CANCELLED - Blockchained: Digital Improvisations and Deterritorialized Nationhood for Stateless Rohingya


Tuesday, March 24, 2020, 5:30pm to 6:45pm



Towards Life 3.0: Ethics and Technology in the 21st Century is a talk series organized and facilitated by Mathias Risse, Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy and Berthold Beitz Professor in Human Rights, Global Affairs and Philosophy. Drawing inspiration from the title of Max Tegmark’s book, Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence, the series draws upon a range of scholars, technology leaders, and public interest technologists to address the ethical aspects of the long-term impact of artificial intelligence on society and human life.

Elliott Prasse-Freeman, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the National University of Singapore, will give a talk titled, "Blockchained: Digital Improvisations and Deterritorialized Nationhood for Stateless Rohingya." Professor Prasse-Freeman will also be joined in conversation by Timothy McCarthy, Adjunct Lecturer in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.


Can stateless persons become legal/economic subjects without state ratification? The talk, based on multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork in Bangladesh camps, Thai border towns, and urban fringes in both Myanmar and Malaysia, explores how members of Myanmar’s Rohingya ethnos, suffering persistent ethnic cleansing, have found themselves dispersed across Asia, reduced to bodies receiving provisional refuge while enduring perpetual politico-legal exclusion (statelessness). A Malaysia-based Rohingya-led NGO has responded by attempting to circumvent state rejection by inscribing aspects of Rohingya (in)dividuals – biometric data, kinship genealogy information, and records of community participation – upon a digital blockchain ledger. The NGO seeks to mobilize blockchain’s affordances to iteratively construct Rohingya subjects, re-presenting them to new institutions (banks rather than humanitarians) as quasi-legal persons, producing entities ultimately certified for ‘financial inclusion’ - bank accounts and loans. This vision, in its ambition to attain nothing less than the transformation of Rohingya from largely invisible stateless individuals to new juridico-economic subjects, goes beyond techno whimsy. It also introduces the sobering risk fundamental to improvising with new technologies on some of the world’s most marginalized people. The talk presents ethnography of the initial roll-out of this project and concludes by reflecting on whether this techno-governance dream ignores the political structures that have produced and maintained the Rohingyas’ marginalized position. It argues instead that this is a phenomenon in which the solution appears distasteful not only because it advances a problematic ‘solution’ (blockchain and financial inclusion), but because it punctures the fantasy that a desirable political remedy will ever be effected. The technological intervention provides an implicit critique of those persist in believing that the inter-state political system (of ‘international law’ and the human rights regime) will finally address this problem.