Southeast Asia’s pledge to end statelessness gathers steam

A firm promise to grant citizenship to all born in a country is crucial to halt the cycle of displacement, writes Adam Bemma

Namphueng Panya, centre, a former stateless student in Chiang Rai, poses for a picture with her team, which won an award at a science and engineering fair in the US last month.

BANGKOK — The Moo Paa or Wild Boars football team captured the world’s attention this time last year after they became trapped inside Tham Luang cave for 18 days. In addition to the dramatic rescue that followed, the media soon also discovered that three of the 12 boys on the team, along with the coach, were stateless people — living in Thailand without any form of citizenship.

In neighbouring Myanmar, the persecution of the Rohingya in Rakhine state has led to the rise of people who are deprived of their citizenship by the government. At least 723,000 Rohingyas have been chased out of their homes and into refugee camps in Bangladesh and Thailand. They have relatively little hope of ever returning to their homes and regaining citizenship.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights grants every person the right to nationality. The UN Study on Statelessness cites that “every child must receive nationality at birth … No person throughout his life should lose nationality until acquiring a new one”.

Moreover, the UN Refugee Agency estimates that there are 2.8 million stateless people worldwide — 40% of them in the Asia-Pacific region alone. In Southeast Asia, Myanmar, Thailand, Brunei, Malaysia and Vietnam is home to hundreds of thousands of stateless people, making it one of the most afflicted regions.

So, what’s being done?

Last month, 16 countries across the Asia Pacific region reaffirmed their commitments to end statelessness by 2024 at the UNHCR “I Belong” event in Bangkok — marking the half-way point of a 10-year pledge. However, not one country used this opportunity to make any specific commitments.

“There has been progress. The Thai government has done a lot in this regard. I think almost 100,000 people have been given Thai citizenship in recent years,” said Caroline Gluck, the UNHCR spokesperson in Bangkok.

A number of countries in the region have committed to taking specific steps to achieve universal birth registration and target hard-to-reach populations. Some of the representatives also highlighted the need to tackle legal reforms, most importantly on how to end childhood statelessness.

The UN Convention Relating to the Status of Stateless Persons defines statelessness as “a person who is not considered a national by any state under the operation of its law”. The Philippines is the only country in the region to ratify and adopt this framework domestically.

The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) codifies the right to nationality but several countries in Southeast Asia, including Brunei, Malaysia, Myanmar, and Singapore are not signatories.

Is Thailand leading the way?

Thailand has ratified the ICCPR and has two domestic laws which give undocumented migrants and stateless children the right to attend Thai public schools.

In Chiang Mai, Sangsan Anakot Yawachon Development Project has been working with indigenous, ethnic minorities, and stateless communities for the last 12 years.

Sangsan’s founder Matcha Phorn-in said her organisation provides human rights education and supports young people to go to school since the costs associated with Thai public schools may make them unaffordable for kids from many stateless families. Moreover, many of the schools are located far from their rural communities.

“The issue of stateless people hasn’t really been a concern in Thai society. There are 400,000 reported stateless people by the UNHCR in Thailand. These people need Thai citizenship,” she said.

Over the last six years of working in northern Thailand, Ms Matcha said the human rights situation has worsened despite claims by the UN and government agencies that there’s been an overall improvement on cross border coordination with Myanmar.

“We focus on one village. So far, 60 children have received our support and are studying. All their family members are stateless,” said Ms Matcha. “We’re working with 3,000 to 4,000 stateless people. We have given scholarships to 70 young people who are stateless.”

Ms Gluck cites the case of an 18-yearold from Chiang Rai — where the Wild Boars are from — who received her Thai citizenship last month. This allowed her to travel to the US to compete at a school science and engineering fair.

“It was one of the proudest moments of my life,” the teenager told the UNHCR in Bangkok. She is now able to attend university and seek future employment.

The UNHCR believes this teen’s success story reflects the hope for children born as stateless in Thailand today.

“I was inspired by states that say they will not allow children to become stateless,” Ms Gluck said. “We owe it to every person to fulfil their basic human rights by providing them with a nationality.”

