Catherina Köhler, a young researcher for the FES office in Yangon Myanmar, conducted the following study on the role of the youth within the ongoing democratization process of Myanmar. The focus of the study was laid on the description of the status quo of youth empowerment in the country. Further, the goal was to provide the youth with a space in which they could talk about their dreams, concerns, problems and ideas.
The Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES) is a German non-profit, public interest, political-educational foundation active in Myanmar since 2005 to promote the values of social democracy and political dialogue in the society. A core objective of FES is also to support young researchers in their work and to encourage them to tackle socio-political issues. We are therefore very pleased to herewith present Catherina Köhler´s study. Within her study the author had the chance to talk to various different youth organizations and young people in Myanmar.
In 2015, the first reasonably democratic, free and fair elections were held in Myanmar since 1990. Myanmar is nowadays led by a partly civilian government, but its constitution still guarantees that the military has political power and a veto right over new laws and policies. Myanmar has recently initiated an official peace process, and the first National Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in the history of the country has been signed by about half of the big ethnic armed organizations.
I had been fascinated by Myanmar for several years before deciding to do research on the country in the context of my Master’s degree in intercultural conflict management. I chose to focus and work with the youth, because I believe that their situation “can serve as an indicator for the overall function of the state.” By that, I do not say that the function of the state relies solely on the younger people. Rather, that they are the generation with the potential to take the country forward.
Throughout the duration of the fight for a democratic political system, students and members of the youth group were at the forefront of the human rights and democratic movements. Historically, the military (Tatmadaw) did not encourage civil and political participation. Since the 88-uprising, students were perceived as particularly threatening to the rule of the military.
The youth is nowadays growing up in a period of change, where civil participation and engagement are possible, sometimes even encouraged. The young people are voicing their opinions and starting to establish groups which are dealing with issues regarding Human Rights, Freedom of speech, and policy advocacy.
Nonetheless, those groups, and young people in general, are facing various issues. The inclusion and participation in politics and the peace process on the local, regional and national levels are not guaranteed. When observing official politics or debates, one barely comes across young people publicly stating their opinion. The members of the democratic government are all way above 35 years of age. Moreover, as will be described in this text, the challenges of the youth do not only derive from their age, but also from their ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, educational level and socio-economical background.
In my research, I conducted sixteen qualitative interviews with people aged between 15 and 35. Throughout these interviews, my main interest laid in their description and assessment of the current possible strategies to improve the status quo.
Since the population in Myanmar is particularly heterogenous (also the youth itself does not form a homogenous group), I paid special attention to balancing the gender and ethnic backgrounds of my interview partners. I am aware that sixteen interviews by no means represent the whole young population of Myanmar. My goal was rather to provide them with a space in which they could talk about their dreams, concerns, problems and ideas, since I share the thought that a country “will never truly achieve youth engagement, unless youth has a place to exist”. Even if the insights were limited by scope, they did provide some first-hand impressions about how young citizens of Myanmar experience and describe their place in society.
The traditional hierarchical structure of the society, which means respecting the elders and the wisdom that comes with age, is one of the core issues regarding the inclusion of the youth. As one of my interview partners stated, “the youth has no assigned legitimacy” towards the independent and active promotion of peace within their designated communities. When asking for possible solutions to this dilemma, the interviewee continued that “we have to change the conservative thought that the society feels that the elders are better than the youngers, making them realize that we have something important to say as well”.
Buddhism, which is the dominant religion in the country, is further widening the distance between the groups since it encourages the concept that elders are naturally more knowledgeable.
The official educational system in Myanmar “does not teach nor encourage systematic thinking” according to an interviewee. Students learn books, formulas and other relevant data by heart; discussions, not to mention critical discussions, are only in the recent years very slowly entering the curriculum of schools. Indeed, they grew up in an authoritarian system, where independent thinking or civil participation was not encouraged, and sometimes even forbidden. Students are still not “get[ting] the full picture” and therefore are “easily overwhelmed […] and even if they want to say something, they say it in no logical structures”. Despite what some people think, the youth does have the intellect to move things forward.
Despite the recent democratic development, the political literacy of the civilians remains low; school curriculums do not teach the basics of democracy, terms such as social democracy remaining unheard-of.
This lack of capacity or confidence amongst the youth leads to the opinion that “even if the government wants to include the youth, there is currently no capacity from the side of the youth”.
This limited understanding surrounding the importance of the role of youth education is even more prominent in regions of ethnic minorities, such as Kachin, Rakhine or Mon State. Even though the open government has changed its policies to allow ethnic languages to be taught in schools, the textbooks are still in Burmese as the “old mindset” of the teachers “needs time to change.”
