3260 South Street, Penn Museum Rm 345
The talk examines the physical and symbolic violence waged by the Myanmar state on the Rohingya people, exploring in particular the effects of that violence on the (re)production of Rohingya identity. It analyzes the violence as foregrounding the ethnic identity and use of the ethnonym Rohingya, increasing the intensity of some people’s affiliations to it while driving away others, even as the name’s importance makes its content and contours an object of contention and cooptation. I identify internal cleavages in Rohingya identification emerging along four specific axes: First, elites appealing to the narrow, racialized demands of the exclusionary Myanmar state are engaging in a project of strategic essentialism that, when combined with average Rohingyas’ nostalgic imaginaries of life before the military-state’s assaults, constructs a reified Rohingya that does not reflect the various modes of differentiation – particularly along lines of geographic origin, class, and religiosity – that have long existed for Rohingya in Myanmar. Second, the narrowing of Rohingya-ness is absorbed and reproduced by humanitarian institutions’ knowledge machines. Third, variations in Rohingya expression have been accentuated by repeated dispossessions endured by groups of Rohingya over the past four decades, leading to further differentiation in the identity. Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, both those expelled from Myanmar and those under assault within the country have faced the challenges of securing their individual/family survival while also preserving their collective ethno-cultural identity; identification with the Rohingya ethnonym varies to the extent that individuals have different perceptions regarding how such identification may either protect or imperil them. Taken together, Rohingya identity hence often becomes an impossible object as the very same violent crucible in which Rohingya have been forged is also that which extrudes them. They are simultaneously interpellated as Rohingya by the violence that denies that name and even compels them to reject it. Through multi-sited ethnography in Cox’s Bazaar, Mae Sot and Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Yangon, as well as on various Rohingya social media spaces, to inquire into the consequences for the Rohingya identity, the political movements around it, and for various individuals – often in radically different class and spatial positions – who may, under certain circumstances, call themselves Rohingya.