B O O K – Containing Decolonization: Fascism and the Politics of Race in Late Colonial Burma (Working Title)

“In the garden of No. 10 Downing Street. Photographer: Unknown.” (Jan 1947). India Office Records, British Library, Photo 134/3(6). Used with permission.

British Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee (left) and his Cabinet discuss setting up an independent Burmese state with Aung San (middle), U Saw (right) and other Burmese representatives. Just six months later, U Saw would send assassins to murder Aung San in an attempt to foment a rightist coup with the tacit approval of certain British officials.

Coming Soon!

My manuscript is under review at Cornell University Press.

Thesis

This book traces the racialization of Muslims in Burma into the racial category kala, a slur that implies both foreignness and South Asian ethnicity.  It seeks to shed light on the political logic behind eighty years of discrimination, pogroms, and ethnic cleansings against Indians and Muslims, both migrant and indigenous, in Burma. Racialization is the political process of reifying disparate ethnic, religious, and cultural groups into a “race” with essentialized characteristics. The kala racialization emerged in Burma in the 1930s as a result of fascist organizing during the global crisis of the Great Depression. Meanwhile, the Burmese revolutionary wing, led by Aung San, succeeded in building an anti-racist, anti-capitalist, and anti-colonial democratic socialist movement that truly challenged the foundations of British colonial rule and global capital in Burma. I argue that British colonial officials and British and Burmese capitalists supported the Burmese fascist movement in order to undermine and outmaneuver their common revolutionary enemies. The consequence was the kala racialization, which lives on to the present day in the Rohingya genocide and the Burmese military junta.

Significance

This work will make scholarly interventions into three primary fields. First, my book will intervenes in the history of Myanmar by locating the origins of Burmese Islamophobia in the interwar period. It demonstrates that the racialized misconception of the Rohingya as “illegal Bengali immigrants” – a key justification for present-day violence – emerged from a distinct far-right political movement in the 1930s. Second, my work will intervene in the history and study of Southeast Asia, of the Indian Ocean world, and of colonialism and post-colonialism in general. I seek to bridge the gap not only between the national historiographies of Burma and India, but also between South and Southeast Asia. In fact, a crucial part of building an ethnonationalist movement in Burma was the 1930s British partition plan to separate Burma from the rest of British India. Therefore, along the lines of scholars such as Sana Aiyar, I view this event as a “First Partition” of India, yet another partition that emboldened xenophobic nationalists on both sides and drew racial lines where anti-colonial solidarity had stood. Finally, my project will make a larger interdisciplinary, theoretical contribution to studies of race, nationalism, and political science. It will highlight the fact that imperialists, such as the British in Burma, prefer ethno-nationalist movements because they movements effectively misdirect popular rage from the project of overthrowing the inequities of a capitalist political economy to that of eliminating scapegoated ‘national enemies.’ Therefore, it will argue that race is endemic to modernity because it is necessary to protect capitalist society from its failure to provide for the majority by redirecting popular anger onto racialized out-groups. Without revolution, the working-class majority could only find solace from class domination through race domination. Race is global because nineteenth and twentieth century Eurocolonialism has replicated these class relations in every society in the world.

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