RANGOON – In 1989, visiting a roadside bookstore in downtown Rangoon was not something as simple as it might sound. Unless the vendors recognized your face, that is.
Yan Myo Thein, now 44, knows how difficult political activism among Burmese youth used to be. The former medical school student had to use his familiar face to get rare reading materials when dropping in bookstores.
“When they recognized me, they showed me political or history books written in English regarding Burma whenever they had some,” said the political commentator, who has also listened to radio news programs from Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corporation for at least three hours a day since the age of 14.
At that time, books about the Burmese opposition movement were not allowed to be sold in public, so bookstores were important places to promote ideas of revolution. Books like these, which were sold for about 200 kyat, were passed from one person to another, exchanged and discussed among friends.
Twenty-four years later, the number of youths participating in various movements is higher than in the past, but Yan Myo Thein, who was jailed for almost three years when he was 18 years old for participating in the 1988 uprising against the socialist government, remains skeptical about how much influence they can actually assert in politics.
Generation Wave, a pro-democracy youth group, has openly conducted awareness campaigns since the 2010 elections, roaming the streets to collect signatures and explain to people that the political war is not yet over. The group is known for expressing its views through hip-hop songs and graffiti.
Among the activists is 32-year-old Moe Thway. A former rock musician, he sits cross-legged in jeans and a black-and-white checkered shirt, his eyes covered by strands of hair when he looks down, revealing black stud earrings. Someone who once led a wild life, he is not the average freedom fighter.
“During those years of dictatorship, we couldn’t do anything, so we did a lot of art forms such as distributing music, publishing poems and drawing graffiti on street walls,” he says. He has been president of the youth group since its formation in 2007.
Now Generation Wave deploys different tactics. Their website and Facebook page are used to provide updates on their activities, mobilize people and organize protests.
Small political forces like this have benefited from greater access to the Internet in Burma after decades of heavy censorship. With over half the country’s population under the age of 30, the Internet has been a critical tool to express views on politics and democracy.
In May, Generation Wave spent one month collecting signatures for a campaign to stop “civil war” and start a political dialogue. With the help of the Internet, Facebook and email, they collected more than 60,000 signatures. Last year, they also gathered about 2,000 people to march for 10 miles on the International Day of Peace.
Since September last year, Moe Thway has faced 19 trials for demonstrating without permission and acting against the state or public tranquility, both violations of the Penal Code. His weekly routine consists of paying visits to the court. He estimates he has gone more than 170 times.
“I have 16 cases related to [violating] Article 18 [of the Penal Code], which has a maximum punishment of one year in jail; and two cases related to Article 505 (b), with a maximum of two years. So that’s 22 years maximum,” he says with a smile.
Since Generation Wave’s formation, 27 members have been arrested, but all are released now. Still, the 15 group members know they might be arrested at any time. “Even now [the police] might come and arrest us, at this very moment, including you,” says Min Yan Naing, a co-founder of the group.
Moe Thway is also working closely with the National Youth Congress to encourage youths to become political leaders. Sitting at 50th Street Café in downtown Rangoon, he says democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi does not have the capacity to lead the country alone, after being kept under house arrest for 15 years during military rule. “We need Daw Suu to build the foundation, but for future leadership we must build ourselves and not depend on other people,” he says.
He adds that he does not have any plans to enter politics for the 2015 elections, saying that democracy is not just about elections, but includes other forms of participation by the people. To raise participation, civil society is essential, he says. He might consider entering politics in 2020, together with other youths today. “I want to go with the wave of the generation,” he says.
Elsewhere in Rangoon, at 3 pm in an apartment on Zayyar Thiri road, nine men and eight women aged 20 to 35 sit on the floor, discussing ways to organize a movement on the International Day of Peace on Sept. 21.
Facilitate. Inclusive. Peace documentary. Facebook. The fact that almost all of them can use English terms like these during their discussion shows why they have been able to connect to other international organizations through social media.
