It’s the first time I saw bloodshed and that made me really angry. . . . Some of my colleagues were shot. (Tun Tun, interview, February 21, 2013*)1
I could hear the demonstrators shouting. Sometimes I would go to the entrance of the barracks and look at the demonstrators. I could even hear the shootings. (Tin Hla, interview, June 26, 2015)
THE YEAR WAS 1988, a tumultuous time in Myanmar when students and other Burmese rose up against the military’s repressive rule and economic mismanagement and the regime responded with violence, killing thousands.2 Back then, Tun Tun and Tin Hla, standing on opposite sides of the demonstrations, did not know each other. One was a Rangoon University student who escaped to the jungles along the Myanmar-Thailand border and took up arms against the junta. The other was a ten-year-old boy who lived in a Yangon barracks with his grandfather, an army major, and his family, shrouded by government propaganda.
It would be almost twenty years before the two met, and Tin Hla would come to describe many experiences in his life as human rights violations, including the military’s actions in 1988 and the hardships he endured with his same-sex partners. After Tin Hla’s grandfather retired from the army, his family moved out of the barracks. He drifted across southern Myanmar trying to scrape together a livelihood, finding and losing lovers along the way. Tin Hla’s life and dozens of others’ in this book converged and changed when they joined an obscure human rights movement that Tun Tun founded in the mid-2000s—an LGBT movement for queer people of Myanmar.
Today the LGBT movement is headquartered in Yangon with activists from around the country and all walks of life. They are city dwellers, small-town folk, villagers, political dissidents, children of military families, daily wage laborers, factory workers, shopkeepers, beauticians, nat kadaw, and students. Tun Tun, Tin Hla, and other movement leaders travel around the country to recruit and train new activists, educate lawyers, implement paralegal programs, file lawsuits, and speak to local media and politicians, all the while talking openly about human rights and their violations.
But when Tun Tun founded VIVID, the movement’s national organization, he was still a political exile in Chiang Mai, Thailand. He did not know when he could go home. Leading a human rights movement in his homeland seemed a distant dream. From 2007 until early 2013, he and a few other Burmese, a mix of dissidents and economic migrants, operated VIVID out of Chiang Mai. They adopted human rights as their core strategy to achieve the goals of empowering queer Burmese to accept themselves, gaining social belonging, and reforming discriminatory legislation and law enforcement practices. They carried out human rights education workshops first among Burmese migrants in the Thai towns of Chiang Mai, Mae Sot, and Ranong, and then among such participants as Tin Hla, whom they surreptitiously brought over from Burmese cities, towns, and villages. After returning to Myanmar, some participants became grassroots organizers and spread word about the movement and their new knowledge. Tin Hla held gatherings in his little mattress shop.
The opportunity to bring home the LGBT movement arrived unexpectedly, when the military regime orchestrated elections in November 2010. The elections led to the formation of a semicivilian government in 2011 that showed signs of reforming the harsh regime.3 In May 2012, grassroots organizers from five Burmese cities and towns organized the first International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) celebrations in Myanmar and distributed VIVID’s magazines. Tun Tun went back to give speeches about the human rights of queer Burmese. The following year, his protégés at VIVID packed up and moved their office from Chiang Mai to Yangon.
Almost twenty-five years after Tun Tun marched in the front lines of prodemocracy protests, fellow Burmese trained and inspired by him boldly make human rights claims and put themselves forward as LGBT activists, representing a collective claimant of human rights, LGBT people of Myanmar. The LGBT movement joins the post-2011 political landscape of Myanmar, where marginalized groups demand recognition and human rights advocacy attracts international support when it was once hostilely turned away by the state. It makes human rights claims in a society where the discourse was violently suppressed for decades, whose predominantly Buddhist population is unfamiliar with rights talk, and where queer people are hardly recognized as a discriminated group with legitimate grievances. It is not as prominent as movements with claims and claimants far more familiar in Burmese politics, such as those concerned with women and ethnic and religious minorities. Nevertheless, LGBT activists increasingly appear on TV, in newspapers, and at public events. They gain audience with leaders from political parties of all stripes, air to them the grievances of queer Burmese, and urge the government of the day to reform the law. Migrants who participated in VIVID’s workshops gradually return from Thailand, bringing back human rights talk, advocacy skills, and connections to organize for the movement in their hometowns. They began their journey with the movement not knowing much about human rights. Eventually they formed their own ideas about what human rights mean to them and what they should and could do about their circumstances. Since the landslide victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in the 2015 elections, the LGBT movement has expanded to twenty grassroots locations (Figure 1).4
How did Myanmar’s LGBT movement emerge? This question inspired me to find out more when I came across a news report about a group of Burmese who were organizing IDAHO celebrations inside Myanmar. When I learned that they adopted a human rights strategy, I went on to ask: How do LGBT activists of the movement make sense of human rights and put them into action, that is, practice human rights? What are the implications of their human rights practice? These questions grew increasingly compelling as I carried out fieldwork from 2012 to 2017 to conduct a qualitative study of the LGBT movement’s developments—from its inception in the mid-2000s among exiles and migrants in Thailand through the early years of Myanmar’s political transition, when they shifted the movement headquarters to Yangon and spread the movement faster and faster across Myanmar.
