Skip to main content

Let's Talk Human Rights

Interview with HRC Faculty Fellow Heather MacLachlan on Music and Human Rights Advocacy


Early this year, Myanmar’s military deposed the country’s democratically-elected government. Public protests against this coup have been met with the killing of hundreds of demonstrators and led to appeals for international assistance. On May 5, the military government further isolated protestors by banning the use of satellite televisions. The military coup comes a year after the International Criminal Court authorized investigations into charges that civilian and military leaders in Myanmar had pursued a policy of genocide against the country’s Muslim minority population, the Rohingya.

To better understand these events, HRC Postdoc Paul Morrow recently sat down with UD Associate Professor of Ethnomusicology and HRC Faculty Fellow Heather MacLachlan. Dr. MacLachlan has recently completed an article on Anti-Muslim Hate Music in Myanmar and its impact on the violence against the Rohingya. She has previously published books on the pop music industry in Myanmar (formerly known as Burma) and on gay and lesbian choral groups’ advocacy for LGBTQ rights.

Paul: First, a simple question: can you define ethnomusicology for readers who aren’t familiar with the term?

Heather: The term is still contested, and somewhat reluctantly accepted, within the discipline. It is broadly understood to mean the study of musics outside of the Western European canon, and indeed, most ethnomusicologists focus their research on traditions developed by people outside of the Anglo West. However, ethnomusicology is better defined as music-focused research conducted among living musicians (rather than among historical documents or recordings).

Paul: Were you always equally interested in music and social movements? Or did your interest in one develop after your interest in the other?

Heather: I first became interested in studying Burmese musics when I met some Burmese refugees in my home country of Canada. These people were the first who patiently explained to me why they had emigrated, and how the political situation of their country influenced many of their decisions, including in their musical lives. Of course, as I have read more and more of the scholarly literature over the years, I have furthered my understanding of music and the role it does (or does not) play in political movements, and I have developed my own independent questions.

Paul: You’ve studied the connections between music and political activism in what strikes me as very different political contexts. On the one hand, you’ve examined the work done by the Gay and Lesbian Choral Association (GALA) to promote LGBTQ rights, mostly in the U.S. On the other hand, you’ve researched the intersection between music and political movements in Myanmar. How did you come to study these different geographical and cultural contexts? And what are some key similarities and differences between them?

Heather: I believe that scholars are most successful when they maintain a strong curiosity about the world around them; this is how new ideas present themselves. I came to study both LGBTQ choral singers in North America and popular and traditional musicians in Myanmar because I initially met members of each of those groups. I fortuitously stumbled across these two research topics, one could say! The question that links the two concerns the power of music to influence listeners: Can amateur choral singing persuade (the rather conservative) choral music audiences to adopt a pro-LGBTQ stance? Alternatively, do recorded hate songs play a role in fostering anti-Muslim attitudes among Burmese listeners on YouTube?

Paul: Readers will likely be aware of the recent military coup in Myanmar, and the deaths of civilian protestors that have followed. These events follow the mass killing and forced displacement of members of Myanmar’s Rohingya Muslim minority in 2017, which the UN condemned as gross human rights violations. Can you briefly explain how these developments relate to the earlier phase of anti-Muslim violence that’s the subject of your forthcoming article? 

Heather: It is fascinating to note that spokespersons for the Rohingya refugee community in Bangladesh (which is the Muslim group that has been “ethnically cleansed” from western Myanmar) released a statement supporting the pro-democracy protest movement early on. By doing so, they tacitly offered their support to Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy, which has not been an ally of the Rohingya. The conclusion I draw from this is: Muslim leaders fear that their people are in even more danger inside Myanmar now that the military junta has wrested control of the federal government. It seems to me this fear is justified. Since 2012, both groups of laypeople and soldiers have perpetrated violence against Muslims, but the best evidence shows that most of the killings, burnings, and rapes were committed by (and sanctioned by) members of the military. With the generals exercising dictatorial control, there will be even fewer checks on their actions, should the military decide to re-engage in genocidal violence against Muslims.

Paul: Although it may be difficult to get information at the moment, due to military control of internet service and restrictions on platforms, have you found any cases of music influencing the current protest movement in Myanmar?

Heather: Yes, there are now dozens of (what I am provisionally calling) anti-coup songs which have been composed, recorded and uploaded to the internet since February 1, 2021. These songs represent a diversity of musical genres, including rap, rock, gospel and classical piano, and are recorded by both Myanmar and international musicians. At least two of the songs (of which there are multiple recorded versions) are sung by protestors when they march in defiance of the military coup. At this early stage, I can confidently say that some of these songs are sung for the purpose of offering encouragement and building solidarity among the protestors, while other songs (most of which are presented with English translations) are designed to raise awareness among international internet users.

Paul: Are there any further connections between music and human rights advocacy that you’d like to research going forward?

Heather: Yes. For example, I have conducted some preliminary research among the descendants of pagoda slaves in Myanmar, and I would love to know more about the musical life of this community. With that said, I deeply appreciate the HRC’s continuing support of my work, which is not a simplistic endorsement of the power of music to change the world for the better. I imagine that my future work will continue to reveal the many different, and sometimes ambiguous, roles that music plays in advocating for marginalized people. 

Previous Post

Human Rights Through A Gender Lens

Anna Beebe was the HRC Intern at Counterpart International Bangladesh during the 2020-21 school year. As part of her experience, Anna wrote a blog about gender and its connection to Counterpart's Promoting Advocacy and Rights project, which works to create more sustainable and equitable communities in Bangladesh. 


Read More
Next Post

What we learned from our human rights research at Counterpart International

HRC Counterpart International interns Anna Beebe and Maggie Weaver share their experiences working on human rights issues facing Bangladesh and El Salvador.
Read More