The UNHCR and Thai community groups like Sangsan hope all children born in Thailand will receive citizenship rather than being bestowed it retroactively. Without it, families are unable to earn income or health care to help lift them out of poverty.

A firm commitment to grant citizenship to all born within the country’s borders is necessary to end the continuous cycle of statelessness, Ms Matcha added.

“People agreed in today’s world we shouldn’t have to have stateless people. They lose out on so much, like birth registration, accessing health care facilities. They also can’t receive marriage or death certificates,” Ms Gluck said.

“It affects them from birth until death.”

The UNHCR regional Asia-Pacific “I Belong” event in Bangkok last month was billed as an introductory meeting. In October, countries from around the world will meet in Geneva, Switzerland to discuss further action on how to end statelessness by 2024.

This article is part of the Displaced and Uprooted in Southeast Asia initiative by SEA Junction and the TIFA Foundation.

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Sri Lanka’s 2018 Gratiaen Prize Winning Play Put On Hold For Pride Celebration

A playwright’s determination, despite censorship in Sri Lanka, to stage an immersive play dealing with LGBT issues in Colombo wins a prestigious award.

Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke is a Sri Lankan playwright living in Colombo. Courtesy of Facebook.

COLOMBO — A sense of calm has returned to the capital, two months after the Easter Sunday bombings. Traffic has returned to the streets and even gay pride events will go ahead, although it will be a somber celebration.

Two shirtless Sri Lankan men kiss and fool around in their underwear in a Colombo apartment. No, this isn’t a sensational news story. It’s a scene from the 2018 Gratiaen Prize-winning play The Ones Who Love You So.

The play was to be staged in Colombo for Pride celebrations, and for the first time in Jaffna. But it has been put on hold due to the continuing state of emergency following the terror attacks that killed 258 and injured 500 people.

The Gratiaen Prize is an annual literary award recognizing the best in Sri Lanka. This is the first win for Sri Lankan playwright Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke.

“It seems ludicrous to go out and ask for money to do the show after the attacks,” he said. “I pushed back my timeframe to stage the show at a later date.”

Welandawe-Prematilleke, 31, is known for his immersive style of theatre where the audience chooses which narrative in the story to follow. He calls it “a live action choose-your-own-adventure novel.”

“I wrote the play about dating and hook up applications like Grindr,” Welandawe-Prematilleke said. “It’s not autobiographical by any means. It is certainly based on a lot of truth. I wanted to talk about the specific experience of a gay man for the first time.”

In Sri Lanka, censorship is commonplace. The script for The Ones Who Love You So was submitted to the government’s Public Performance Board last year. It was rejected twice before being approved by a panel of judges and allowed to go into production last August.

The Ones Who Love You So was written in fits and starts two years before neighbouring India shed its colonial era law decriminalizing homosexuality. Welandawe-Prematilleke hoped his play would force a discussion in Sri Lanka on LGBTIQ+ rights, but he admits it has only had nominal impact.

“We don’t have a theatre culture that talks about this in the way [that] it’s talked about in the west,” wrote Sri Lankan performer Sumathy Sivamohan.

Welandawe-Prematilleke will publish the script to The Ones Who Love You So. In Sri Lanka, only five English theatre scripts have been published to date. Colombo’s most prolific theatre is produced not in English but in the Sinhala and Tamil languages.

Tracy Holsinger is artistic director at Colombo’s Mind Adventures Theatre Company. She met Welandawe-Prematilleke when he was 18. The two began working together on writing original English language theatre.

When Welandawe-Prematilleke returned to Sri Lanka after six years of studies and acting in the U.K., he went from one hit play to the next with Mind Adventures. He decided to leave the company last year to work independently, culminating in his winning the 2018 Gratiaen Prize.

“Arun is a really good storyteller and he has a great ear for dialogue,” Holsinger said. “I would come up with a concept and the dialogue would come from him. The more he wrote, I could see there was unlimited potential.”

Welandawe-Prematilleke is now working on a new script, but he admits it will be hard to top The Ones Who Love You So. The looming threat of a Public Performance Board arbitrarily denying productions from being staged for the public, or of having a play cancelled mid-run, scares most playwrights, but Welandawe-Prematilleke views it as a challenge to skirt the censors.

