The British Council's Christine Wilson answers a few questions about attitudes among young adults in Myanmar, reported in the latest instalment of our Next Generation research series published today.
You surveyed 2,000 people in Myanmar aged 18-30. What’s on their minds?
We conduct Next Generation research in countries undergoing change – and Myanmar has gone through extraordinary change in the last few years. As the report notes, young people can today vote in competitive elections, use modern communications technology and work in an economy emerging from decades of isolation.
On the whole, they’re optimistic, with 76 per cent saying they expect their quality of life to improve over the next five years. They are strongly committed to their societies and communities – an impressive 85 per cent of those surveyed said that youth have a responsibility to be involved in addressing issues in their communities.
They’re also committed to building on the progress of democratic reforms so far, with around 90 per cent committed to continued reform and to sustaining the peace process.
But it’s not a picture of unfettered promise – a quarter of the young people we spoke to were unemployed and seeking work, one in five reported being discriminated against due to religion or ethnicity, and many said there were few opportunities available for them to participate in the country’s politics.
What are the greatest differences between young people in Myanmar and their peers elsewhere?
They have much in common with their peers globally – the optimism (often in the face of hardship), their commitment to make a difference, despite the odds, and their frustration with the restrictions placed upon them by their seniors. They also share a common thread in their views on the education system and a focus on learning by rote and passing exams, rather than critical thinking. 'We need an education system that allow[s] people to think and analyse the situation', noted one respondent, also linking the issues with education to the progress of peace and democracy in Myanmar.
I wouldn’t say it was a difference – it’s something we have asked less about in other countries – but it’s clear that Myanmar youth do feel strongly about security. Perhaps this is unsurprising given the ongoing tensions across the country, and the protracted efforts to bring peace. Nearly 70 per cent of the young people surveyed said they valued security and welfare ahead of freedom. A young lawyer said: 'I just want a peaceful [u]nion where everyone can finally thrive.'
How do young adults in the country feel about Rakhine and their country’s global image, and what might this mean for their international connections?
There is no one view of the situation in Rakhine, with some feeling it is an issue of terrorism, and others of national sovereignty and land ownership. It’s important to note that 79 per cent of the young people we spoke to expressed concern for what is going on in Rakhine State, nearly 90 per cent were concerned about loss of life, and around the same number agreeing that the government should do better in protecting civilians.
However, there is a strong sense that international criticism has been ill-informed, and that there is a lack of understanding of Myanmar and the complexities of the situation. This may be true, with the country emerging from isolation on to the world stage, and with its most recognisable figure – Daw Aung San Suu Kyi – much lauded before her fall from grace.
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Despite this, young people are optimistic about international engagement, with 80 per cent of them welcoming tourists and the chance to showcase the country’s heritage and culture. Even with the concerns about environmental exploitation and the motivations of foreign businesses, around 60 per cent of youth also welcomed foreign investment and the opportunities afforded.
Again, we can see the same optimism applied to Myanmar's international relations: 'International people have a wrong perception about [Myanmar, and] should help [reach] the happy ending of the story... It is up to the youth to make Myanmar a good country.’
The research found that young women feel greater restrictions are placed on them than on their male peers. What kind of restrictions are they?
They are much the same as faced by women all around the world. They report greater restrictions placed on them, by their families, and by wider society, and that their ability to participate in society is curtailed. They are also more likely to report harassment and discrimination in the workplace.
A related observation in this research is that men were more likely than women to say that marriage and children were important. Our assumption is that the burden of rearing children falls more on women than on men, and so young women may view marriage and motherhood as competing with other priorities, such as getting a good education or a good job.
There's a high approval rate for local and village administrations, at 72 per cent. What are they doing right? What can we learn?
We have no definitive answer for this, but the likelihood is simply that they are closer to the young people themselves, and that the national level government feels distant.
There are several policy recommendations in the report. What should the country focus on?
I’d like to see young people across the country getting more engaged in the data, the conclusions and recommendations, and working this out for themselves – after all, the research is about youth voice influencing youth policy. The plan, following the formal launch, is to share Next Generation widely across the country, and that the group of young people and youth experts who have helped to guide the research will help with that. 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.
You yourself have a connection with Myanmar. What’s your sense of the country, and especially its young adults?
I have worked there on many occasions and it’s my most-visited country during my British Council career. It has a special place in my heart, so this research is important to me, and it was a privilege to be able to observe some of the fieldwork taking place. Some of it was heartrending – the stories of the sex workers (p.27), for example, were hard to listen to, given the discrimination and hardship they face. The changes wrought by the democratic transition have not been felt by all, and it’s important that work continues to tackle discrimination and to allow more people to benefit.
Overall, I’m delighted to see such levels of optimism and of a young generation so committed to making their country a better place. Even when they feel it’s hard, they remain focused on the positive change they can make. As one stated: 'Democracy start[s] with our own self.'
Read the full research: Next Generation Myanmar.