The Politics of Love in Myanmar: LGBT Mobilization and Human Rights as a Way of Life

By Deveneau, Lilianna | Law & Society Review, January 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

The Politics of Love in Myanmar: LGBT Mobilization and Human Rights as a Way of Life


Deveneau, Lilianna, Law & Society Review


The Politics of Love in Myanmar: LGBT Mobilization and Human Rights as a Way of Life. By Lynette Chua. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2019.

Human rights violations in Myanmar, formerly Burma, have been globally scrutinized, including imprisonment of state political opponents, systemic rape of ethnic minorities, unlawful capture and killing, and forced labor and relocation (253). With a history entrenched in violence and suppression, even speaking of human rights was unlawful until the political reformation of 2011 relaxed some social control (237). Additionally, religious beliefs paint lesbian, gay, bisexual, trangender (LGBT) people as immoral and eternally damned (Christianity) or embodying punishment for bad karma in past lives (seen in Burmese Buddhism) (280). Discrimination is upheld in legal institutions (e.g., the criminalization of same-sex sexual relations), by employers and educators, and cultural norms and behaviors such as frequent bullying and sexual assault (280). This social disgust has been internalized to produced self-hatred, fear, and shame; the LGBT human rights movement was tasked with addressing and transforming these emotions to instill self-love and empowerment, social belonging, and legal reform to protect the Burmese LGBT community (280, 393).

These factors led Chua to ask, how do LGBT activists in the movement understand, situate, and practice human rights and with what implications? To answer these, she conducted a qualitative research study of the LGBT movement among migrants and those exiled in Thailand from the mid-2000s through the early years of Myanmar's political transition. Field research was completed between 2012 and 2017 with observations of workshops and other events, interviews with activists and organizers, and examination of posters, pamphlets, CDs, and other "totems" or symbols of the collective group and movement (698, citing Turner and Stets [2005] in referencing Durkheim [1965]). Chua also allowed interviewees to infuse discourse with personal understandings, ambitions, and claims, making possible both the empirical study of queer Burmese perceptions of human rights and comparisons between local, national, and international definitions and meanings of LGBT parlance (734).

As this book details, LGBT human rights practices as a way of life begins with self-transformation of the individual; perceptions shift from believing they deserve violence to love and acceptance of oneself as a human being worthy of the same rights afforded to dominant groups (302). When undertaken by a collective, a new emotion culture is created, comprised of new ways of feeling and forming connections with other queer Burmese. Bonds between individuals and the collective are thus strengthened and can be leveraged to lobby for sociolegal and other political changes (302). Importantly, social ties trigger three types of emotions: loyalties, suffering, and recruitment (588). These are critical to the movement's success. Drawing upon the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Yogyakarta Principles on the Application of International Human Rights Law in Relation to Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity, queer Burmese identified three essential meanings of human rights: dignity, social belonging, and the responsibility of the rights bearer to act and empower others (734). Human rights are thereby portrayed as providing collective good through collectively achieved practices (746).

Three sets of related and repeating processes provide the theoretical backbone for Chua's research. Formation processes create a collective to help establish a movement representing LGBT rights, allowed for navigation around risks surrounding the political transformation of Myanmar and paved the way for grievance transformation and community building (324). …

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