U Pyinyathee of the All Burma Monks Alliance, a group of exiled monks who fled the protests of the Saffron Revolution of 2007, outside the makeshift monastery he shares in Utica, upstate New York, 27 April 2010. Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters


Exiles on Main Street

To respect exiles as real and important political actors, we should get over casting them as saints, threats or victims

by Ashwini Vasanthakumar + BIO

U Pyinyathee of the All Burma Monks Alliance, a group of exiled monks who fled the protests of the Saffron Revolution of 2007, outside the makeshift monastery he shares in Utica, upstate New York, 27 April 2010. Photo by Mike Segar/Reuters

The Xinjiang Victims Database documents more than 12,000 victims of Chinese repression in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. Using testimony from family, friends and survivors, this database provides a record to protect the detained today, and to create the basis for accountability and reparations in the future – reflecting the hope of the Uyghur proverb it once had on its website: Tama tama köl bolar, or that ‘Drop by drop, a lake is formed.’

Testimony gathered by volunteer organisations, such as the Xinjiang Victims Database and Atajurt Eriktileri (or ‘Volunteers of the Fatherland’, for ethnic Kazakhs in the same region), have been vital in calling attention to Chinese atrocities in Xinjiang. Through constant and intrusive surveillance, coerced biometric data and forced labour, China has created what one writer called ‘the most advanced police state in the world’, culminating in a network of mass internment camps that Human Rights Watch calls the ‘world’s largest case of mass arbitrary detention in decades’ and others, including Canada and the United States, have called genocide. Information about the camps has been slow to come out, thanks to state repression and the general inaccessibility of the province to foreign journalists or government officials. Exiles have therefore been a critical source of information.

Exile testimony serves several ends. It can be cathartic, allowing exiled people to come to terms with what they’ve endured. Testimony can be constitutive of collective memory and identity, and ensure cultural survival. It might be owed to those who didn’t survive, ensuring that their memories and names endure. And testimony can prompt action that will aid those who continue to be persecuted.

In May 2020, the US Senate unanimously passed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act, signed into law a month later by the then US president Donald Trump. The Act requires various agencies in the US to monitor and report on China’s treatment of Uyghurs, and provides for sanctions of Chinese officials. In June, a cross-party group of legislators created the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC), which aims to ‘promote a coordinated response among democratic states to challenges’ posed by China and maintain a ‘rules-based international order’. Current campaigns focus on Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong. In response, China – recently elected to the United Nations Human Rights Council – reiterated that it’s ‘a force for positive change’.

This flurry of reportage and documentation and outrage and speechifying and legislating is a victory of sorts. It’s a vindication of exiles’ hopes that their testimony will be heeded, and that outrage and action will bring accountability. Through the testimony of Yazidi women and children, we know about the system of sexual slavery imposed by ISIS; from North Koreans, the intricate system of prison camps that dots the North Korean hinterland; from Operation ‘Caesar’, the extent and mechanics of the regime of torture flourishing in Assad’s Syria; and from the Rohingya refugee Habiburahman, the persecution of his people at the hands of the military in Myanmar.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s memoir of Siberian exile, Notes from a Dead House (1862), is one of the better-known examples of the genre, but there’s a wealth of exile memoirs, reportage and fiction that has led to domestic outcry and international embarrassment. And exile testimony can have an enduring global effect. The testimony of Latin American exiles fleeing authoritarian regimes in the 1960s and ’70s animated a global human rights discourse and consciousness that provides a framework of transnational solidarity for today’s exiles. But, of course, exiles are also easily ignored. They often have powerful enemies, their testimony can be distorted, and their audience can be fleeting – if it materialises at all.

When I tell people that I am writing a book about exile politics, they usually ask about Hannah Arendt and, less frequently, Edward Said – two thinkers who wrote so despairingly about exile’s daily humiliations but who seem to have been conscripted into its sublimation, their celebrity used to reproduce a dichotomy between refugees and exiles. By these lights, exile is an elite enterprise.

