The Force Awakens: Reflections on Myanmar in the Wake of a Historic Election
“In 5 years time, I want to open a newspaper that reads: no more civil war, real democracy, participation of young people, better education”
These are the words of a young Myanmar participant of Global Platform’s Training of Trainers workshop. One of the many and diverse situations we had the privilege of finding ourselves in. Over the past 10 days, we have talked to newly elected youth MPs, unsuccessful ethnic party candidates, young activists, organisers, mobilisers, leaders, changemakers, rights advocates, artists, cyclists, local and international development consultants international aid organisations, UN agencies, foreign government departments, tour guides, businessapiens, social innovators and each other. A lot. We’ve spent roughly the same amount of time in taxis as it takes to get from Planet Hoth to Tatooine (without lightspeed), watched 30 lycra clad activists eat breakfast, dined at the Strand Hotel (paid for by the Galactic Empire/Rebel Alliance – not sure yet), eaten a heap of great street food (*cantina scene music*), and experienced the unbridled joys of what can be done with a bunch of markers and a whiteboard floor.
We flew into Myanmar with a shamefully poor understanding of the country – a few conversations with friends who had travelled there before and some bits and bobs that Lonely Planet deemed significant. We were outsiders with very few preconceptions of what Myanmar would be like, but a good many preconceptions of aid and development, of South-East Asia as a region, and all our cognitive biases that we bring with us, in all their forms, everywhere.
This is the basis, the methodology if you will, of the learning and reflections that follow.
So what does it feel like to be in a country that has not 3 weeks ago had its first ‘democratic’ election? Pretty normal. The Shwedagon Pagoda, Myanmar’s most sacred Buddhist pagoda, dating back thousands of years still weirdly has elevators built into it. The richness of ethnic food and culture is still brimming. The circle train still goes in a circle. The traffic still goes nowhere. You can still safely leave your bag unattended. Unsurprisingly, you really have to talk to a diverse range of people to really get a sense of the ‘mood’. And, with small degrees of variability, the majority of people we spoke to conveyed a sense of cautious optimism.
Let’s start with the optimism.
For most of the twentieth century, and much of this century to date, the people of Myanmar have struggled for freedom from oppression: from the British, from the military or juntas, from authoritarian leaders, from ethnic majorities. When people Myanmar people describe how the government manipulates media messaging to perpetuate conflict in Kachin state, you get a tiny and terrifying insight into what it would be like to have a government that actively directs harm to and between its citizens. Despite the many failings of recent Australian governments, we’re pretty lucky. Thank sweet baby Jason that Western democracies function in a way that prevents political leaders spreading fear and hatred. So with the change that has come about in this election, Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) winning roughly 80% of the vote, there is a mandate for change and a new hope.
For young people in Myanmar, there is hope that these changes will create the environment needed for to organise, up-skill, campaign and have their voices heard and acted on. There is a huge youth bulge in Myanmar with more than 55% percentage of Myanmar’s population is under the age of 30. Young people have historically been the drivers of change. Students led protests throughout the 1920s and 30s against the colonial education system, in the 60s against a political coup, and in the protests of 1988 that culminated in hundreds of students and citizens being killed by the military. In March this year, students organised a protest advocating for the right to teach in ethnic minority languages, the right to form student unions and greater decentralization of universities. The protest led to the arrest of over 100 students and activists. These protests, and the historical role that students have played in advocating for change has meant that government and military have very little tolerance for such demonstrations, and have eyed students and young people with distrust and scepticism. The military junta have systematically shut down spaces and opportunities to organise and protest, and quite literally moved universities out of central Yangon to manage the threat of another student uprising. The opportunities of young people to stand up are then further limited by hierarchical norms that place the young at the bottom rung of the social ladder.
But with the NLD’s victory, all this could change. The NLD’s 2015 Election Manifesto prioritises the freedom and security for youth to prosper, including “the formation of youth organisations that can support the rights and opportunities of young people…” If seriously prioritised, this could flag a huge shift in the opportunities afforded to young people to be agents of change in the future development of Myanmar.
“Suu Kyi is still an authoritarian leader. She runs her party with the same command-control approach as the USDP and this is not a good sign for the true realisation of democracy”
Many people we talked to who had been working in Myanmar for a long time, were cautious, even sceptical, that the NLD’s victory would lead to change on a level that would come anywhere close to expectations. Part of this stems from a perception that Suu Kyi is just another authoritarian leader, who knows well the rhetoric of democracy, but is not at all participatory in the way she governs. Part of this stems from Myanmar’s constitution, which reserves 25% of seats in the legislature for the military and bars Suu Kyi from holding the office of President because of her foreign children (and former spouse). And of course, there is the concern that the NLD will have to walk a compromise between their own agenda and appeasing the military for fear that it will strike back. From our perspective, these all seem like legitimate concerns. But these concerns, asserted predominantly by foreigners, also raise questions about the role of the international community. How can foreign groups, and the individuals that comprise them, move from a fatalistic cynicism of Myanmar’s potential, and actively support a transition to democracy? And whose conception of democracy should they be asserting? Western democracy? Myanmar democracy?
For us, this all comes back to affording young people the space to determine the future of their country. If the international aid and
development powers that be want to see a truly democratic and inclusive Myanmar – they need to get serious about their own democratic practices. These organisations take up a particular space in Myanmar between governments and decision makers and truly grassroots and locally-led movements. Foreign embassies and aid programs, UN agencies and international NGOs and multilateral organisations need to ensure their work is participatory, inclusive and informed and representative of local voices and the next generation of leaders in Myanmar. They need to make sure that the priorities of local movements are the same as their own priorities, and that they are facilitating opportunities for local groups to influence decision makers. Otherwise, they need to get out of the way, because their connections to foreign power, perceived legitimacy and ability to pay for nicer conference rooms and better catering is stealing space away from the local organisations and movements that should be setting Myanmar’s agenda.
The title of this blog post is a bit misleading, and that is definitely not because we were just trying to get in on the insane amount of Star Wars hype going around at the moment. The Force (young people) has been awake (active and ready to create change) in Myanmar for a long time. But these elections could mark the beginning of a huge shift in the status quo, the rebel uprising. We’re optimists, and believe that greater democratisation, better educational opportunities, peace, greater justice for those who are marginalised on the basis of religion or race, and a better life for all Myanmar people will come. But what is crucial is how quickly this change will come. Sure, these things take time, but for all of this time, people’s rights will continue to be denied, their voices will go unheard and widespread poverty will persist. This is unacceptable. So what is the key to speeding up this process? No idea, we’re just a bunch of Australians who visited a country for 10 days. But we suspect, with all due humility, that it has got something to do with the thousands of young people in Myanmar that are demanding the political, social and sectoral space to enliven their vision for a better world.
So to the youth of Myanmar, and for all those that stand with them, may the force be with you.
Emma Clampett is Oaktree’s Director of International Youth Exchange.
Geordie Fung is Oaktree’s Head of International Engagement.
Find out more about Oaktree’s work overseas at oaktree.org/overseas_impact