The questions are compelling because of the promises and pitfalls of human rights. Debated tirelessly and proliferated across diverse societies (Santos 2002; McCann 2014; Osanloo 2009), human rights have, in recent times, been extended explicitly to sexuality and gender identity. The universal panacea that human rights purport to offer to human suffering, a prevalent phenomenon and strong motivation for the activists in this book, makes the discourse attractive yet objectionable. Some scholars find that human rights bring meaningful change, but others regard them as a Western imposition of power that is often ineffective as well—a long list of affirmations and criticisms that I elaborate on later in the book.
The questions make an even headier mix when we imagine a human rights movement in a country in political transition but mired in history of conflict and repression. What is geographically Myanmar today fell to British rule after the Anglo-Burmese wars between 1824 and 1885. To control widespread crime and disorder, which arose at least partly in response to their colonial invasion, British administrators introduced repressive laws that were retained by post-colonial regimes with long-lasting impact on civil-political liberties (Callahan 2003; Cheesman 2015). Immediately after independence in 1948, the Union of Burma succumbed to civil war and ethnic strife. The short period of liberal democracy ended when a caretaker military government took power in 1958 and cemented military rule with a coup in 1962. Subsequently, the military solidified its dictatorship under a centralized, totalitarian state structure, promulgating the 1974 Constitution that declared the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma a one-party socialist state. Myanmar became synonymous with human rights violations, not the least the violent crackdowns of the 1988 demonstrations, the detention of Aung San Suu Kyi after the NLD’s electorate victory in 1990, imprisonment of other political opponents, persecution of human rights activists, extrajudicial killings, displacement and systemic rape of ethnic minorities, and forced labor and relocation.5
Consistent with what we know about rights movements in times of political change (see, e.g., McAdam 1999b), Burmese activists enjoy greater freedom to make new claims, but their troubles remain despite the beginnings of democratization. The 2011 semicivilian government implemented partial reforms, such as releasing Aung San Suu Kyi and other political prisoners, and relaxing controls on civil-political liberties.6 Foreign governments and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) more freely enter the country to assist a wide range of human rights–based projects. Yet the same government still arrested activists. Under its watch, Buddhist nationalists championed anti-Islamic causes to campaign successfully for Laws for the Protection of Race and Religion (Than 2015), which tightened the sexual regulation of women.7 The 2015 elections resulted in the historic handover of government to Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD, but armed conflict, marginalization of ethnic minorities, and abuse of power persist.8 Legal reforms passed in Nay Pyi Taw, the capital, are slow to reach local authorities, towns, and villages. Efforts by international agencies and domestic activists struggle against ingrained social norms that perpetuate divisions and discrimination.
In light of Myanmar’s past and present, human rights activists face stiff obstacles. Human rights were unfamiliar, even scary, to many Burmese. Being associated with human rights used to trigger state retaliation, and so they were something to avoid. Activists, whether working from within Myanmar’s borders or without, had to find and persuade others to join their cause at great personal risks. They had to innovate strategies and tactics simply so that they and fellow activists could circumvent political constraints and evade punishment. Even after 2011, they still have to overcome the fear toward human rights and make them appealing instead.
The debates surrounding human rights and the challenges for human rights activism in Myanmar get amplified when we look at the LGBT movement. Internationally, the human rights of queer people—which Tun Tun and his fellow activists call “LGBT rights”—are still controversial. In Burmese society, queers are morally suspect. In contrast to popular Western portrayals that exoticize the celebrity of transgender nat kadaw, the “spectacularly gay” (Ho 2009), or idealize a tolerant Buddhist society, the reality for most queer Burmese is much grimmer.9 They suffer from police persecution, aided by wide arrest powers and the criminalization of same-sex sexual conduct. They are commonly shunned by family and friends and experience bullying and harassment, sexual violence, other forms of attacks, and discrimination in education and employment.
