latest from the magazine
latest journal issue
hese last months, my social media feed has been in constant throes that bounce between disparate coverage of racialized misogynist violence throughout the US and another lineage of state-sanctioned violence against women in Southeast Asia. I write this nearly three months into the most recent military coup in Myanmar, in which military police have detained hundreds of government officials, have extrajudicially killed 776 civilian protesters, and either maimed or indefinitely detained 3,813 additional protestors. Some of the most visible figures in popular media out of the Civil Disobedience Movement have been youth and women. International calls to support have meant increased visibility for, not just democracy activists, but also garment workers on strike, and advocates from ethnic minority and feminist struggles for sovereignty.
It has been hard for me to separate these simultaneous moments of social upheaval; their connections stem from historical legacies of Asian women’s bodies being indexed as violable, as fungible, and as collateral damage of war and neoliberal globalization. Often, service industries, including sex work, massage work, and garment work have been further entrenched by political and economic equalities wrought by intra-Asian, European, and US imperialisms. More now than ever, a call to transnational feminist internationalist solidarity and sustained attention to workers’ and dissidents’ world-making remain crucial.
In the midst of a global pandemic, increasing global fascism, a spate of mass shootings in the US, and spectacular upticks in masculinist supremacy, what does this call to solidarity entail? Two arguments follow.
1) Solidarity entails recognizing and shouting down the militarized intimidation tactics of police shared by both supposedly "democratic" and authoritarian regimes. This requires that we hold scale and geographic specificity in tension while confronting their parallels.
The current military coup in Myanmar has denied extrajudicial killings yet has been documented as randomly spraying bullets into crowds of protestors and civilians alike. To families’ horror, they have also been reported to have tortured arrested demonstrators in custody, and in one documented case have even exhumed a grave to hide evidence. Kyal Sin, an unarmed 19 year-old activist holding the front lines against police barricades was shot at long range from behind. Her funeral, attended by thousands, culminated in a burial, but her remains disappeared overnight without the permission of her family, and the grave site filled with cement blocks, bloodied surgical gowns, and gloves.
As I write this, the US has been most recently embroiled in civilian uprisings in response to the state-sanctioned police murders of 20 year old Daunte Wright, 13 year old Adam Toledo, and 16 year old Ma’Khia Bryant in Minneapolis, MN; Chicago, IL; and Columbus, OH, respectively. These killings coincided with the trial of Derek Chauvin (now convicted), a former Minneapolis police offer who killed George Floyd over a suspected counterfeit $20 bill almost a year ago. Despite public outcry, the National Guard and local militarized police forces have responded to these civilian uprisings with rifles, riot gear, tear gas, and flash bombs in ways that parallel the military responses in Myanmar.
Various international media outlets have likened what’s happening in the streets of Mandalay, Yangon, Chicago, and Minneapolis as “war zones.” The escalation of militarized police in these instances point to the ways in which these compounded contingencies of policing between “authoritarian” and “democratic” space is ever present, and in some moments, indistinguishable. In this light, it’s not surprising that the current military regime in Myanmar has hired an Israeli state lobbyist as a public relations contractor for $2 million to defend its current response to civil unrest. This includes both the denial of and doubling down on longer histories of ethnic cleansing and apartheid policies by sponsoring military-led tours through cities to quell the concerns of international journalists dispatched to Myanmar. Robin D.G. Kelley (2019), Angela Y. Davis, and others have noted the ways in which Israeli state security forces and US militarized police forces parallel each other in their historically settler colonial and segregationist policies and use of force.
Taking these comparisons of “war zones” seriously, what abolitionist transnational relationalities are possible; especially those that would re-direct emphasis from not only demilitarizing police and casting out “bad apples,” but continually dismantle global mechanisms of militarized governance, surveillance, incarceration, and racist policing writ large?
2) Solidarity entails paying attention to the pulsating undercurrent of labor organizing by women, migrant, trans, and LGBTQIA communities that threads these moments together.
In addition to the more spectacular violence of Myanmar’s military reaction to mass civilian uprisings, there has been the undercurrent of women’s union organizing in leading calls for a nationwide general strike. The Federation of Garment Workers have specifically called for international pressure on the coup to reinstall a democratically elected government. In connection with this movement, related women’s collectives have begun a htamein (Burmese skirt wrap) movement that features supporters waving them as flags and hanging them on street poles to symbolically “shame” or lower the pone (social standing or power) of men, specifically the military walking under them. This performative repertoire draws on long-held cultural superstitions and converts this act into attention towards feminized labor, work stoppages, and protests across the country. Soldiers avoid walking under htamain and are hesitant to cross streets without taking them down first, and their advances are slowed while protesters find ways to flee. These campaigns also coincide with coalitions amongst ethnic minority women’s organizations to address the longstanding aftermath of military tactics of political, sexual, and economic violence against women.
In a parallel vein, the shooter in the Atlanta massage parlor murder spree drew upon a history of Asian women in service and bodywork industries, as “temptation” of his own racialized and sexualized fantasy. His unwitting comments about US Asian-run massage parlors conflates these sites with colonial rest and relaxation centers in the aftermath of Japanese and US wars throughout Southeast Asia, the Philippines, and Korea. This terrifying event led to spotlights on the ongoing work of Butterfly, Red Canary Song, Asian American Feminist Collective, Black Women Radicals, and many others who focus on labor rights, mutual-aid, anti-carceral, and sex-positive responses to how sex work is structured within late racial capitalism.
Asian American activists have pointed out how deportations are also a form of anti-Asian violence. Continual US state supported deportations of Vietnamese and Cambodian Americans from Philadelphia, PA to Orange County, CA have been brought up as a contradiction to President Joseph Biden's statements of solidarity to Asian communities in the wake of the Atlanta shootings. A March 2021 rally and car caravan protest in Orange County, CA unsuccessfully attempted to stop a flight carrying over 30 Vietnamese Americans being deported and these refusals are growing.
These coalitions shore up both the long histories and contemporary precarities that connect struggles among Asian, migrant, trans, and other workers of color, as well as organizing they have engaged to combat occupational harms of racialized, sexualized, and gendered violence on and off the job. Simultaneous attention to these non-statist interventions is not tangential, but perhaps crucial to unmaking Global North feminist and human rights assumptions and lifting up the ongoing work of survivors and workers engaged in regional as well as potential South-South solidarities.
Kelley, R. D. G. From the River to the Sea to Every Mountain Top: Solidarity as Worldmaking. Journal of Palestine Studies 48, 69–91 (2019).
Emily Hue is faculty in the UC Riverside Ethnic Studies department whose current book manuscript considers the performance and visual cultures of primarily asylum-seeking and refugee artists from Southeast Asia. She is a 2nd generation Asian American feminist of Shan and Chinese descent whose family left Burma in the 1970s, in the prolonged aftermath of an earlier military coup. She teaches classes on human rights, diaspora, and Asian American feminist theory and politics.