For decades, the outside world mostly knew Myanmar as the site of a valiant human rights struggle against an oppressive military regime, predominantly through the figure of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. And yet, a closer look at Burmese grassroots sentiments reveals a significant schism between elite human rights cosmopolitans and subaltern Burmese subjects maneuvering under brutal and negligent governance. While elites have endorsed human rights logics, subalterns are ambivalent, often going so far as to refuse rights themselves, seeing in them no more than empty promises. Such alternative perspectives became apparent during Burma’s much-lauded decade-long “transition” from military rule that began in 2011, a period of massive change that saw an explosion of political and social activism.
How then do people conduct politics when they lack the legally and symbolically stabilizing force of “rights” to guarantee their incursions against injustice? In this presentation, Elliott Prasse-Freeman describes his recent book on the topic, in which he documents grassroots political activists who advocate for workers and peasants across Burma, covering not only the so-called “democratic transition” from 2011-2021, but also the February 2021 military coup that ended that experiment and the ongoing mass uprising against it. Taking the reader from protest camps, to flop houses, to prisons, and presenting practices as varied as courtroom immolation, occult cursing ceremonies, and land reoccupations, the talk shows how Burmese subaltern politics compel us to reconsider how rights frameworks operate everywhere.
Elliott Prasse-Freeman, an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at the National University of Singapore, received his PhD from the Department of Anthropology at Yale University. He has conducted long-term fieldwork in Myanmar, and his recently published book (Rights Refused, Stanford University Press) focuses on Burmese subaltern political thought as adduced from an extended ethnography of activism and contentious politics in the country's semi-authoritarian setting. Prasse-Freeman also has a book project on Rohingya ethnogenesis and political subjectivity amidst dislocation and mass violence. His work has appeared in journals such as American Ethnologist, Current Anthropology, Journal of Peasant Studies, Public Culture, and Comparative Studies in Society and History, and he's part of the editorial team at Anthropological Theory.