Southeast Asia has taken active strides towards human rights and democracy. But lost in this shift is the ongoing discrimination and violence against LGBTIQ+ persons in the region.
On Sunday 6 June thousands of people lined the streets of Bangkok for Naruemit Pride 2022. It had been 16 years since such a parade had taken place, and this was the first backed by local government. It was a celebration of gender and sexual diversity, as well as a call for action on rights and protections for members of the LGBTIQ community. As I followed Naruemit Pride on twitter, I was reminded that LGBTIQ activists in Myanmar have both been on the front lines of protest against the coup, as well as victims of its violence and torture. My feed also showed the difficulties faced by Southeast Asian LGBITQ communities because of the COVID pandemic, and the challenges faced because of censorship on the internet.
The visibility of LGBTIQ people across the region has grown significantly in recent times – helped in no small measure by the advent of social media and savvy communications activists. A wide range of local, regional, and international civil society organisations actively press the case for LGBITQ rights. Across the region these activists and advocate are involved in fighting for their communities to be free from violence, discrimination, and persecution based on sexual orientation, gender identity expression, and sex characteristics (SOGIESC).
This struggle for rights is the subject of my new book: Sexuality and Gender Diversity Rights in Southeast Asia. One of the first issues I discuss is the question of whether LGBTIQ or SOGIESC rights are some sort of social or cultural import into the region from the West. A lot of the pushback against such rights contrasts them with “traditional values” – a revival in part of the so-called “Asian values” debate of the 1990s, in which political elites railed against democracy, human rights, and homosexuality as forms of decadent Western neo-colonialism. But sexuality and gender diversity are historically rooted within the region, part of cultural traditions which pre-date European contact, forms of pluralism which were actively suppressed by later colonial interventions. The expression of sexual and gender diversity today through contemporary cultural and political forms should come as no surprise.
Rights claiming is one of those political forms – and rights claiming for queers is undeniably contemporary, wherever it takes place. Recognition of SOGIESC rights as part of even the UN’s human rights regime has been an arduous process. Unlike for women, children, indigenous people, and the disabled (among others), there is no named United Nations instrument for the rights of sexuality and gender diverse people. Indeed, the Yogyakarta Principles were independently set up in 2007 out of exasperation at the lack of progress! As I write, a campaign is underway to renew the closest the UN comes to such institutional entrenchment: the office of the UN Independent Expert on SOGI. This renewal requires a political vote at the Human Rights Council, and while likely to pass, it signals the tenuous nature of the recognition given to sexuality and gender diversity rights in the international human rights regime.
Any such recognition was simply refused for SOGIESC rights in the recently developed human rights regime of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). Despite the Asian Values debate, ASEAN has turned to human rights and democracy, as part of its Community Building agenda, promising a more “people-oriented and people-centred” future. This promise, as well as the development of a regional architecture for human rights, has contributed to the development of a new politics of rights claiming and rights based political participation across the region.
It is this which gives rise to the central set of discussions in my new volume. The central dynamic at play is this: ASEAN and its member states have bought into the contemporary global politics of human rights. This has happened at the exact same time that the global human rights regime has come to recognise LGBTI rights as human rights (albeit belatedly and somewhat haphazardly). But ASEAN remains recalcitrant by refusing to recognise such rights. For LGBTI activists this coincidence of developments provides a range of additional institutional strategies for advocacy.
One example I discuss is the relatively new human rights accountability mechanism that has been established within the UN rights regime itself, Universal Periodic Review. This mechanism requires states to undergo a review process every four to five years. In this process, they are held accountable by their peers, who scrutinise their rights record. Importantly, at each stage in the process there are opportunities for input from civil society organisations. Written reports are submitted and archived, and there are opportunities for oral statements in hearings. This process has helped amplify the visibility and voice of LGBTI communities, and the socialisation of SOGIESC rights issues within the UN regime.
The argument I advance, with this and other examples, is that SOGIESC rights claiming is a particular mode of political participation, an amalgam of institutional structures and political ideologies, that has become widely available in Southeast Asia because of this confluence of developments – the turn of ASEAN to human rights, the promulgation of its own human rights regime, and the broader turn within the global human rights regime to the fuller recognition of SOGIESC rights as human rights. I argue that rights claiming as a mode of political participation becomes available because of the range and scale of ideological and institutional networks that undergird it and give it traction. The result has been a burgeoning of rights claiming on a wide range of issues, with SOGIESC rights being among those taken up by civil society organisations, their supporters, and allies.
In some jurisdictions this has supported noticeable gains in formal rights protection, the standout case being Thailand, with new protections against discrimination and for relationship recognition. In others, such as Indonesia, a moral panic and the rise of reactionary political forces appear to have curtailed any such prospects for the time being. This in turn illustrates another element of rights claiming as a mode of political participation: that while it draws on globally scaled institutions and networks to get traction, equally critical is the local context of social conflict into which claims are made. These contexts of social conflict shape the reception and utility of rights claiming, for advocates and adversaries alike. Because of this dynamic, SOGIESC rights claiming has faced contrasting, even divergent reception patterns in the differentiated national and political contexts of the region.
The struggle for protection against discrimination and violence on the basis of SOGIESC and for an environment in which individuals and communities might flourish and celebrate their diversity is an ongoing one. We see this in Southeast through the work of organisations like ASEAN SOGIE Caucus and globally as SOGIESC advocates lobby the UN’s Human Rights Council to renew the mandate of the SOGI Independent Expert, Victor Madrigal-Borloz. In all these developments SOGIESC rights claiming has become a critical part of that struggle. Interpreting such rights claiming as a mode of political participation, I suggest, enables a clearer understanding of current developments and future possibilities for the region’s social movements.
Anthony J. Langlois is an Associate Professor in International Relations in the College of Business, Government and Law at Flinders University. He is the author, most recently, of Sexuality and Gender Diversity Rights in Southeast Asia, Cambridge, 2022. https://doi.org/10.1017/9781108933216
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.