When 26-year-old Salai David got his own Facebook account in 2008—also when he moved from Shan State to Rangoon to study—SIM cards for mobile phones cost at least US$2,000, so he had to use a cyber café to access the Internet. Last year he purchased a SIM card for $500. Working as a freelance researcher on youth policy in Burma, he now uses the Internet on his mobile phone for posting updates on the Chin Youth Network page, which he co-founded last year.
The Chin ethnic group is one of the 135 ethnic groups officially recognized by the Burma government, covering a population of about 500,000. Each state in Burma has its own youth networks for different ethnic groups, and they meet every year at the national youth forum. In July, the Chin Youth Network met members of Parliament in Naypyidaw to submit a policy paper discussing 10 issues, including a lack of access to telephone lines and technology across Chin State.
This is the third time Salai has attended the meeting, which is dominated with words like framework, democracy, motivation, solution and 88.
The 1988 pro-democracy uprising was led by young people, which is why some like Seng Gu remain optimistic about the power of the youth.
“Now youth groups are leading the democratization process, but the problem is that our government doesn’t mention the history very well. School curricula don’t mention the 1988 uprising and the democratization process, which leads to a gap between seniors and the youth,” says the 35-year-old, who is part of a community response group that provides peace module training to civil society.
Highlighting the point of political maturity, Yan Myo Thein says that without having good education and reading about political ideas, as his generation did in the past, a person cannot be a politician. “You can be an activist without studying or reading works, but our country needs a lot of mature politicians. Without them, the future of our country will be in a bad condition,” he says.
Yan Myo Thein’s profile picture on Facebook is a peacock, a symbol of the student movement. He has 1,500 friends on the social media website who follow his posts on politics. Now his daughters, aged 13 and 10, are keen to set up Facebook accounts.
“I will allow them to open [a Facebook account] at the age of 14, because sometimes I think some posts aren’t very good for children,” he said. “Here, most of the youth only read short posts on the Internet and Facebook, instead of reading books. They fail to educate themselves. Most of the youths here can’t read in English, so most have to search for translated posts in Facebook and on the Internet. Because of that, they are not very well updated.”
A group of young debaters, however, have aimed to dismiss this notion.
At 2:30 pm on a weekday in 2008, around 20 people gathered at the ground floor of the two-storey building at the American Center Debate Club (ACDC). They had come to discuss environmental conservation and economic development, with a plan to debate which of the two was more important. A man in his 20s stood up to explain his stance.
“The government is exploiting natural resources in the country and selling them to China and other countries. While they are putting money in their pockets, our people are still in poverty,” he said.
After the event ended, five of the participants were taken away by military intelligence. Luckily, they were only put into custody and questioned for a short period. They did not mention Nyein Zarni Naing, who was leading the activity that day and was a founding member of ACDC, which was scrapped a year later due to the risks associated with the activities.
“Before that day, someone noticed people had been following us. But I thought it was very common in Myanmar,” says Nyein Zarni.
Today, 28-year-old Nyein Zarni is head of advocacy and consultancy at the Myanmar Debate Education Society (MDES). Set up in 2011, the MDES is a nonprofit and non-political association aimed at promoting a debate culture in a country where the practice has long been discouraged.
Nyein Zarni says Burma needs a debate culture for successful peace dialogue. “If the peace process is led by young people, it would be successful because they are really realistic and have no agenda behind. But they need experienced people. So why not bring young people into the dialogue?” he asked.
Peter Pyaezone, 33, a member of the MDEC, also sees debate as a form of dialogue. If the debate culture really takes off, then spaces like Facebook can be useful, he says. “If you had a problem in the Stone Age, you would solve it by using force and weapons. With debate, we use our rationalized thoughts and see their perspectives with respect, and we can find some common ground,” he says.
If young people are well educated from the perspective of debate education, they can go on Facebook, read the comments and identify the fallacies. This includes overgeneralization, irrelevant reasons and improper premises, says Peter Pyaezone, adding that identifying fallacies are important because oftentimes people tend to participate in discussions by using emotion rather than rationale.
