Southeast Asia

Organized Panel Session

2 - One Size Fits All: The Census Conflation of Race, Religion, and Indigeneity in Colonial Burma

Friday, July 6
10:20 AM - 11:50 AM
Location: Mahogany, First Floor

Religious affiliation, instead of race, emerged as the fundamental population classification scheme across British India in 1871, including the province of Burma. This was a result of colonial officials’ failure to determine phenotypical variances to social boundaries. Beginning in the early 20th century and culminating with the official classification change in the 1931 census in Burma, however, “race” began to replace religious affiliations as a central principle for the classification not only of indigenous citizens but also of foreign immigrants. This paper explores why “race” replaced religion in the Province of Burma between 1921 and 1931. I argue that this change resulted from an interplay between British colonial officials and emerging Burmese “native” nationalists, as they sought to determine the characteristics of “Burma” as an emerging nation unique from “India”. Colonial officials, in their quest to categorize and rank individuals by “race” and secularize the state, mapped religious differences onto “race” categories and used these as the basis for official legislation in the 1920s and 1930s. Emerging Burmese nationalists in the early 20th century, for their part, utilized these problematic religiously-conflated race labels to define the nation as their own and assert their vision of a modern Burma by imposing a clear and rigid distinction between the “indigenous” and the “foreign” populations. The emergence of racial categories, therefore, reflected the colonial government’s desire for a secular colonial state and nationalists’ desire to define the nation through identity categories that clearly distinguished them as different from and superior to the Indian.

Erin McAuliffe

University of Michigan, United States

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2 - One Size Fits All: The Census Conflation of Race, Religion, and Indigeneity in Colonial Burma



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