The Politics of Love in Myanmar is an ethnographic study of how activists practice human rights, particularly how they interact with and produce emotions and interpersonal relationships as they put human rights into action to build an LGBT rights movement. By offering an intimate account of a group of LGBT activists before, during, and after Myanmar’s post-2011 political transition, the book explores how these activists, as they devoted themselves to, and fell in love with, the practice of human rights, were able to empower queer Burmese to accept themselves, gain social belonging, and reform discriminatory legislation and law enforcement. Informed by interviews with activists from all walks of life—city dwellers, villagers, political dissidents, children of military families, wage laborers, shopkeepers, beauticians, spirit mediums, lawyers, students—it details the LGBT activists’ vivid experience of founding a movement, first among exiles and migrants along the border, and then in Myanmar’s cities, small towns, and countryside.
NOTCHES: Why will people want to read your book?
Chua: People will want to read this book if they are interested in human rights, social movements or NGO work, issues of sexuality and gender, or Myanmar. This book will help them better understand how emotions and interpersonal relationships matter to law, rights, and social movements.
The book details how activists shaped a distinct political and emotional culture by fusing shared emotions and cultural bearings with legal and political ideas about human rights. For this network of activists, human rights can move hearts and minds, and sew a transformative web of friendship, fellowship, and affection among queer Burmese across Myanmar.
NOTCHES: What drew you to this topic?
Chua: I was drawn to the topic when I read about the celebration of International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO) in 2012, which took place across five towns and cities in Myanmar shortly after the country’s transition from military rule to semi-civilian governance. I was curious because of the suppression of human rights activism in Myanmar and wanted to know how these activists organized themselves and understood human rights.
NOTCHES: This book is about the history of sex and sexuality, but what other themes does it speak to?
Chua: This book explores the history of a movement mobilizing around issues of sexuality and gender, but the bigger story is about how human rights matter. It tells a story of how a group of people came to relate to the idea of human rights in a country where human rights had long meant state retaliation and been suppressed for decades. It shows us 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.
NOTCHES: How did you research the book?
Chua: My research consisted of fieldwork over the course of 4.5 years. It involved interviews and re-interviews with more than 100 people, observations of movement activities, and analysis of movement documents, photographs and videos, legal documents, and media reports.
NOTCHES: How do you see your book being most effectively used in the classroom? What would you assign it with?
Chua: I see this book useful for graduate and advanced undergraduate courses on human rights, social movements, and sexuality and gender, taught in law school, the social sciences or international studies, as well as courses in Asian area studies. I would assign it with other books that take an ethnographic approach to the study of human rights, or books that explore questions of sexuality and gender.
Lynette J. Chua is Associate Professor of Law at the National University of Singapore and a law and society scholar with research interests in legal mobilization, legal consciousness, and social movements. She is the author of The Politics of Love in Myanmar: LGBT Mobilization and Human Rights as A Way of Life (Stanford University Press, 2019) and Mobilizing Gay Singapore: Rights and Resistance in an Authoritarian State (Temple University Press, 2014), which was awarded the 2015 American Sociological Association’s Sociology of Law Distinguished Book Prize. She holds a B.Sc. (Journalism) from Ohio University, LL.B. from the National University of Singapore, and Ph.D. from UC Berkeley’s Jurisprudence and Social Policy program.
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