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How in Myanmar “National Races” came to Surpass Citizenship

  • Kahin Center, Cornell University 640 Stewart Avenue Ithaca, NY 14850 (map)

“National races”, or taingyintha, is among the preeminent political ideas in Myanmar today. But because the term is translated from Burmese inconsistently, and because its usage is contingent, its peculiar significance for political speech and action has been lost in work on Myanmar by scholars writing in English. Out of concern that Myanmar’s contemporary politics cannot be understood without reckoning with taingyintha, in this talk I give national races their due. Adopting a genealogical method, I trace the episodic emergence of taingyintha from colonial times to the present. I examine attempts to order national races taxonomically, and to marry the taxonomy with a juridical project to dominate some people and elide others through a citizenship regime in which membership in a national race has surpassed other conditions for membership in the political community “Myanmar”. Consequently, people who reside in Myanmar but are collectively denied citizenship—like anyone identifying or identified as Rohingya—pursue claims to be taingyintha so as to rejoin the community. Ironically, the surpassing symbolic and juridical power of national races is for people denied civil and political rights at once their problem and their solution.

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