Youth Activists Speak Up on Lost Idols and Freedom of Expression

By The Irrawaddy 15 December 2018

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week, we’ll discuss the responsibility and position of the youth in the democratic transition, and the communication between them and older generations. Ma Thinzar Shunlei Yi, a youth advocate from Action Committee for Democracy Development, and poet Maung Saung Kha from Freedom of Expression Activist Organization join me to discuss this. I am Ye Ni, editor of The Irrawaddy Burmese.

We will base our discussion on a Reuters article published by The Irrawaddy. I have read in the article you said that as a youth, you admired and had high hopes for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but now you have lost your idol. Can you explain this? Why did you admire her and why do you now feel like you have lost her?

Thinzar Shunlei Yi: It is fair to say I am a completely new face in politics. My family and all my relatives are not interested in politics at all. I used to have a negative view of politicians and activists. Then I reached a certain age and got many friends. They taught me about the situation on the ground, the living conditions and difficulties of ethnic people and ongoing armed conflicts. I’ve learned a lot from them. My standpoint has changed based on what I learned from them and from my experiences during trips inside and outside the country. I became more interested in the life of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who faced years of house arrest for democracy. I studied a lot about her character and what she said as she is admired by a lot of young people. I found that her standpoints were similar to what I believe in and what I want. I started to admire her. As she is also a woman, I made her my idol. My current life as a democracy activist is largely based on what Daw Aung San Suu Kyi experienced, said and taught us during her democratic struggle. It is fair to say that today I can speak here due to her standpoints and sharing of knowledge with us. I am clear about the path I am taking because it is based on my faith. I inherited that faith from our seniors, prisoners of conscience and activists starting from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi who sacrificed herself in 1988 pro-democracy uprising. I inherited them from my faith in democracy and human rights and I adopted those norms as my yardstick. Today, I still use the same yardstick. After the new government took office, we have seen clearly that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her cabinet have changed and it goes against my norms. I am confused—I feel as if my yardstick is wrong or if what I’ve learned is wrong or that I need to bend my yardstick. Ultimately, I decided to cling to my norms. I believe in those values, and that my leaders, my idols and those who have sacrificed their lives would want to a youth who cherishes those values. That’s why I feel like I have lost my idol, and I’ve shared these feelings with the public.

YN: The view of the older generations of the ruling National League for Democracy is that the younger generation is impatient while there is a need to communicate with all the sides including the military, ethnic groups and the international community during the democratic transition. Ko Saung Kha, do you agree with the view of the older generations?

Saung Kha: It is not that we are impatient; we have mainly pointed out the things that the government can do easily. It is not that we are pressing unreasonable demands without understanding politics. We know well the extent the government can perform within the authority granted by the constitution. I would like to give the example of the notorious Telecommunications Law. People think that it was amended on August 29, 2017. In fact, it was not changed at all. Reducing the penalty is not amending the law. The law will continue to have negative impacts unless its original definition is changed. There have been 62 cases of people being charged under the Telecommunications Law, even after it was amended. There have been that many cases within one year. It is found that in over half of those cases, the charges were pressed by the government and lawmakers. Therefore, it’s questionable whether they have chosen not to amend the law in order to use it as a deterrent to criticism. This law is targeted at those who criticize the government and the military online. Similarly, there is peaceful assembly and procession law that can restrict protest marches and assemblies. That law should in fact be formulated by the government in order to protect demonstrators and ensure the people’s right to protest. But if it provides allowances to restrict protests at any time, it is not a democratic law at all. Currently, 17 youths including Ma Thinzar Shunlei Yi and I are facing trial at Bahan Township Court for demonstrations that called for the rescue of civilians trapped by fighting in Kachin State. From this, we can say that freedom of expression is seriously at risk. Overall, it is clear that the government failed to do certain things despite having the authority to do so. It is not that we are impatient, we have just continued to make demands in response to the government’s ignorance.

YN: Ma Thinzar, what do you think of the youth policy of the NLD government, and what would you want to say about ethnic youth affairs?

TSY: In my experience, many youth organizations made preparations when the new government took office. We have been demanding a youth policy since the previous government and there were confrontations over our demands. We staged protests and the previous government arrested students. We warned the previous government that we would not communicate with it. We had high hopes when the new government took office. We hoped it would appreciate our efforts. In early 2016, when he held talks with the new union minister for social welfare, relief and resettlement of the new government, unbelievably he showed respect for us. He said he has to learn from youths. He showed us respect for our experiences and we also showed our respect to him. It is sufficed to say that we could draft the youth policy in a democratic way. We could convince the ministry to hold consultations with the youth and include their voices in the policy. The youth policy was officially adopted in 2018. There is a problem in designing any new policy or law regarding federalism. Though we have been widely talking about building a federal union, the constitution has yet to be changed. We have a lot of difficulties in considering under which framework we should adopt laws and policies. Though the youths made preparations in consideration of federalism, the policy–when it was approved–was not federal. It also can’t be federal due to the existing structure of the country so we had real difficulties. The youth policy, as aspired by the ethnic youths, is different from the policy that the government can approve.

YN: There were always demonstrations in support of democracy and human rights under U Thein Sein’s government, but under the new government, only a few people like you continue demonstrations. I have seen on social media that you are criticized for criticizing The Lady, and you are labeled dollar-earners [who benefit from western agencies] and stooges. How do you deal with those criticisms?

SK: Stooges, supporters of western countries, dollar-earners and puppets of the western countries—all are the very words once used by the military regime and those who resist the change against Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. Why do we continue with our democracy demonstrations? Firstly, we don’t do it out of personal interest, we do it because of our belief in principles, rights, human rights and democratic values. If we don’t honor those values, we will lose all of them. The mainstream [view] of Myanmar politics is that everything depends on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and she is also criticized for anything that goes wrong. We don’t want to participate in that mainstream. Why do we continue our demonstrations? Some people, even including my own friends, said that they accept freedom of expression, but they don’t like criticizing Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. This concept of people in Myanmar is wrong. When we talk about freedom of expression, we should have greater freedom of expression and criticism, especially regarding the state leaders. Sometimes, if people have real grievances, they will use strong language. This is the right enshrined by freedom of expression. But there are limits. There is a fine line between freedom of expression and hate speech. We can’t allow people to use hate speech under the cover of freedom of expression. It is quite complicated. I think the path to democracy will be smoother if these can be handled effectively.

YN: Thank you for your contribution!