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The Politics of Citizenship and Migration in Southeast Asia

Dr. Alice M. Nah
University of York

Anja Karlsson Franck
University of Gotheberg


Panel Abstract

This panel examines how the construction of citizenship laws impact the ways in which governments define, manage, and control non-citizens in contemporary Southeast Asia. Citizenship laws are part of the assemblage of dividing practices that delineate citizens from non-citizens; they are exclusionary by design. The papers in this panel analyse the socio-political contexts in which citizenship laws in Malaysia, Thailand, and Myanmar were formulated, and examine their contemporary effects – in particular, the way they undergird national regimes of immigration control and reinforce ethnonationalist sentiments amongst citizens. Panelists examine the ways in which the exclusion of groups results in precarity, inequalities, vulnerability to exploitation, as well as the production of statelessness.


Paper 1: Hierarchies of Deservedness: Governing Citizens and Migrants in Postcolonial Malaysia

Dr. Alice M. Nah
University of York

In contemporary Malaysia, fierce debate remains between citizens in favour of Malay special rights and citizens in favour of equal rights. The former often emphasise the ‘immigrant’ (pendatang) backgrounds of non-Malays in arguments for special rights, while the latter emphasise the immigrant roots of most Malays(ians). These struggles over the rights of citizens do not translate into inclusive ideas concerning citizenship; that is, exclusionary ideas of who constitutes a ‘Malaysian’ remain unchallenged. A Malaysian is one who ‘looks’ and ‘sounds’ like a Malaysian, and ‘foreigners’ cannot be Malaysian. These prevailing ideas came to the fore in the recent elections in May 2013. In this paper, I examine how debates amongst citizens concerning equality in citizenship exist in counterpoint to debates concerning immigration control. I suggest that socially constructed hierarchies of deservedness exist in society, through which members of society view some groups as deserving of more rights than others. Members of society judge the legitimacy of state action in granting, promoting, and protecting rights according to these hierarchies. I argue that these hierarchies are constructed through different ‘levels’ of interconnected frameworks, which operate as (Foucauldian) ‘dividing practices’. The primary framework divides and orders populations into three categories – citizens, regularized non-citizens, and non-citizens with irregular status. Secondary frameworks – such as ethnicity, religion, gender, types of immigration status, perceptions of value, or intersections of these differences – further divide these three categories. Citizens and non-citizens alike internalise these intersecting hierarchies, maintaining them and associated inequalities in the guise of ‘justice’ and ‘fairness’.


Paper 2: Citizenship as a Tool of Repression: A Socio-Legal Study of Myanmar’s Citizenship Law

Nyi Nyi Kyaw
University of New South Wales

Myanmar has faced a myriad of problems since democratization in 2011 among which the Rohingya issue stands out as the most controversial and intractable one. Indeed, it has existed at least since the late 1970s when the first Rohingya mass exodus to Bangladesh occurred, followed by a second major one in 1991-92 and smaller ones since. Myanmar’s recent political conjunctures have again turned the spotlight on the problem though it was previously largely restricted to international human rights organizations. Sectarian violence, which broke out in Rakhine State in June 2012 and has spread to other parts of Myanmar, and the Rohingya boatpeople have added more complexities to the already complicated trajectory. The most commonly heard prescription to solve the problem is the calls for amending the notorious 1982 Citizenship Law, which most analysts argue is the root cause of the Rohingya statelessness and plight. That the Law itself is a contested document embedded in Myanmar’s historical, socio-economic and cultural power politics is missing in those calls. Even when the Law is briefly discussed, the three classes of citizens it designates are mentioned with a quick conclusion that it is discriminatory. This socio-legal study of the Law will trace and contextualise the early 1980s when the new Citizenship Law was made. A contextual understanding of how and why and by whom the Law was made is expected to reinforce the international and regional advocacy for the issue.


Paper 3: “I’ll tell you how it is: They treat us like slaves.” Non-citizenship, labor brokers and forced labor in Malaysia

Emanuelle Brandström and Anja K. Franck
University of Gotheberg;

In Malaysia migration is highly politicized and securitized. Over the past few decades the large-scale in-migration of foreign workers has increasingly become constructed as a potential threat to national security – with policy emphasis being placed upon external and internal border control, and upon regulating and restricting the rights of non-citizens in the country. At the intersection of these politically motivated restrictions, the continued demand for foreign labor to fuel the country’s economy, and the continued need from people in (poorer) neighboring countries to find employment abroad new actors emerge to facilitate both regular and irregular movement across the Malaysian border. Amongst the more important are labor outsourcing agencies (also known as labor brokers) which supply Malaysian employers with cheap foreign labor. Yet, despite their growing importance to the migration industry (in Malaysia and beyond) labor outsourcing agencies remain profoundly underresearched and few studies have examined the impact of their activities for the conditions of migrant workers in receiving countries. In this study emphasis is therefore placed upon migrant workers’ experiences of these agencies – in particular in relation to forced labor (understood as work performed under involuntary and coercive conditions). The study suggests that the outcome of the labor outsourcing system for forced labor needs to be understood in the context of the laws which regulate non-citizenship in Malaysia. It finds that the labor outsourcing system in combination with the weak (legal) bargaining position awarded to non-citizens in Malaysia (vis-à-vis employers, labor brokers and the state) produce not only vulnerability but also increase the risk of migrant workers ending up in forced labor.