In Person

Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘The Politics of Young People Today Is About Their Part in Rebuilding the State’

By The Irrawaddy 14 January 2017

Ye Ni: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! Our topic this week is the politics of the country and the role of youth. Ko Aung Ko Ko of Pegu Youth Network and Ko Htet Paing Soe of the work committee to draft Myanmar youth policy will join me for the discussion. I’m Irrawaddy Burmese editor Ye Ni.

You two took part in the discussion between Burma’s State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and youths [on Jan.1 in Naypyidaw]. I would like you to share with our audience your thoughts and feelings about the discussion. The discussion was the first time that a state leader invited youths to listen to their voices, exchange her views, and answer their questions. Were you satisfied with the discussion? Or if not, why were you dissatisfied?

Aung Ko Ko:  I am a member of the committee to draft youth policy representing Pegu Division. It has been around seven months since we designed the draft policy. On the evening of Dec. 30, the government mailed and also made phone calls to us, and invited us to attend peace talks with the State Counselor on Jan. 1. So, it was a rush. We went [to Naypyidaw] hurriedly, and we arrived on Dec. 31. We were still in a fog.

Then the youths held discussions to choose 18 representatives to hold talks with the State Counselor on Jan.1. Until that point, we didn’t know if we would be among those 18. There were arguments over selecting a representative for each state and division—[committees of] some divisions and states sent more than one youth. Other divisions and states sent only one representative, and some didn’t send any at all.

In the end, we selected 18 representatives, including those to represent the LGBT community, the disabled, and women. It was a rush as some divisions and states had to choose by drawing lots, a process we were not satisfied with. And we didn’t have enough time to prepare [because we were not informed in advance]. Though the discussion was held under the topic of peace, we could not meet youth organizations and other organizations that are actively engaging in the peace process.

As a result, we could not ask the State Counselor some questions about the military. But then, the talk was the first of its kind and we want many similar talks to be held. We want such talks to be held in divisions and states. So, as it was the first ever talk [between a state leader and youths], we exercised restraint and used diplomacy for fear that the government [might feel confronted by our questions and] might not want to organize such an event in the future.

So we were rather more dissatisfied than satisfied. However, we could hold face-to-face discussions with the State Counselor, and we were satisfied to a certain extent with our discussions. For example, we spoke about the importance of a common consensus for internal peace, the weaknesses of administrative mechanisms, the undemocratic Constitution, and union spirit.

YN: Representatives made a proposal during the talks, which attracted widespread attention and became the talk of the town on social media. You proposed having similar talks with Burma Army Chief Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing. Ko Htet Paing Soe, why do representatives want to meet with the army chief? What questions would you ask him, if you were to meet him?

Htet Paing Soe: It is clear. Civil war is going on in our country, and it is mainly about the armed clashes between ethnic armed groups and the army. Speaking of the key players of civil war, the army chief is the most responsible person for the army. So we have questions to ask him.

The State Counselor said during the peace talks with us that negotiations called for give and take. So, we would like to ask him his view about what she said and what give and take he is prepared to make. Ethnic groups are demanding it, and we also aspire to it—a federal union. What is the army chief’s view of federalism? And what is the concept of federalism that he would like to establish?

Another thing is—and it is critically important—about the parliamentary political system. Our country now has a parliamentary government, and the army plays a role in that system. So we would like to ask the army chief how he would reduce the army’s role in the parliamentary political system. We would like to ask these three questions. Even if we can meet him, the time would be limited and we would like to ask these three points during the meeting.

YN: What you two said reminds me of how we were involved in politics in our younger days. As Ko Htet Paing Soe has pointed out, the military has been involved in the country’s politics for more than five decades. It only holds 25 percent [of seats in the parliament] now. But in our days, we had to oppose a totalitarian military regime. People were subjected to imprisonment, forced to go underground and go into exile. But today, we are undergoing a political transition. So what is the politics [political objectives] of young people today about?

AKK: The politics of young people today is about their part in rebuilding the state. The ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) has said that youths must pursue their education and take part in state-building tasks. There is a saying “think globally, act locally.” It is important for us to think globally and act locally. Here I see two important points. Firstly we should be informed—youths ourselves must absorb information, and the government and the media have to make sure we have access to information. It is also important that youths have a desire to learn in order to be informed.

Secondly, there must be active citizenship. By active citizenship, I mean citizens should not turn a blind eye when unfair things happen right before them. If we are going on the democratic path and we youths are taking part in this process, surely we must change our attitude—we are obliged to do our part to change society. I have thought about what fundamental changes should be made first to mend a broken society. Then I think unfair things should be changed. For example, if you see unfairness in front of you, don’t walk away, but speak out loudly against it. Citizens should not walk away from unfair things, but there must be active citizenship.

YN: Now I would like to discuss something that has just crossed my mind. I think youths today are facing some of the same things we faced when we were young. It not only means youths from the mainland, but also from ethnic and hilly regions. I think their role is also important. Ko Htet Paing Soe has mentioned federalism. As ethnic groups have a desire for federalism, you might have seen that ethnic youths brought this to the fore in talks. Youths have formed youth networks. How is the relationship between mainland and ethnic youths of hilly regions?

HPS: We are under the same flag as youths. But youths have inherited a legacy from their forebears. The country has gone through military dictatorships for a long time. Youths have also experienced it for a certain period of time, and that military dictatorship had existed even before our birth. So, my view is that we are suffering from a bad legacy of that military dictatorship. The old grudges that are engraved in the hearts and minds of our forebears who fully experienced the bad legacy of that military dictatorship were passed down to youths. So, the youths may have those views, and those feelings caused by bad legacies.

And our State Counselor always talks about the importance of national reconciliation. So, how do ethnic groups from the mainland and hilly regions define national reconciliation? Bamar are also ethnic people and so are other ethnic groups. So, what are their definitions of national reconciliation? What are Bamar’s expectations of national reconciliation, and what are other ethnic groups’? This is something we need to think about.

And the most important thing is we want to build a federal union, [and some ethnic groups] have stuck to the pledges of the 1947 Panglong Agreement. So we need to understand what the 1947 Panglong pledges are, how they were broken, and how trust was undermined. There were causes and effects.

But if we are really going to have a democratic federal union, we should let bygones be bygones. Youths are now able to forget some things, but might not still be able to forget other things. We have always said that there were many things that our forebears refused to forgive and forget when they should’ve. So only when youths get our hearts closer—through having greater broadmindedness, magnanimity, and far-sightedness than our forebears had—can real reconciliation take place. Only then will we foster a good relationship and achieve the meaningful and peaceful federal union that we aspire to.

YN: Ko Htet Paing Soe and Ko Aung Ko, thank you for your contributions. There is a saying that the youths of today are the leaders of the future. We have to leave the future of our country in the hands of today’s youths. Only when we see the mistakes of the past and correct them in the present, will we be able to build a path for our youths, one that leads in the right direction. Only then will we feel safe about our future. So, I would like to urge the younger generations to try to the best of their abilities to be better than the older generations—in all aspects. Thank you all!