In the immediate aftermath of the Myanmar coup d’etat on 1 February, pictures of young Burmese protesters made international headlines for their bravery, creativity and sometimes humour.
The images were reminiscent of other recent instances of courageous youth-led protests. Nigeria’s “End SARS” protests last October against the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, notorious for its police brutality, and Thailand’s ongoing pro-democracy protests come to mind.
I recently stumbled on a youth-centred online event that provided the inspiration for this piece, which reflects on young people’s motivation in trying to bring about political change – and the exclusion they face.
On 16 February, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), the highest-level humanitarian coordination forum of the UN system, officially launched the IASC youth guidelines, an authoritative guide for organisations and groups working with young people in humanitarian settings and crises. Unicef and the Norwegian Refugee Council led the development of these guidelines.
The project underscores the importance of involving young people in humanitarian aid, peacebuilding and relief efforts. It also draws attention to how the political process frequently excludes youth, even from the process of designing the very policies and programmes meant to aid their generation and their communities.
Such exclusion stems from a lack of inclusive, pro-youth platforms for engagement, political participation and advocacy. This shortcoming is often rooted in sociocultural factors such as a distrust in youth’s capacity for meaningful societal contribution and the prejudice that young people have nothing to add to decision-making.
The result: further alienation of youth from politics, a problem afflicting many societies around the world. A 2018 report by the Inter-Parliamentary Union put this in raw numbers: only 2.2% of world MPs are under 30, whereas about 73% are 45 and above.
Yet, the history and experiences of youth movements in Myanmar show us how new generations can be so proactive in trying to build fair and peaceful societies.
Far from being an isolated case or a new phenomenon, young people taking to the streets of Myanmar to bring about change has been a feature of the nation’s politics for almost a century.
In 1920, Rangoon University students organised one of the first anti-British boycotts in the country. Aung San, leader of two students’ unions, went on to become “Father of the Nation” for his role in achieving national independence.
More recently, students’ groups yet again started countrywide protests against General Ne Win’s dictatorship in 1988. They took the lead in various Saffron Revolution demonstrations in 2007. And they initiated peace marches in 2012 and 2013.
The younger generation is once again on the frontlines of the ongoing anti-military protests. In interviews, young protesters reveal that, despite many of them not having lived through Myanmar’s hardest historical periods, they have heard of the repression the military is capable of from their parents’ and grandparents’ accounts. These young people are also concerned about the lack of education and opportunities that might ensue after the coup.
Millions of young people voted for their first time in November’s general election, and they are not prepared to lose their democratic freedom.
Myanmar’s youths have good reason to be frustrated. The historical fight of these student movements for a better society has never translated into a more youth-inclusive political landscape. During the democratic transition process under president Thein Sein, educated young people and youth-led organisations provided key technical, logistical and documentation support for peace negotiations and for the 2015 nationwide ceasefire agreement.
However, no formal inclusion mechanism for young people was established. The youths who took part in the peace process not only did not have any voice in the negotiations: they were also never recognised as participants and stakeholders in the nationwide ceasefire agreement. Little space was created for Myanmar’s youth to take part in decision-making.
This glance at Myanmar’s political history leaves us with two takeaways.
On the one hand, it provides evidence on how proactive and well-organised young people can be in participating in their country’s politics. New generations are full of latent potential for meaningful societal change: they are educated and eager to learn, they think creatively and innovatively, and they are tech-savvy: they have shown how easily they can circumvent a social media blackout.
On the other hand, the Myanmar experience also shows how mainstream politics, peacebuilding processes and decision-making tend to marginalise young people. The irony is that these young people are the ones who will bear the burden of crises such as climate change and late-stage unsustainable capitalism. In conflict-affected countries like Myanmar, young people also face additional risks like being recruited by armed groups.
Any society that wishes to progress must give its youth the tools and platforms to become active participants in all decisions that affect their future and their communities.
Daniele Speziale studied at Penanti Secondary School in Bukit Mertajam as a 17-year-old exchange student and later as a political science research intern at USM – and he has been passionate about Malaysia ever since. Now a political science graduate from Leiden University in the Netherlands, he lives in Italy