Steps need to be taken to engage young people in Myanmar’s peace process and actively involve them in it, instead of simply regarding them as passive beneficiaries, according to both young people themselves and agencies working to empower them.
“A lot of people just look at young people as the [potential] beneficiaries, but here it is really about young people getting involved, young people engaging in some of these processes,” said Janet Jackson, the country representative for the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Myanmar.
Pointing to more than seven decades of armed conflict and inter-communal violence, especially in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, she said the challenges facing youth in Myanmar today are “more pronounced in Myanmar’s conflict-torn states,” adding that young people are forced to bear the brunt of these conflicts.
However, the views of young people are not widely heard in peace-building processes led by political leaders and policy-makers.
As part of the effort to empower youth and to ensure that more voices from within the diverse youth community are heard, youth camps have been organized by local youth empowerment groups and financed by UNFPA Myanmar. The project aims to promote tolerance among young people and to amplify the voices of youth in Myanmar’s peace process.
In Ywa Ngan township, one of two ethnic Danu self-administrative townships, some 300 young participants from 12 indigenous groups gathered for a week to take training sessions on personal development, leadership and building inner peace.
The Irrawaddy observed the youth camp activities and the young people’s participation in them over the weekend and found that many young ethnic residents are eager to contribute their skills and knowledge to their communities.
“As we have seen over the last four days, a lot of young people here have got a lot of views that we, the adults and the people [involved] in the process, can learn from, by understanding what the youth’s experiences have been like, and how they feel… In some ways [they have been] cheated from the opportunities they could have had. But it is not too late,” Jackson told The Irrawaddy.
“It is now about looking at some of the social aspects, and how that needs to be improved. It is also about looking at the dialogue and peace process; how they can have a seat, how they can have a voice and how they can participate in some of the dialogue to give their perspectives,” added Jackson. “So this then [makes the] peace process much more holistic and it really looks at not just one or two facets of partners and agents in peace, but it looks at wider communities that need to be involved in peace.”
Peace must be there for everyone, regardless of age, and youth participation should not be overlooked, said Nay Phone Latt, a Yangon Region lawmaker and author.
Nay Phone Latt, who participated as a speaker during the International Youth Day celebration on Aug. 12 in Ywa Ngan, said “Safe Spaces for Youth” — the theme of this year’s International Youth Day — are indeed necessary, as young people need security in their lives.
Young people actively participated in discussions on issues related to safety and security in their communities.
“We don’t feel safe physically, mentally or [online] in our environment,” said Ma Pan Ei Thazin, a 24-year-old trainer at the youth camp.
She added that wherever they are, whether in rural ethnic areas or urban communities, there is a threat to youth’s physical safety due to war and crime. On the Web, they face the problem of limited access to accurate information, as well as the danger of cyber-bullying. The youth camps allow young people to be aware of those challenges and show them ways to overcome them.
“We want everyone to be free from conflict and live peacefully,” said Ko Aung San Tun, an ethnic Taungyoe participant in his 20s from Aung Pan Township.
As a young man from a remote area, he said that thanks to the camp he now has greater awareness of peace and peace building, as well as of digital literacy and how to use the Internet wisely.
Policymakers should consider taking up the recommendations that have come out of the youth camps, Nay Phone Latt, the regional lawmaker, told The Irrawaddy.
He added that they need to “allow the youth to participate” in Myanmar’s future country-building activities, as there are many young people who are capable of doing so. He also urged young people to try different ways to engage, rather than waiting to be invited.
Dr. Tun Hlaing, the Shan State government’s Innthar ethnic affairs minister, said more such events are needed, as they are a positive occasion for young people.
“The government cannot do it alone, and neither can the civil society groups. We all must work together,” he told The Irrawaddy, adding that his participation in the International Youth Day commemoration in Yaw Ngan was intended to show that the older generations support youth not only in Myanmar but all over the world.