The Vernacular Mobilization of Human Rights in Myanmar's Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity Movement

Published date01 June 2015
Date01 June 2015
The Vernacular Mobilization of Human Rights in
Myanmar’s Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Lynette J. Chua
This article examines how activists build a movement for sexual orientation
and gender identity minorities in Myanmar, a country that is known for vio-
lent suppression of protests and is undergoing political reform. Based on orig-
inal fieldwork, it finds that activists deploy a strategy of “vernacular
mobilization of human rights” to persuade others to join their cause despite
the risks to personal safety and to get around political constraints on collective
organizing. Conceptualized at the intersection of the cultural study of human
rights and social movements scholarship, “vernacular mobilization of human
rights” theorizes the relationship between vernacularization—the translation
and local adaptation of human rights—and movement micromobilization,
specifying how the former unfolds as collective action framing processes.
Through vernacularization activities, such as human rights workshops, move-
ment leaders reframe grievances and shift the attribution of blame to
empower and recruit new activists. Furthermore, with these framing proc-
esses, they generate a political community with a collective identity and social
networks that they use to continue expanding the movement. The article
enriches debates about the implications of implementing human rights and
understandings of the relationship between human rights and movement
mobilization, especially under repressive or uncertain political conditions.
How do activists form a social movement and mobilize under
repressive and uncertain political conditions? They would have to
overcome stiff political constraints just to be able to persuade
others to join their cause at great personal risks, and innovate
strategies and tactics to avoid state retaliation as they make
Funding was provided by the Humanities and Social Sciences Research Grant (WBS
No. R-241-000-118-646), National University of Singapore. I thank Catherine Albiston,
Nick Cheesman, Melissa Crouch, Prasenjit Duara, David Engel, David Gilbert, Andrew
Harding, Elaine Ho, Mark Massoud, Michael McCann, Calvin Morrill, Michael Musheno,
Eugene Quah, Rachel Stern, the editors and anonymous reviewers, as well as the audien-
ces at the 2014 Law and Society Association Annual Meeting and the Centre for the Study
of Law and Society, University of California-Berkeley,where earlier versions of this article
were presented. I also thank assistants Naw Mar Moora, Khine Khine Zin, Shaun Kang,
Koh Wei Jie, Jannelle Lau, Phua Jun Han, Maria Acton Thomas, U Kyaw Maung, Intan
Wirayadi, and YeoSam Jay. Most of all, I am grateful to the study informants.
Please direct all correspondence to Lynette J. Chua, Faculty of Law, National University
of Singapore, 469G Bukit Timah Road, Eu Tong Sen Building, Singapore 259776,
Singapore; e-mail:
Law & Society Review, Volume 49, Number 2 (2015)
C2015 Law and Society Association. All rights reserved.
demands for rights or mount other forms of resistance (Chua
2012; Johnston 2006). In Myanmar,
a group of activists are navi-
gating such challenges to build a movement for sexual orienta-
tion and gender identity minorities (“SOGI movement”). They
began mobilizing even when Myanmar was ruled by a military
junta known for violent suppression of dissent. Although Myan-
mar started transitioning to civilian governance after the 2010
elections, political conditions for collective organizing remain
dubious. Alongside legal reforms and signs of liberalization, the
government still arrests activists, abuse of power persists, and
human rights violations continue (Cheesman 2014; Human
Rights Watch 2014). Yet the SOGI movement is growing. It is
becoming a part of post-2010 politics in which marginalized
groups increasingly demand for rights recognition, and its
human rights strategy is attracting international support. Bur-
mese SOGI activists hold publicly visible gatherings, and engage
government officials and politicians. They speak out against social
norms that regard SOGI minorities as immoral and deviant, and
advocate for legal reform of sexual regulation.
In this article, I focus on the question of how SOGI activists
build their movement and mobilize in Myanmar under military
rule and as the country currently undergoes political changes.
Based on fieldwork on Myanmar, a site understudied by law and
society scholars, I find that activists deploy a strategy that I call
“vernacular mobilization of human rights” to carry out recruit-
ment and expand to grassroots locations across the country: they
vernacularize human rights—translate and adapt them for local
practice (Merry 2006)—so that these global norms resonate with
people who live in a society where human rights discourse was
brutally suppressed and largely unfamiliar to them (see, e.g.,
Dale 2011). Through vernacularization activities, such as human
rights workshops, movement leaders cultivate oppositional con-
sciousness (Mansbridge and Morris 2001) and empowerment,
and produce a sense of efficacy among participants, increasing
their willingness to take up collective action despite difficult polit-
ical conditions and risks. Furthermore, through vernacularization,
they generate a new political community of Burmese SOGI
minorities and a set of social networks of which they make use to
get around restrictions on collective organizing.
“Vernacular mobilization of human rights” is conceptualized
at the intersection of law and society’s cultural study of human
I use “Myanmar,” the country’s official name since 1989, to refer to the state,
“Burmese” as the adjectival form for the state, society, and its citizens, and “Burman” when
referring to the dominant ethnic group. I use these terms with the understanding that they
are contested; for example, opponents of the military dictatorship rejected “Myanmar.”
300 VernacularMobilization of Human Rights
rights and social movements scholarship. According to law and
society research, human rights have the potential to achieve social
justice (Merry 2006) and actualize human dignity (Massoud
2013); however, they often lack cultural resonance (Engel 2012;
Munger 2006) and political legitimacy, especially under repres-
sive conditions (see, e.g., Chua 2014; Massoud 2011; Stern and
O’Brien 2011). Nevertheless, local activists frequently turn to
human rights’ ideas of dignity, respect, and equality to persuade
others to join their cause or recognize their claims (see, e.g., Muj-
ica and Meza 2009; Rajaram and Zararia 2009), and construct
their claims as human rights to secure funding and other assis-
tance from international non-governmental organizations
(INGOs) and foreign governments (Bob 2005, 2009). To under-
stand the complex interplay between the universalism of human
rights and their local mobilizations, law and society scholars have
begun to examine vernacularization as cultural processes (Levitt
and Merry 2009; Merry 2006).
I advance this line of research by developing “vernacular mobi-
lization of human rights” to theorize vernacularization’s relationship
to movement micromobilization. In short, vernacular mobilization
of human rights is a mobilization strategy that consists of collective
action framing processes (Snow et al. 1986) through which activists
translate and put human rights into local practice. Building on
extant scholarship, I specify how vernacularization unfolds as these
framing processes. In addition, I go further using the strategy of
vernacular mobilization of human rights to emphasize the impor-
tance of vernacularization’s social nature to movement mobilization.
I show how a social movement and vernacularization mutually con-
struct each other and produce multiple and varied practices of
human rights (Cowan et al. 2001; Goodale 2007).
Unpacking vernacular mobilization speaks to debates about
the implications of implementing human rights. Despite the
promise and allure of human rights, critics argue that human
rights are Western hegemonic impositions (De Sousa Santo and
Rodriguez-Garavito 2005; Nader 2007) and that their local adap-
tations reinforce unequal global distribution of power (Wilson
1997). They fear that Western funders pressure domestic activists
into engaging human rights, thus jeopardizing their safety (Mas-
soud 2013). On SOGI issues, human rights claims attract accusa-
tions of promoting undesirable Western culture and heighten
backlash from the state and other opponents (see, e.g., Boyd
2013; Currier 2009; Lee 2012). Others worry that human rights
discourse obliterates indigenous sexual identities (Kollman and
Waites 2009; Seckinelgin 2009), and obscures alternative inter-
pretations of social experiences and modes of conflict resolution
(Merry 2001).
Chua 301

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