University of Sussex
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The physicalisation of nativeness in Myanmar: boundary-making strategies in search of social recognition

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posted on 2023-09-13, 13:16 authored by Eduardo Sanchez Molano

This thesis examines the salience and rationale of popular narratives in Myanmar that use physical characteristics, such as skin colour, to reinforce the notion that some minority groups are non-native and originally from the Indian subcontinent.

The research utilises Andreas Wimmer's (2013) typology of boundary-making strategies and draws on various empirical fields. Firstly, it examines the experiences from below of members of two majority Muslim ethnic groups unrecognised by the provisions of the Citizenship Law of 1982: the Rohingya and the Panthay. Subsequently, the thesis contextualises these experiences within the different modes of classification established by young Muslim inhabitants of Mingala Taungnyunt and Tamwe, two townships in Yangon. This provides the foundation for discussing how networks and power dynamics within a social field influence the boundary-making strategies of individuals.

Based on the research findings, the practices of association and discrimination in these non-ethnic units of observation appear to extend beyond racial or ethnic prejudices. Indeed, individuals are often unaware of the ethnic backgrounds of their friends, acquaintances, and even relatives. I contend that while residents of Mingala Taungnyunt and Tamwe may exhibit physical stereotyping, colour biases, and hostility toward specific groups, the primary divisions in these communities arise from perceived threats to the harmony, tolerance or mutual respect of the township. Such threat perceptions are typical between long-term inhabitants and newcomers. These divisions do not stem primarily from factors such as ethnicity or race.

The research hypothesis proposes that physical traits and similar markers are used not only to close the boundary and limit access to material and nonmaterial resources, but also to affirm the identity of groups and gain social recognition. Additionally, the hypothesis suggests that the more individuals and groups are subjected to modes of extreme closure in categorisation systems, the more they depend on markers of distinction and individuality.

From an empirical point of view, my research provides an original contribution by examining when and where alleged discriminatory discourses in Myanmar may be conceptually linked to biological ideas; and when and where, on the contrary, their routine use may rely on more open interpretations than race or ethnicity, as reflected in the day-to-day usage of local terms such as the Burmese word lumyo, meaning type or kind of people. From a theoretical perspective, my research underscores the significance of the use of physical markers and other indicators of distinction in understanding social inequality, not only among subordinated groups but also within dominant ones – since misrepresentation often exacerbates social disparities even within majorities. Furthermore, by examining the processes of association and exclusion in nonethnic units of analysis and observation such as townships – rather than only analysing specific ethnic groups – this research emphasises the importance of exploring why and how discrimination associated with ethnicity, race, or physical characteristics may be relevant beyond merely identifying dissimilarities between races/ethnicities and referring to racialised/ethnicised contexts.


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Department affiliated with

  • Geography Theses

Qualification level

  • doctoral

Qualification name

  • phd


  • eng


University of Sussex


Professor Anne-Meike Fechter Professor Margaret Sleeboom-Faulkner

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