Highs and lows for youth in coming polls

Arakan National Party member Soe Soe Htay, 31, finds herself overlooked because of her relative youth.
Arakan National Party member Soe Soe Htay, 31, finds herself overlooked because of her relative youth. PHOTO: MIRANDA YEO
Prospective NLD candidate D Nyein Lynn, 27, believes "politics should not be about age".
Prospective NLD candidate D Nyein Lynn, 27, believes "politics should not be about age". PHOTO: MIRANDA YEO
Human rights activist Wai Wai Nu, 29, hopes to reduce interracial hatred amid rising religious and racial tensions in the country.
Human rights activist Wai Wai Nu, 29, hopes to reduce interracial hatred amid rising religious and racial tensions in the country.PHOTO: MIRANDA YEO

With just a week to go before what is expected to be the most credible general election in decades, Myanmar's young are engaged and energised but also face obstacles. By Miranda Yeo

Despite widespread scepticism over how free and fair Myanmar's general election on Nov 8 will be, many young people believe it will be a watershed event and more of them are standing for election this year.

It is the first elections to be held under the military-backed government which came into power in 2011 and paved the way for political and economic reforms.

With greater freedom to participate in civil society and politics, the young have banded together with cautious optimism since 2012, spearheading ground-up movements to observe the elections and signing up for voter education classes.

More than half of Myanmar's population is under 30 - a massive youth demographic compared with the median age of 40 in countries like Singapore and Japan. Voting this year will be those over the minimum age of 18.

Observers expect it to be a freer and fairer general election compared with that in 1990, when the military denied Ms Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) its victory. But public perception remains that the young are not ready for serious politics.

  • MYANMARIN TRANSITION

  • The stories and photographs on this page and the next three are the work of journalism students of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University.

    They were among 13 students who took part in the school’s Going Overseas For Advanced Reporting (Go-Far) programme, which this year took them to Myanmar.

HUNGER FOR INFORMATION

The formerly isolated country opened its doors four years ago, attracting non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that brought in political knowledge from the West.

Young people have turned to these NGOs as they become more politically engaged.

There are no official statistics on the number of active NGOs in the country but about 300 of them have been registered since 2012, according to the International Centre for Not-for-Profit Law. It estimates that 10 per cent are active, and receiving local and international funding.

Global Platform, which holds free courses on election education and citizen engagement, has seen its courses oversubscribed. The most popular course in the past year taught youth to run political campaigns. "We receive around 40 applications for classes that can hold only up to 25 people," said training coordinator Myo Tun Lin.

The Institute for Political and Civic Engagement, an American organisation that runs courses on advocacy and civic engagement, saw its participant base grow to over 700 in less than three years.

Said project director Adam LeClair: "We are seeing a real hunger for more information, skills and knowledge among the youth."

GROUND-UP MOVEMENTS

With more freedom and access to resources, young Myanmar activists and politicians have been rallying their peers in the lead-up to the elections.

Anti-establishment group Generation Wave distributed political fliers in malls, composed anti-government songs and organised public protests. It was formed by a group of students who wanted to protest against state-sanctioned atrocities.

Their journey has not been easy. Generation Wave, which comprises Myanmar youth, has had to realign its objectives after core members were jailed for "illegal organising".

With 75 members now, it advocates for human rights and democracy, pushing for the release of political prisoners, said its president, Mr Moe Thway, 34. The group will monitor the electoral process in the Bago region for signs of fraud, and has recruited more than half of the 112 people needed to oversee the 56 polling stations.

While growing youth interest in politics suggests that Myanmar may see a new generation of politicians, the young remain on the fringe of party leadership.

"Across the board, in both opposition and incumbent parties, young people are not well represented in their central committees," said Mr Jeremy Liebowitz, an adviser at NGO Danish Institute for Parties and Democracy.

This points to a lack of youth involvement and could lead to an outflow of young talent, he said.

Some politicians believe that young people are not ready for parliamentary roles. Mr Naing Ngan Lin, 38, a Lower House parliamentarian and NLD member, said that while his party is willing to give young people a chance, they need to have expertise.

Such perceptions are frustrating for young politicians like 31-year-old Soe Soe Htay of the Arakan National Party, as it adds to the difficulty of campaigning with limited finances.

The party has 110 central committee members, but fewer than 10 are below 35.

Youth membership forms just 2 per cent of the party.

"Whenever I raise a youth concern such as unemployment or education to the central committee, I'm brushed aside because I am the least experienced person," she said.

A prospective candidate for the NLD, 27-year-old D Nyein Lynn, said: "Politics should not be about age."

Despite criticism, he will not give up on his bid. "I want to inspire the younger generation to care for their country and to let Myanmar know that we are interested in the changes that are happening to our country," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2015, with the headline 'Highs and lows for youth in coming polls'. Print Edition | Subscribe