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The spectres of coloniality that haunt the Rohingya struggle for belonging

By Yasmynn Chowdhury | OMC 2024

Image made by Sahat Zia Hero, a Rohingya refugee, photographer, and founder of Rohingyatographer Magazine. His work can be found here:

Within and beyond their homeland, Rohingya are relentlessly caught up in worlds permeated by constructions of their otherness. In this piece, I invite consideration of how this imagined alterity can be traced to colonial debris scattering spaces of both persecution and ‘protection’ across which Rohingya move. These spectral remnants of the past permit the reactivation of old power asymmetries, barring Rohingya from authorised epistemic spaces and denying them their capacity to know and name themselves. Such colonial residues engender cyclical reproductions of (mis)recognition and (non)belonging which follow Rohingya across time and borders, ultimately giving rise to a preventable continuum of suffering.

In Myanmar, official government and popular discourses conjure notions of Rohingya as ‘illegal Bengali immigrants’. These productions of racialised, Bengalised, and illegalised otherness enabled their exclusion from the polity, formalised through Burma’s 1982 Citizenship Law. In 2012, the state of Myanmar initiated efforts to begin identifying Rohingya as ‘Bengali’ in official identity documentation, culminating in the assignment of National Verification Cards (NVCs) in 2016, which materialised their status as ‘foreigner’ rather than citizen. Ironically, this exclusionary agenda, while framed as a project of postcolonial nation-building, hinges on the notion of ‘national races’, whose lineage can in fact be traced to the British colonial era, during which manufactured typologies and hierarchies of ‘distinct’ races/ethnicities were employed to aid projects of subjugation. Decades later, these logics would set the stage for the genocidal campaign and ongoing atrocities Rohingya continue to face to this day. 

Even after Rohingya cross borders in search of protection, they continue to be haunted by impositions of difference. Various apparati of truth-making situated in refugee protection regimes, such as legal and policy instruments determining refugeeness, are rooted in colonial legacies which shape the discursive, legal, and moral categorisations into which Rohingya get placed. While Rohingya might meet the criteria for refugee status per international law, the actual material conferral of protection is contingent on the process of ‘refugee status determination’, which many countries of refuge (such as Bangladesh) lack the domestic legal infrastructure to support; such structural gaps have allowed many of them to be subsumed into the category of ‘illegal migrants’ – thus muddling notions of their deservingness of protection. Simultaneously, dominant discourses construct them as politically ‘speechless’, non-citizen refugees (another instrument of colonial domination). Imagined in ever ‘increasing degrees of otherness’, they become at risk of (non)belonging everywhere they turn.  

Registration with the UNHCR and identity documentation constitute another apparatus of truth-making situated in systems of refugee protection. These tools are rooted in colonial logics which generate a preoccupation with rendering refugee bodies recognisable, knowable, traceable, and thus governable. Though posited by human rights discourses as an essential technology of protection, in Bangladesh, processes of registration and issuing of smart ID cards, in which they are referred to as ‘forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals’, have been felt and experienced by many Rohingya as anything but protective, generating anxiety, deep discontent, and fierce resistance. 

Exclusion of the desired terms ‘Rohingya’ and ‘refugee’ from these documents, along with fear of risk of forced repatriation, may partially explain this response. However the immense affective weight and pain brought about by smart cards must be understood within their particular historical context. For Rohingya, material and symbolic resonances between smart cards and NVCs (discussed above) render them equivalent or linked (‘siblings’). Furthermore, biometric registration evokes similar experiences in Myanmar. Most notably, both identification documents reflect a sustained denial of the epistemic and sociopolitical recognition Rohingya have so longed for, materially reifying and reproducing their (non)belonging. Both instances of (mis)identification, underpinned by repetitive colonial logics, give rise to experiential reverberations, reopening old wounds and trauma. 

The construction of Rohingya as othered objects of knowledge for the purpose of governability/ordering, and their exclusion from epistemic spaces where knowledge about their identities/histories gets produced, are rooted in colonial matrices of power. Examined separately, the harms produced by these lingering logics are readily apparent. But cyclical encounters with these truth-making spaces, in which they are unable to name themselves or claim the possibilities of their belonging, are even more erosive. They generate a violent continuum in which re-exposures to past traumas (re)produce preventable suffering. The unveiling, dismantling, and disentanglement of these colonial machineries from systems of refugee protection is critical to disrupting this cyclicity and working towards a better and more caring future for the Rohingya. 

Yasmynn Chowdhury is a PhD student at the University of Oxford with a background in medical anthropology, global health, public health, and microbiology. She is currently working with Rohingya communities to co-explore how their health/wellbeing and lived experiences are shaped by systems of refugee governance and protection. She is hopeful for the potential of transdisciplinary and decolonial approaches to health/bodies to mobilise new possibilities for the alleviation of preventable global health inequities and the radical reimagination of systems of care. She is more than happy to connect at


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