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The emotions of human rights work in Myanmar

Sena Galazzi from University of London’s SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies) writes about the practical and emotional effects of doing human rights work in Myanmar. She looks particularly at professional and personal relationships between those working in the international human rights sector and those in local human rights work here in Myanmar.

1. The international human rights movement is usually seen as something that is opposed to and critical of power. Yet in practice the movement owns, represents and performs power in many different ways. In my research I am looking at how these forms of power in the every-day relationships between people in the workplace, taking very seriously the classic idea of “the personal is political” (but using it beyond feminism). I am then trying to see how this impacts the practice of human rights work in Myanmar on two levels: the practical level and the emotional (affective) level.

2. Much of my research assumes that a key issue is the relationship between the international human rights movement and more locally based activism in Myanmar. Of course the main lesson here is that this distinction between international and local is fictitious, i.e. it is only a way to explain two tendencies. This is because ‘off the paper, in real life, the two worlds have blurred fuzzy boundaries which mean that two worlds are mutually formed and constantly changing. How do we decide what is local and what is international? Is it the organization’s primary source of funding? Is it their Head Office location etc? If the reality is so fuzzy, what role do rigid organizational policies around this have on cementing particular identities?

3. The two tendencies of local and international interact in the personal politics of everyday life, in professional relationships between co-workers outside the office, i.e. friendship. There are also relationships between workers of different organisations and relationships between different organisations that mirror some of the personal dynamics. Finally, but perhaps most importantly, there are internal tensions, contradictions and complex layers even within one only individual.

4. Since I am looking at people’s everyday practices and motivations, and relationships with each other and with their workplace, this includes looking at people ‘inside out’. This means taking their feelings very seriously for the practical effects they have, thus using a perspective that academically we call ‘psychosocial’ and using a key concept known as ‘affect’, borrowed from psychoanalysis. Looking at affect means following individual human rights workers’ feelings and finding emotional patterns unique to certain groups and looking at how emotions move between bodies in human rights work and how these workers and activists experience it.)

5. As I suspected from the start, it is very difficult to research and document feelings. When dealing with such intimate issues, it is also very difficult to be transparent about the research project without influencing their answers, because humans naturally want to agree, so might inadvertently tell the researcher what they want to hear. Or at times the opposite, where interviewees may feel questions to be too inquisitive on the personal level and therefore shut down. When dealing with people’s thoughts, motivations, emotions I rely on ‘self-reporting’ or what people tell me. I have no way of knowing if people are being honest. Also, if you take psychoanalysis and Freud seriously and agree that at least part of our thoughts derive from an unconscious place, then it is also hard for those I interview to really say why they have certain feelings.

Sena would love to hear directly from anyone who has opinions on these issues. You can comment below or drop her a line at pic SCMP

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