Rights Refused: Grassroots Activism and State Violence in Myanmar

Hosted by the Saw Swee Hock Southeast Asia Centre

Room MAR 1.09 (1st Floor Marshall Building), and online via Zoom


Elliott Prasse-Freeman

Elliott Prasse-Freeman

Assistant Professor, National University of Singapore


Dr Hans Steinm├╝ller

Dr Hans Steinm├╝ller

Associate Professor, Dept of Anthropology, SEAC Associate

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. Given these realities, the talk then asks: how do people conduct politics when they lack the legally and symbolically stabilizing force of "rights" to guarantee their incursions against injustice? It 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, illustrating how Burmese subaltern politics compel us to reconsider how rights frameworks operate everywhere.

This seminar was recorded and the video can be watched here


Speaker and Chair Biographies:

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. In addition to his recently published book (Rights Refused, Stanford University Press), 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, a journal you should consider submitting to.

Dr Hans Steinmüller is Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology, LSE and a specialist in the anthropology of China. He has conducted long-term fieldwork in Hubei Province (central China) and in the Wa hills of the China-Myanmar border. Publications include the monograph Communities of Complicity (Berghahn 2013), and more recently special issues on Governing Opacity (Ethnos 2023) and Crises of Care in China Today (China Quarterly 2023). He is editor of Social Analysis and convenor of the MSc programme 'China in Comparative Perspective'.

Photo by Saw Wunna on Unsplash