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”