The last few years have seen unprecedented change in Myanmar, after democratic and economic reforms and the victory of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.  Yet they have also seen controversy over the humanitarian crisis in Rakhine State.  New British Council research reveals what youth in Myanmar think about their future.

‘Unlike any land you know about’

Few parts of the world have seen more rapid change than Myanmar over the last decade. These years have seen the crushing of the ‘Saffron Revolution’, the transition from military control to the regime led by the Oxford-educated Nobel Peace Prize laureate and long-time political prisoner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as a rapid opening up to foreign investment, technology, and visitors. However, a number of ethnic conflicts remain ongoing, with the most prominent being that in Rakhine State, where the actions of the military against the Muslim Rohingya people have attracted international condemnation.  Unlike many other ASEAN countries that approached economic and political reforms separately, Myanmar is tackling both simultaneously, whilst at the same time pursuing national peace and reconciliation among the many armed ethnic groups that continue to fight. The country is emerging rapidly from 50 years of military government to a parliamentary democracy; evolving from state socialism to a free market economic model; and attempting to create a stable and peaceful society among over 100 ethnic groups. 

These years have seen the crushing of the ‘Saffron Revolution’, the transition from military control to the regime led by the Oxford-educated Nobel Peace Prize laureate and long-time political prisoner Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, as well as a rapid opening up to foreign investment, technology, and visitors

As part of its Next Generation report series on countries undergoing dramatic change, the British Council, which has been working in the country for over 70 years, surveyed 2,000 people in Myanmar aged 18-30 about their lives and aspirations. As the report notes, this cohort is the first in the nation’s history to vote in competitive elections, use modern communications technology, and work in an economy emerging from decades of isolation.

On the whole, the results show an optimistic generation, eager to build on the progress of democratic reforms so far, with around 90% committed to continued political change and to sustaining the peace process, and 76% saying they expect their quality of life to improve over the next five years. 

Yet serious issues remain. A quarter of the young people surveyed were unemployed. Many said there were few opportunities available for them to participate in the country’s politics. Around a fifth reported being discriminated against due to religion or ethnicity, despite many feeling that religion was less important than personal accomplishments, and downplaying its role in national identity. In a nation still divided by simmering ethnic and religious conflict, nearly 70% said they valued security and welfare ahead of freedom. One young lawyer said: “I just want a peaceful Union where everyone can finally thrive.” Though many expressed concerns about restrictions on free speech, a majority felt that free speech should not be absolute, with 68% agreeing that the state has the right to censor mass media ‘to ensure civic order and morality’. 

As for the situation in Rakhine State, which has attracted widespread international attention and condemnation, 79% of the young people asked expressed concern for what is going on there, nearly 90% were concerned about loss of civilian life, and around the same number agreed that the government should do better in protecting civilians. Nevertheless, the views of youth in Myanmar on the Rohingya crisis there were strikingly mixed, with some feeling that it is an issue of terrorism, and others one of national sovereignty and land ownership, with half thinking that ‘the army did the right thing in Rakhine’. Moreover, there is a strong sense among many of them that the international criticism has been ill-informed, and that there is a lack of understanding of Myanmar and the complexities of the situation. 46% reported that the criticism ‘shows that people in the outside world don’t understand Myanmar’. There may be elements of truth in this, with the country emerging so rapidly from isolation on to the world stage. The most recognisable figure in Myanmar – Aung San Suu Kyi – has swiftly gone from being internationally lauded for her staunch commitment to democracy, to being globally condemned for her perceived inaction. But there remains a complex relationship between the army and the civilian government. One respondent summed up a common feeling by saying: “International people have a wrong perception about [Myanmar, and] should help reaching the happy ending of the story” 

With thanks to Richard Sunderland, Country Director Myanmar

Charge showing what young people think about the Rakhine crisis
International people have a wrong perception. What young people think about the Rakhine crisis. Image ©

British Council.

A Happy Ending for the Story?

Despite this frustration, young people are generally very optimistic about international engagement, with 80% welcoming tourists and the chance to showcase the country’s heritage and culture. Around 60% also welcomed foreign investment and the opportunities it affords, although some expressed concerns about the motivations of foreign businesses and the potential for environmental exploitation. 

In common with many of their peers in other transitioning countries, many respondents highlighted the importance of education for the country’s development and even to achieving lasting peace. They criticised an education system they felt favoured rote learning over critical thinking. “We need an education system that allows people to think and analyse the situation,” noted one respondent, linking this with the future health of peace and democracy in the country. The UK, with its historic and cultural links to Myanmar and its international reputation for education, is in a good position to work with the country as it seeks to reform its education systems. Doing so should be in the mutual interests of both the UK and Myanmar, which is a strategically important country between India and China, with huge economic potential, and a leadership already well-disposed to the UK. 

Following the formal launch of this report, the plan is to share Next Generation Myanmar widely across the country, and for the taskforce – the young people and youth experts who have helped to guide the research – to help with that, to inspire young people to work towards its policy recommendations themselves. In the end, that is where real and sustainable change will come from. The young people we spoke to are certainly ready to step up to the challenge, with 85% of them stating that they had a responsibility to address issues in their communities, and many reporting that they were more keen on taking part in civic activity than their parents, who had lived their lives in a closed society. One respondent put it simply: “it is up to the youth to make Myanmar a good country.”

As for policymakers and other interested parties in the UK, it makes sense to continue to engage with Myanmar through culture, education, travel, and trade, without turning a blind eye to the country’s on-going problems, not least the tragic situation in Rakhine and the displaced Rohingya.  80% of young people surveyed agreed that tourists visiting the country are good for Myanmar, and 66% felt the same about overseas visitors coming for business and other purposes. After decades closed off from the world, there is a clear appetite for foreign contact and ideas. 

There is also a specific demand for English language learning and UK qualifications, and for British expertise, including to assist new officials, parliamentarians, and those involved in reforming the justice system. The UK has lots to offer here, and is already working with Myanmar in many of these areas. 

Writing at the time of independence, writer JS Furnivall argued that, ‘if Britain could help Burma stand-alone’, it would over time forge closer relationships, and that irrespective of what transpired, ‘Britain must respond boldly to the challenge of a new age’. That is arguably just as true today.

So far, democracy has been a positive force for most young people in the country, but there is much still to do. As one stated: “Democracy start[s] with our own self.”

Overall, this research reveals an optimistic young generation that has benefited from Myanmar’s opening up to the world and that is committed to making their country a better place. In spite of many remaining difficulties, they remain focused on the positive difference they can make. So far, democracy has been a positive force for most young people in the country, but there is much still to do. As one stated: “Democracy start[s] with our own self.”

Christine Wilson, Head of Research, Education and Society, with thanks to Richard Sunderland, Country Director Myanmar