Most exiles are unlikely to appear on a university reading list or come up in dinner party conversation. They live in refugee camps and unfashionable neighbourhoods, drive for Uber, operate cash registers, perform surgeries, and run gas stations. Many would deny that they’re exiles at all – they are only migrants or, if they’re lucky, they are recognised as refugees. However miserable and traumatised and heartbroken they are, these individuals also engage in a politics of renewal and resistance: they fund insurgencies, support democratic opposition, challenge tradition, and incubate nations. They loom large in the political lives of their homelands, where they are rescuers and representatives, critics and comrades. They too are poets and philosophers, their WhatsApp messages an epistolary novel in the making.

Many of us hear about exiles in our local or national media as unwelcome intruders, ‘swarming’ – as some politicians have put it – across borders and threatening ways of life. Their defenders can err in responding to this caricature with its opposite: exiles as moral innocents, supplicants to whom we gift charity and compassion. Among other things, casting exiles as props in someone else’s redemption tale hinders them in being the protagonists in other stories. In these other stories, exiles are allowed to be morally complex, flawed, even unlikeable. Here, they are political actors, by definition from extraordinary and difficult political situations, making decisions and making mistakes, playing important political roles in two countries. For those of us situated in the West, it helps to recognise that we’re the supporting cast, and to ask ourselves what that support requires.

In archaic Greece and Rome, exile was a routine measure aimed at preserving democratic order and punishing those who sought its undoing. The ancient Athenians institutionalised ostracism as a democratic constraint on aristocratic factionalism. And the Romans exiled those who posed a risk to the Republic, either because they harboured ambitions of tyranny or because their sheer popularity made such tyranny possible.

Today, exiles are a symptom of defective political institutions and the absence of democratic order. Societies that produce exiles are ones that target dissent and political opposition, subordinate or persecute groups, or where a generalised breakdown of order makes life unbearable. This suggests at least three related roles for exiles. In addition to being witnesses, exiles can be dissidents who continue their criticism from afar, and political representatives, who articulate aspirations for reform, autonomy or independence on behalf of those back home. China has produced, for example, dissidents urging for the rule of law in Hong Kong, Uyghurs bearing witness to abuses in Xinjiang, the Central Tibetan Administration in Dharamsala building the institutions of Tibetan political authority, and Uyghur organisations advocating for self-determination in East Turkestan. Exile can be a site where suppressed cultural and religious practices flourish, dissent survives, and competing political values find expression – a corrective or compensation for political defects back home.

This corrective function extends into the international domain, where exiles often want to attract concern and assistance. If exiles want attention, they have to navigate what the US political scientist Clifford Bob calls the ‘global morality market’, where the number of worthy causes far exceeds the capacity and willingness of global civil society, however well-intentioned, to respond.

The most important thing is to grant exiles the rights and resources to exercise political agency

Who gets help and on what terms is often a matter of political exigency and luck. Some distant causes attract celebrity endorsement while others fade into obscurity; some align with the political and ideological interests of powerful actors while others are inconvenient truths easier to ignore. As Bob points out, the persecution of Uyghurs and other Turkic minorities in Xinjiang has been ongoing for decades, but it was Tibet and the charismatic Dalai Lama that captured the imagination of people around the world. Even then, getting attention is not the same thing as keeping it, and sustaining attention is not the same thing as marshalling it towards the right ends. For all its enduring appeal, international support for Tibet has waned with the economic ascendance of China, prompting Tibetan exiles to modify both their methods and demands in order to keep the cause alive. Exiles can provide a link between those in need and those in a position to assist, countering the arbitrary and unreliable nature of international assistance, and better ensuring that assistance offered to the distant needy arrives on their terms.

Exiles don’t always perform these corrective functions effectively. They might claim to be the representatives of those left behind when in fact they don’t speak for them. When they advance dissident views from their relatively privileged position in exile, they can drown out those whose complaint is different or who have no complaint at all. The distance that creates the space for critical engagement also lends itself to a morally hazardous politics. Exiles can therefore become more willing to sustain a conflict at a comfortable remove from its frontlines. They might hold on to a dream of restoring the homeland to a glory long since forgotten back home. And their reliance on third parties can leave exiles vulnerable to co-optation. In short, exiles can end up exacerbating rather than remedying the defective politics back home.

