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 book, Elliott Prasse-Freeman 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, Rights Refused shows how Burmese subaltern politics compel us to reconsider how rights frameworks operate everywhere.
About the author
Elliott Prasse-Freeman is Assistant Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at the National University of Singapore.
"A combination analytical breadth, sparkling playfulness, ethnographic granularity, and deep sympathy for the heroic resistance of the Burmese democratic movement. Take a deep breath and dive in at the deep end; you'll be glad you did."
—James C. Scott, Yale University
"In this thoughtful exploration of the brutal political realities of present-day Myanmar, Elliott Prasse-Freeman unpacks the various understandings of human rights that both direct and bedevil attempts to instigate democratic reform. Noting that external observers have repeatedly misread Burmese conceptions of the very concept of rights, he offers an incisive corrective to such cultural tone-deafness with his nuanced analysis of Burmese activism and its often surprisingly diverse goals. His argument is a valuable lesson for all those who blithely assume that all meanings and values are inherently universal and thereby run the risk, in Prasse-Freeman's telling phrase, of "mocking the miserable.""
—Michael Herzfeld, Harvard University
"Rights Refused is a theoretically ambitious and ethnographically rich study of social activism, refusal and resistance in Myanmar. Prasse-Freeman lucidly captures how activists in specific local contexts reconfigure human rights discourses to challenge oppressive state power, and his insightful analysis reshapes our understanding of rights are operating in the contemporary world."
—Shannon Speed, University of California, Los Angeles
"Rights Refused transcends the confines of a mere book; it serves as a vital expedition, inviting readers to engage in a profound journey of empathy and introspection. Prasse-Freeman's humanisation of the activists and individuals at the heart of the struggle invites readers to step into their shoes and comprehend the immense challenges they face."
—Thanapat Chatinakrob, London School of Economics Review of Books