“I have Sri Lankan friends who write in Sinhala and they receive approval from the censor board and have the play revoked in the middle of a run because it upset someone upstairs,” he said.

“I’m like a child. If you tell me no I’m going to do it anyway [laughs]. I’m just a brat basically.”

Holsinger believes despite censorship, the government doesn’t view English language theatre as a threat to Sri Lanka’s conservative values and culture.

“We have a lot more license because the audience is small compared to Sinhala and Tamil theatre,” she said. “In terms of original Sri Lankan theatre dealing with LGBTIQ issues, no, I can’t say it’s been done before.”

Sivamohan believes The Ones Who Love You So is an example of a Sri Lankan playwright challenging social customs and norms in the South Asian country.

“The moment I read Arun’s script I told him to edit and submit it [for the Gratiaen Prize]. I knew it make the shortlist and would win,” Holsinger added.

Welandawe-Prematilleke expects The Ones Who Love You So to return to a Colombo stage this October. He’s also in talks with a Canadian director about taking the prize-winning play on the road from Colombo to Toronto.

Published @Medium

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Sri Lankans ‘Rise Up’ After Easter Sunday Bombings in Colombo – CBC The World This Weekend

COLOMBO – It’s been two months since a series of bombs exploded at churches and hotels in Sri Lanka, killing more than 250 people. A small group of Islamist militants were behind the attacks.

Since then life for Sri Lanka’s minority Muslims has gotten harder. Their shops and homes have been damaged and mosques attacked. But as Adam Bemma tells us, some in Sri Lanka are standing up for their fellow citizens. This story aired on CBC The World This Weekend Saturday, June 22, 2019.

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Sri Lankans Unite to Stop the Spread of Hate and Violence – CBC News

COLOMBO – Two months after Sri Lanka’s Easter Sunday bombings, Sri Lankans gathered at Colombo’s central park. They held a moment of silence before they denounced the country’s political leaders for spreading hate and communal violence.

Rise Up Sri Lanka was held Saturday at Colombo’s Galle Face Green to commemorate the two month anniversary of the attacks that claimed the lives of 258 people. This story aired on CBC News Friday, June 21, 2019.

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Thailand’s Future Not Looking Forward – CBC The World This Weekend

BANGKOK – This week, Thailand’s 2014 coup leader Prayut Chan-ocha was re-appointed prime minister – completing his transition from military to civilian leader.

The leader of the pro-democracy party that challenged him — now faces charges that risk the party’s future. But as Adam Bemma reports, he remains defiant. This story aired on CBC The World This Weekend Sunday, June 16, 2019.

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Life as Afghan Refugees, depicted on Malay Stage

Popular Parastoo Theatre group gives voice to the refugee experience.


An Afghan refugee group finds its voice as the Parastoo Theatre group, which performed last week at Malaysia’s Refugee Fest and is likely to go on regional tour including Bangkok later this year.

BANGKOK – Live at this year’s Refugee Fest in Malaysia is Parastoo Theatre group. In the Dari language of Afghanistan, “Parastoo” means swallow bird.

“They are birds who fly and never find [a] home,” said Saleh Sepas, playwright and director of Parastoo Theatre in Malaysia. “It’s a similar situation for most refugees.”

Sepas fled Kabul, Afghanistan with his family in 2016 because of the war. He arrived in Kuala Lumpur and found support to establish his own theatre group.

Sepas said his aim was to introduce to the refugee community “Theatre of the Oppressed.” This is a technique using theatrical performance to promote social change. He had experience working on a similar project with the BBC, on the radio, in Kabul.

Parastoo Theatre is now a household name, performing for thousands at schools and concert halls in Kuala Lumpur over the last three years. Next month, it will have its first show in Penang.

“When I arrived I didn’t have a job and there was little opportunity,” Sepas said. “I wanted to show everyone the dream of the Afghan people, those who don’t have power and have lost everything in the war.”