The challenges also vary between young people when looking outside of the education system. I asked someone belonging to an ethnic minority group, if they thought the youth were able unite and work for the common goal of peace. The response was that “this can be a challenging obstacle […] because some youth have a neglected mind […] it is not their fault; they just have a different reality than us”.
Most of the times, religion is equated with perceived identity. The Buddhist religion is, for most of my interview partners, strongly connected with their citizenship. Not all of them perceive it as something positive. They are very aware that “rural areas have different opportunities” in which “a lot of the youth are left without any change of participation”. While conducting my research, I became more and more aware that the young people in Myanmar are also divided; instead of working together for a more active inclusion, the youth groups are working against one another, reproducing the xenophobic sentiments seen on the national level.
The youth is therewith going back to the fundamental political question:
Who is part of the democratic society of Myanmar?
This tendency is making unity among different groups impossible; the youth is anticipated as fundamentally different, with contrasting needs, aims, and political agendas. While there is a difference between individual needs, the overall goal of the youth remains the same.
Before Myanmar and international organizations can think about including the youth, fundamental political issues regarding the lack of unity need to be solved. The peace process is struggling, the endeavours for a peaceful federal democracy seem to remain unaddressed.
The continuation of the Peace Process was of great importance to all my interview partners. Some even demand that the “youth [should] to be a part of the peace process”, having the overall goal to “support positive peace, like being together beyond the boundaries of any differences.”
The understanding that the country is “wasting resources” with the xenophobic sentiments is one step in the right direction and only needs to be further enforced.
The Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung is supporting the Graduate Research Diploma in Peace Leadership, which was established in 2018 as a part of the Peace Leadership and Research Institute. This diploma intends to tackle the issue of the “run-of-the-mill capacity building workshops” by bringing fresh minds and ideas to the stalled setting of the peace negotiations. During the development of the program, the overarching thought was: Who could possibly be better equipped for a change of perspective than the youth? According to the Canadian Ambassador Karen McArthur, who gave the Commencing Address speech at the graduation event, “the youth is a gift to the peace process, the youth comes with fresh eyes and new ideas. And can help to try different ways of approaching the peace process.”
The program is manifold; it educates young people from different ethnicities, religions and cultures to understand the peace and policy process better. It endows them with capacities to monitor the peace process for their respected NGOs and/or ethnic minority groups. Furthermore, it encourages them to overcome the xenophobic tendencies within the political and social spheres of the society.
The Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung, as one of the donors of this diploma, organized and financed a variety of workshops and especially supported the independent research of the graduates, which they conducted as part of the program.
The 21 participants of the first program, who graduated this year, came from 10 different regions; every graduate brought their own story, background, and solution for the continuation of the peace process. During the course of the diploma, opinions have been exchanged and an understanding of the different realities has been encouraged. Combining general and democratic education, the graduates are now able to contribute to the country and show that the current government would benefit from their inclusion.
The youth voices painted an interesting picture of the status quo of Myanmar; throughout the research, the various divisions (e.g. religion, ethnicity and gender) between young people became more and more apparent. Nevertheless, the apprehension of a total disconnection between the youth itself, the elders and the state, could not be verified through my research.
Yet, the need for capacity building projects, more active and general inclusion of the youth, democratic education and closer examination of embedded stereotypes or discriminations cannot be denied. However, I believe that before this can be done, Myanmar needs to find a strategy to overcome the various societal divisions and unite their citizens. A lot of different groups are currently only partly working together, and some are even working against each other. The youth has the capacity to achieve these goals through their understanding that the consolidation of a democracy requires joint action. Programs, such as the Graduate Research Diploma in Peace Leadership, are laying the foundation for a positive development. A crucial precursor remains to “change every social, economical and political barriers that block the development of the youth.”
FES Myanmar would like to thank the author, Catherina Köhler, for her initiative to conduct the study and her thorough research which materialized into this excellent paper. Furthermore, we would like to extend our gratitude to all the men and women who have shared their experiences, expertise and insights to be part of this work. We hope that this study will enhance conversations and debates on the state of the role of the youth within the democratic Transition in Myanmar and encourage its readers to more actively engage in discussions on the topic among the general public.
 Kemper, Yvonne (2005): 25
 www.burmalibrary.org/docs24/GNLM2018-01-06-red.pdf [last access 02. July 2019].
 www.worldometers.info/world-population/myanmar-population/ [last access 28. June 2019].
 Speech Karen McArthur, May 7. 2019