How can we enable the important roles exiles play back home and abroad? The most important thing is that we grant them the rights and resources required to exercise political agency. This tells against their physical and political exclusion, impoverishment and general insecurity – the conditions to which the vast majority are subject to today. Recognising the different roles exiles play also involves holding them accountable but without overstepping: a difficult balance to strike that sometimes involves deferring to their judgment. This recognition also requires that we don’t enable exiles’ agency because of its usefulness to us, treating exiles as political resources whom we cultivate because they happen to further our particular foreign policy goals. To do so risks co-optation speaking through the buzzwords of empowerment.

Nor do we enable exile politics because of its salutary effects on our political discourse and public culture, celebrating exile’s humanistic benefits in a way that Said lamented. Recognising exile agency means enabling exiles even when the political ends they seek are their own. It means accepting that they will sometimes speak in a political idiom that doesn’t resonate with us, and that the methods they sometimes employ are politically inconvenient or even incomprehensible. These concessions are necessary because the ideals and interests we pursue are not neutral; on the contrary, they’re likely complicit in the very world order that creates exiles.

Many years ago, I belonged to a group of Sri Lankan, mostly Tamil, exile activists. A ceasefire agreement between the government of Sri Lanka and the secessionist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) had been signed in 2002, ushering in a period of relative calm after 20 years of armed conflict. During the (ultimately abortive) peace process that followed, some space seemed to have opened up: to think beyond the immediate horrors of war and contemplate a political solution, and to deliberate on what these solutions might look like, including the possibility of greater pluralism in Tamil political life. Both in Sri Lanka and the diaspora, Tamils had long been caught in the stranglehold of the LTTE’s claim of ‘sole representation’ – a claim it sought to realise by, among other things, eliminating Tamil dissidents.

In many respects, Tamil exile politics exemplify the dangers of what Benedict Anderson called ‘long-distance nationalism’. Traumatised by state persecution and the brutalities of war, an exile community helps sustain a secessionist war, grimly assured that war is necessary while being spared its fresh brutalities; and, once on a war footing, sacrificing the pleasantries of pluralism and dissent. But this is a caricature. Throughout the war, exile also produced dissent and criticism unavailable elsewhere, and it brought international attention to a conflict. The exiles I worked with had long arguments about Marxism and nationalism, agonised over the particular wording of a statement, documented human rights violations so that they wouldn’t be forgotten and perhaps one day even redressed. We argued about which issues to focus on, how to keep contacts on the ground safe, what strategies would be effective, what compromises went too far. What victories we had we celebrated, each one potentially a turning point, the proverbial final straw, the demonstration or report or open letter that would shift the balance.

Exiles are destabilising because they expose the failures of the nation-state to secure individual rights

At that time, we didn’t know that the war would end as it did, in 2009, with thousands of mostly Tamil civilians shelled by an army unbothered by the most basic humanitarianism, seemingly content to slaughter civilians they had been so determined to cling on to as fellow citizens. In 2011, a UN Panel of Experts concluded that there were credible allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity. As of this writing, however, no credible investigations have been conducted into abuses committed in the final months of the war, and thousands remain missing or disappeared. Recent elections returned to power those implicated in war crimes, who soon thereafter pardoned one of the very few individuals convicted of atrocities committed during the war.

In hindsight, our efforts were futile. After all, we were trying to democratise an imagined political space whose fundamental terms of reference were obliterated by facts on the ground. But hindsight presupposes the inevitability of history and the indestructibility of an existing order. Exiles are destabilising because they expose the failures of the nation-state to secure individual rights, and the fallibilities of an international order of sovereign states predicated on its guarantee to do so. What the UN calls ‘durable solutions’ to exile – repatriation, resettlement, and local integration – reaffirm the centrality of citizenship to human rights, again attempting to reconcile an order of sovereign states with the cosmopolitan promise of human rights.

These durable solutions remain elusive – more than three-quarters of today’s refugees are in a protracted exile – and maintain the fiction of sovereign states carefully tending to their free and equal citizens. But citizenship is not a cure to rightlessness, and durable solutions don’t always end exile. Exiles occupy a space between the political communities they have fled and the one they’ve entered, a place that combines important roles in both, a site from which to criticise, compensate for, reconsider, and reimagine. Theirs is a battle of small victories, each of which could be the turning point, helping us turn the corner and fumble into another world, so many drops forming a different lake.