Lilianne Fan is international director of Geutanyoe Malaysia, a foundation supporting refugees in both Indonesia and Malaysia.

She’s seen the impact Parastoo Theatre has had on Malaysians, helping them understand what Afghans face on a daily basis in their home country and now as refugees in Malaysia.

According to the UN Refugee Agency, Malaysia hosts 170,460 refugees from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia and Myanmar. The country’s new Pakatan Harapan government pledged to ratify the UN Refugee Convention.

This would give refugees the legal right to work and study in Malaysia. Up until now, they can’t do either legally. Refugees also need to pay foreigners’ rates for health care.

It’s nearly impossible for most refugees to be able to afford a visit to a doctor, or the hospital. Costs can be exorbitant for refugee families with no income.

“[During] the last government the police had checkpoints on the road to check documents. They did it for money. It was corruption,” Sepas said. “Now we have better conditions. We don’t see checkpoints anymore.”


An Afghan refugee group finds its voice as the Parastoo Theatre group. The group is now a household name in Malaysia, where the Afghans who make it up settled as refugees. They bring the experience of Afghan refugees in that country to life for audiences, depicting the problems they face every day and helping forge a better future for themselves.

Local and international organisations do provide support to refugee schools and provide low cost health care to many in need. But these groups’ resources are scarce.

Sepas believes his performers have used theatre to help deal with their own mental health issues. This is why he wrote the most recent play “Screaming in Silence.” It’s believed many Afghans suffer from depression and low self-esteem.

“Parastoo members are powerful now. They believe in themselves. They have a role to play and are trying to improve life for their families and community,” Sepas said.

The Parastoo Theatre group rehearses and performs regularly in a Kuala Lumpur suburb – home to the majority of the country’s refugees.

The UN states, 1,970 Afghans live here, the majority of which are ethnic Hazara from the mountainous region of central Afghanistan. This ethnic group has been persecuted by the Taliban.

Abdul Aziz Fazel is former director at Afghan Learning Center in Kuala Lumpur. He was recently resettled with his family to Australia, but keeps in contact with leaders in the Afghan refugee community.

“I believe that [Sepas] can do a lot better. He needs to concentrate on the real issues faced by Hazara in Malaysia or Afghanistan,” Abdul Aziz Fazel said. “I want him to help our community. We’re very desperate.”

Following next month’s performance in Penang, Sepas has set his sights on taking Parastoo Theatre on a regional tour. He hopes to book performances in Singapore and Bangkok sometime later this year.

“Before Parastoo we didn’t have a connection between the refugee and local or international communities. Now we know each other and we work together. We show them the challenges [faced by refugees] on the stage,” Sepas said.

The Refugee Festival runs until today in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Parastoo Theatre will perform “Screaming in Silence” on July 14 at the Georgetown Arts Festival in Penang, Malaysia, with the possibility of a regional tour including Bangkok later this year.

This article is part of the Displaced and Uprooted in Southeast Asia initiative by SEA Junction and the TIFA Foundation.

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Thailand’s parliament meets, but military retains upper-hand

Elections took place on March 24 under a complicated new system that empowered small parties – and the military.


General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the 2014 coup, seems most likely to become Thailand’s next PM [Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

Bangkok, Thailand – Thailand’s newly-elected parliament sits for the first time on Friday, as pro-military and pro-democracy parties manoeuvre for power two months after controversial elections that ensured the armed forces the upper hand in the country’s fractious politics.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha, who led the coup that took place five years ago this week and headed the military government’s National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), seems most likely to become the country’s next prime minister because the position requires a majority across both houses of parliament.

There are 500 seats in Thailand‘s lower house – 375 directly-elected and the rest allocated according to a party list – and 250 in the upper house whose members have already been chosen by the military government.

Phalang Pracharat, the military-backed party created to support Prayuth, won the second highest number of seats in the lower house in the March 24 election, and is now trying to scrabble together a workable coalition with the smaller parties to achieve a majority.

A record 27 parties won seats in the poll thanks to a new formula that meant a party only needed to get 30,000 voters overall to secure a seat.

