Volume 49, Issue 4 p. 563-579
Original Article

Nothing to lose but their (block)chains

Biometrics, techno-imaginaries, and transformations in Rohingya lives


Corresponding Author


Department of Sociology and Anthropology, National University of Singapore

Elliott Prasse-Freeman

Department of Sociology and Anthropology

National University of Singapore

Email: [email protected]

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First published: 22 September 2022


Can stateless persons become legal-economic subjects without state ratification? Can they appropriate technologies not designed for them to create both new subjectivities and new forms of community? A Malaysia-based nonprofit social enterprise, composed of stateless Rohingya, has been attempting to circumvent state rejection by inscribing aspects of Rohingya (in)dividuals—biometric data, genealogy information, and records of community participation—on a digital blockchain ledger. The enterprise 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—thereby hoping to generate post-Westphalian spaces and subjectivities. Yet, amid a revanchist nationalist resurgence in Malaysia—as with bourgeoning right-wing populism globally—the spaces in which blockchained subjects might maneuver have narrowed, compelling our attention to the “nonsovereignty” in this project's version of “self-sovereignty.” [blockchain, biometrics, science and technology studies, (non)sovereignty, statelessness, Malaysia, Rohingya]