These prejudices are rooted in norms and beliefs that shape the distribution of power and hierarchy. Myanmar is a society organized by a gendered hierarchy that privileges heterosexual, cisgender men. Queers generally occupy lower rungs of the hierarchy. According to Burmese Buddhist beliefs, people are reborn as queer due to the bad karma of having committed sexual transgressions in past lives. Coupled with sociopolitical conditions, they help legitimize queer discrimination and stigmatization and breed resignation. Suffering oppressive conditions, the result of deviating from accepted sexual and gender norms, is to be expected in this lifetime. Among Christian and Muslim minorities, homosexuality—often conflated with gender nonconformity—is generally regarded as sinful.10 LGBT activists find that the perception of queers as deviants who deserve their plight runs so deep that it is widely internalized among queers themselves, festering self-hate, shame, and fear. Few people are able or willing to take up their cause because few comprehend or appreciate their issues.
Against this potent mix of concerns and issues as the backdrop, the story I tell in this book about the Burmese LGBT movement is an empirical account about human rights. It is not about human rights as moral or philosophical matters (Goodale 2006), as law defined in formal instruments, signed by governments, and interpreted by courts, or about their “cultural relativism” (Speed 2008). It is about how people who put human rights into practice interact with them and with the rest of society. Anchored in this scholarly tradition, in telling this story, I do not regard human rights as innately good, bad, powerful, or weak (Roberts 2015). They are empirically plural (Santos 2015). To know the good, the bad, and the ugly of human rights, I look to the ways in which people wield them to realize their hopes and dreams of a better life, the consequences they sow, and what those consequences mean to them.
Even more generally, then, this is a story about how human rights matter. Certainly, it concerns queer issues, LGBT rights, and Myanmar, a research site that until recently offered limited access and unusually difficult challenges (Aspinall and Farrelly 2014; Skidmore 2006).11 But it is also more than that. It tells us how a human rights movement came to be and how a group of people relate to human rights in a country where they long meant state retaliation and were suppressed for decades. It is about why and how people can appeal to human rights and make them appealing to others, when their conception of the self has been informed not by human rights but by religious beliefs (in this case, Buddhism) and other cultural sources of feeling, knowing, and interacting with the world (Cowan 2006; Seligman 2000). And, at the end of it all, it is a story about the implications of human rights in action—both their prospects and their power.
1. Interviews conducted in English are marked with an asterisk.
2. The estimated number of deaths has ranged from 3,000 to as high as 10,000, the former being the commonly cited figure these days (Steinberg 2010).
3. The military-backed party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), won the 2010 elections amid allegations of fraud and intimidation (Prasse-Freeman 2012).
4. The number of grassroots locations is based on VIVID’s calculation as of June 2017. At the time, VIVID also reported having a movement base of almost 600 members from these locations, but the figure includes both the people who became activists and those who merely participated in movement activities.
5. Reports published by human rights organizations, such as Human Rights Watch, are numerous and widely available online.
6. The semicivilian government also allowed Aung San Suu Kyi and NLD politicians to enter parliament, tried to broker a cease-fire with insurgent groups (though fighting continues in various parts of Myanmar), and permitted political exiles to return. The relaxed controls on civil-political liberties include the abolishment of prepublication print censorship, removal of restrictions on politically sensitive websites, and enactment of laws to allow independent trade unions, peaceful assembly, and greater freedom of association.
7. These are four laws known as the Monogamy Law, Religious Conversion Law, Myanmar Buddhist Women’s Special Marriage Law, and Population Growth and Healthcare Law. For analysis of their legislative passage, see Walton, McKay, and Daw Khin Mar Mar Kyi (2015). The LGBT movement was not targeted by extreme Buddhist nationalists. Following the NLD’s succession in 2015, LGBT movement leaders also believe that these extremists have waned in influence due to their apparent lack of political support (interviews: Yamin, July 26, 2016; and Khant Nyar, July 28, 2016). However, the long-term effects of increased legal regulation on sexuality remain to be seen. On extreme elements in Buddhist nationalist organizations such as Ma Ba Tha and their post-2015 developments, see Walton (2017b), Walton, Ma Khin Mar Mar Kyi and Aye Thein (2017), and Nyi Nyi Kyaw (2017).
8. The elections outcome has no impact on the constitutionally entrenched powers of the military, Tatmadaw, over 25 percent of the legislature and its control of defense, interior affairs, and border security.
9. Burmese queer history is little documented (Gilbert 2016), and the scholarship tends to focus on queer Burmese who were assigned male at birth (see, e.g., Keeler 2016; Gilbert 2013, 2016).
10. According to the 2014 census, about 89.8 percent of the population is Buddhist, 6.3 percent is Christian, 2.3 percent is Muslim, 0.5 percent is Hindu, and 0.8 percent is animist.
11. Challenges still remain, though the situation has improved as more researchers have gained access to Myanmar since 2011.