No party has an overall majority in the lower house, but the three biggest parties are Pheu Thai, which is backed by exiled former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, with 136 seats; Phalang Pracharat, with 115; and Future Forward, with 80. Pheu Thai and Future Forward have agreed to work together already.

Phalang Pracharat “will need to secure only 11 more votes in the house to win the premiership for Prayuth with the support of all the 250 senators,” Termsak Chalermpalanupap, of Singapore’s ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, wrote in a commentary earlier this month. “As things stand now, Phalang Pracharat will be able to find more than enough votes to accomplish this crucial mission.”

Key will be the votes of the Democrats, with 52 seats, and Bhumjaithai, with 51 seats.

The two parties are also being wooed by the pro-democracy grouping led by Pheu Thai, which was leading the government at the time of Prayuth’s 2014 coup.

“We would like to call for the last two big parties to make the right decision,” said Tida Yingcharoen, Pheu Thai’s deputy spokesperson, referring to the Democrats and Bhumjaithai. “This is a critical time for Thailand. We ask them to respect the voice of their voters who support democracy.”


Thais celebrate the coronation of King Maha Vajiralongkorn at the Grand Palace in Bangkok earlier this month [Navesh Chitrakar/Reuters]

Bhumjaithai’s leader Anutin Charnvirakul is meeting both sides, and the number of cabinet seats on offer is likely to be a key consideration in his deliberations.

Under former leader Abhisit Vejjajiva, the Democrats ruled out ever working with Pheu Thai, but now that Abhisit has resigned and the party has a new leader – Jurin Laksanavisit – it is unclear which side they will support.

Thanathorn Juangroongruangkit, the leader of Future Forward, which wants the military reformed and out of public life, has put himself forward as an alternative prime ministerial candidate in an attempt to reconcile Pheu Thai and the Democrats.

But Phongphisoot Busbarat, a lecturer at Chulaongkorn University’s faculty of political science, expects both the Democrats and Bhumjaithai will – eventually – fall in with Phalang Pracharat.

“Perhaps [they] will try to play this game as long as they can, but I think their voters are not patient enough for them to drag this on,” he said. “I think the longer they drag this on the more they lose their support. The smaller parties have sided with Phalang Pracharat, so the Democrats and Bhumjaithai will too.”

Reform call

Future Forward faces troubles of its own thanks to a slew of cases filed since its strong showing in the election.

Late on Thursday, the Constitutional Court blocked Thanathorn from taking up his seat in parliament while it investigates allegations that he violated election rules.

On May 28, the attorney general will also decide whether to proceed with charges against Thanathorn and two other party leaders under the Computer Crime Act for “uploading false information” in a speech about the military.

“We need to abolish the legacy of the NCPO, reform the military and amend the constitution,” said Pannika Wanich, spokeswoman for Future Forward. “This has made us an enemy of the NCPO and the old elites. No more coups in Thailand.”

King Maha Vajiralongkorn, whose coronation took place earlier this month, has already approved the appointment of the 250 senators, bringing Prayuth’s next stint as prime minister a step closer.


Thanathorn speaks to supporters last month as he arrives at a police station to hear a sedition complaint filed by the army [File: Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters]

“If this happens I think people will [continue to] be living in fear,” said Nada Chaiyajit, a Thai human rights activist, who backs the democractic coalition. “There is no more freedom of expression in Thailand.”

Pro-democracy parties hope the upper house, which starts sitting later on Friday, will honour the outcome of the election.

“At this point, we’re calling on the 250 senators to respect Thai voters. The majority [of Thais] want democracy,” Pheu Thai’s Tida Yingcharoen said.

Whichever side manages to form a government, they will need to control unwieldy coalitions of parties and are unlikely to have the numbers in the lower house for a clear majority, Phongphisoot said.

Politicians fear the military could use any paralysis as an excuse to deepen control over the country.

“It’s dangerous when people believe that the parliamentary system can’t solve the country’s problems because that opens the door to military intervention,” said Future Forward’s Pannika Wanich.

“I think we’ll see the shape and face of the new government within this week. And we’ll know whether we can move the country forward or whether we will be under the NCPO regime for the next three to four years.”

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