Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Sein Myint : The Man With No Name

I met Sein Myint in a refugee camp, the only home he has ever known. He doesn’t remember much of his childhood except that he was born in a remote village in Burma. When he was still a small child, the soldiers came to his village and burnt the place down. They needed the land as the village stood in the way of a gas pipeline that was going all the way to India.

When the soldiers had finished, they had lost all their belongings. With just the clothes on their back, the family fled into neighboring Thailand since when he has been living a tenuous existence as in the eyes of the world, without any papers or documents, he does not legally exist. His Burmese birth certificate was burnt by the soldiers and though Thailand allowed him and many others like him to live in enclosed refugee camps, they did not issue him any papers or identity card.

Sein Myint’s loss of identity and lack of papers is more than symbolic. When he entered Thailand, he was a small boy and was enrolled in a minimalist school in the refugee camp that provided education until the 10th grade. With little access to books and other tuition, Sein Myint nevertheless passed his examinations. But he does not have a pass certificate as the certificate requires a name and place of birth to be entered and the refugees do not have papers to prove that their names are what they say they are and where they born. They can not prove that they are Burmese citizens and they obviously are not Thai subjects. Without a high school certificate, there are no hopes of any further education if he could at all get out of the camps legally which he cant. Which means that after all this education, he can do stray menial jobs or clerical work at the camps.

The situation of the women is more awkward. Presumably to avoid any claims to citizenship at a later date, pregnant women who are migrants of this nature are promptly deported to Burma. Any one who escapes detection and some how gives birth to a child in Thailand is in an awkward situation as the baby is deemed an illegal migrant at birth ands is liable to be arrested. Attempts to go back to Burma aren’t very helpful either as the Burmese too deny the minimal facilities available to the women if they do not have the requisite identity documents.

The question of identity is always an important one but perhaps no where more so than in the case of people who are stateless – those who are in desperate need of papers of some kind to prove who they are, what there name is and where they belong to – the most elemental of all. It is an eye opener to sit and meet with people like Sein Myint- flesh and blood humans like you and me and realize that in the systems and databases of this world they simply do not exist – they have never been born, never went to school, never worked and in short did none of the things that define the life and existence of almost all of us.

Their birth place has been obliterated under the pounding of jackboots and when their time is up, there is little room to speculate that their deaths will be recorded any better. The whole life of a stateless person may begin and end without any record of their ever having lived except in the memories of their loved ones. That is a frightening and a very, very sad thought at the same time. The ubiquitous birth certificate, high school certificates and other papers I routinely take from granted have suddenly become very important for it is a shuddering thought to think of what it might mean for me to live life without them.

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