUG has reversed its approach and has committed to protecting Rohingya human rights and recognising their citizenship in Myanmar.
Myanmar’s generals are not the only ones to use citizenship as a weapon against their opponents and critics.
Activists and politicians in other Southeast Asian countries have also faced authoritarian restrictions on their citizenship rights.
In 2019, Cambodia’s foreign affairs ministry cancelled the passports of 12 prominent opposition politicians, seemingly in an attempt to prevent them from returning to the country. Thailand’s foreign affairs ministry similarly reportedly revoked passports of political activists in 2021, apparently to stop them from fleeing the country.
Robertson says Cambodia and Thailand had violated “rights to freedom of movement, and the right to enter and leave one’s country” and called for these practices to “be halted immediately”.
“It’s a small step from cancelling passports to what Myanmar has done in stripping citizenship, and in both cases, exiles are prevented from returning to their home country,” he said.
Mu Sochua, vice president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and a dual US citizen, was among the Cambodians to have her passport revoked.
“There’s nothing more devastating than to be stripped of your nationality and the right to return to our place of birth,” Sochua told Al Jazeera. She fled the country in 2017 after CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested and charged with treason, in a case widely dismissed as politically motivated. She was prevented from returning in 2019.
“I left Cambodia overnight leaving behind a home, a nation, the people under my care and most important my husband’s ashes that I brought back to Cambodia after he passed in the US,” Sochua said.
She said before she left Cambodia, she would visit her husband’s chedi, or tomb, on holidays and other important events to light incense and ask for his spiritual support.
Denied access to Cambodia, she can no longer perform these important rituals.
“A passport for someone living abroad is your only tie to home. To any citizen of any nation it is your legal and national identity. Even your pride. More than anything else it is your constitutional right to possess a passport,” she said. While Sochua also has US citizenship and travel documents, she says at least five of her colleagues now have no travel documents at all.
Sochua says she has been in contact with Sasa about the situation in Myanmar. “Autocratic regimes learn from each other. They belong to the same club,” she said, adding that the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has failed in “many ways” to deter member states from taking such actions.
Others warn that Western governments may have also set a bad example by stripping citizenship from nationals who joined or were linked to ISIL (ISIS).
A recent study from the Institute of Statelessness and Inclusion found an “alarming gravitation towards the securitisation of citizenship” (PDF) and noted deprivation powers were increasingly part of nationality laws in many European countries, as well as the Middle East.
Although data was scant, it found that while Bahrain had banished the most people in the past 20 years, the United Kingdom was “a global leader in the race to the bottom”, with 212 people deprived of citizenship in the same period.
“Western countries’ actions to strip citizenship of their citizens who have joined ISIS fighters in Syria and elsewhere has created a slippery slope that dictators like the Myanmar generals can use to justify their illegitimate actions,” Robertson warned.
While ISIL (ISIS) fighters may strike a less sympathetic figure than pro-democracy activists, experts say there is no legal difference in the act of leaving somebody stateless.
“Governments across the board should stop resorting to targeting citizenship just because they don’t like what an individual is doing,” Robertson added.
Dissidents like Sasa, meanwhile, reject the military’s ability to define their identities.
“This land, this culture, this identity, this heritage, I take with me in my heart. It cannot be taken from me, it cannot be beaten out of me, and I will never let it go. My identity is not defined by a hateful and bigoted military,” he said.