The MDES, which claims to be the only debate group in the country, estimates that about 500 to 1,000 youths have participated in its activities since the group set up.
Saw Thet Tun, 41, who was also involved in the 1988 democracy movement, was kept in prison for 17 years, and recalled how officials did not hesitate to punish and beat prisoners. He said the youth nowadays do not believe in physical struggle anymore.
When he left prison in 2011, he set up Sky Age, a free education center for the poor.
In the 2010-11 academic year, Burma had nearly 40,000 government schools, 275,000 government teachers and 8 million basic education students, according to the latest figures released by the Department of Educational Planning and Training.
To Saw Thet, the government is not interested in improving the country’s education system, with a large amount of the budget used for military purposes. “They pretend to be interested in issues such as human rights, ethnic conflicts and religious conflicts because they are afraid of international pressure,” he says.
A one-hour drive from downtown Rangoon, there is a small house situated in Southern New Dagon Township. Nineteen students, aged 16 to 41, are here—all from poor families outside Rangoon, including five whose homes did not have electricity.
In a country of 60 million, statistics by the Department of Electric Power indicate that there were only 2.2 million consumers of electricity in 2011. At that time, 486 town and 2,250 villages had access to electricity.
When Saw Thet roamed the states outside Rangoon, he attracted over 500 students who were eager to learn. But with an NGO, not a for-profit education center, he was only able to take 19 students to the study center. English is the main subject, with eight volunteers who teach the students 10 hours daily. The English language is like a weapon, says Saw Thet, and it can be used to communicate with the international community and bring development to the country.
Bhamo Mee Chan, 21, earned only 1,500 kyat per day when she was in her hometown in Pathein district in Irrawaddy Division. She has been with Sky Age for almost two months because costs for continuing her education were too high elsewhere.
Saw Thet says the students, especially women who live in the countryside, lack confidence and are afraid of expressing their feelings. “They think that it is not good for students to ask questions to their teachers. I would like to change this mindset. Every morning I encourage them to ask questions,” he says.
For people like Charles Petrie, who heads the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative, the Internet has the potential to be a significant platform to facilitate the peace process among ethnic groups in different regions. “If political dialogue starts, peace will be sustainable. Those who have agreed to stop fighting will now start talking about their political future. But assistance is only one side of what is needed. You need justice and predictability in law,” he says.
Meanwhile, political parties are trying to recruit younger members. Of 1.2 million members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), about 50,000 are under the age of 30, estimates party spokesperson Nyan Win. “Compared to the older generation, the youth are capable of looking at things in a broader sense,” says the 70-year-old.
Over 2,000 people have graduated from the NLD’s training center, with topics covering politics and business. Most students are younger than 30 years old and come from outside Rangoon.
The Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS) also has a youth branch, with members between the ages of 15 and 32. They had about 200,000 members in 1990 but are now working with about 500 members, as they try to regroup their organization. “Because of them [the youths], we are surviving. They are our envoy in different communities,” says party leader Aung Moe Zaw, who has been in exile for 24 years.
Although the government acknowledges that there has recently been a lot of hate speech, discrimination and campaigning on Facebook, Thaung Tin, Burma’s deputy communications and technology minister, stressed the importance of technology in encouraging the democratization process at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Naypyidaw in June.
Even democracy icon Suu Kyi is optimistic about the youth movement in the country. On the last day of the WEF, she brought out a large cheer from a small part of the crowd where all the young people were sitting.
“May I say that my session with the YGL [Young Global Leaders] this morning was the most enjoyable I’ve had in this forum. It really was,” she said.
This article was produced for the 2013 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) fellowship program. Nanchanok Wongsamuth, a business reporter for the Bangkok Post, is one of the 2013 fellows. This year’s theme is Freedom of Expression Challenges to Internet Government in Southeast Asia. The article was originally published for the Southeast Asian Press Alliance in September 2013.