In 1989, visiting a roadside bookstore in downtown Yangon was not something as simple as it sounds. Unless the vendors recognized your face, that is.
Yan Myo Thein, now 44, knows how tough political activism among Burmese youth used to be. The former medical school student had to use his familiar face to get rare reading materials when dropping in bookstores.
“When they recognize me, they show me political or history books written in English regarding Burma whenever they have some,” said the political commentator, who also listens to radio news from the Voice of America and the British Broadcasting Corporation for at least three hours per day since the age of 14.
At that time, books written about the Burmese opposition movement were not allowed to be sold in public, so bookstores were one of the important places promoting government revolution.
Books like these, which were sold at around 200 kyat, were passed on from one person to another, exchanged and discussed among friends.
24 years later the number of youth participating in various movements are higher than in the past, but Yan Myo Thein, who was jailed for almost three years when he was 18 for participating in the 1988 uprising against the socialist government, remains skeptical about how much influence they can actually assert in terms of political change.
One of the new blood was sitting down cross-legged in front of me with jeans and a black-and-white checkered shirt. You don’t always see the eyes of the former rock star when he looks down, hidden behind the strands of hair revealing black stud earrings.
For someone who once led a wild life, 32-year-old Moe Thway is not the average freedom fighter.
Known for expressing their political views through hip-hop songs and graffiti, the change in Burma since the 2010 elections has enabled Generation Wave to openly conduct awareness raising campaigns, roam the streets to collect signatures and explain to people that the political war is not yet over.
“During those years of dictatorship, we couldn’t do anything, so we did a lot of art forms such as distributing music, publishing poems and drawing graffiti on street walls,” said Moe Thway, who has been president of the youth group since its setting up in 2007.
But now, Generation Wave deploys different tactics; their website and Facebook page is used to update their activities, mobilize people and organize protests.
[See sidebar story: To young Burmese, IT’s both toy and tool]
Although there is a lot of skepticism, small political forces like this have benefited from greater access to the internet, which has brought a new side to the online community after decades of heavy censorship.
With over half of the country’s population under the age of 30 (33.67 million out of 59.78 million in 2010, according to the Department of Population), the internet has been a critical tool for the country’s youth in expressing their views on politics and democracy.
In May, Generation Wave spent one month collecting signatures for a campaign to stop the “civil war” and start a political dialogue. With the help of the internet, Facebook and e-mail, they were able to gain more than 60,000 signatures.
Last year, they managed to gather around 2,000 people to march for 10 miles on the International Day of Peace.
Since September last year, Moe Thway is now faced with 19 trials for demonstration without permission (article 18) and acts against the state or public tranquility (article 505 (b) of the Penal Code).
His weekly routine consists of paying visits to the court, which he estimates at over 170 times during the time of the interview.
“May I?” Moe Thway asked, reaching his hand out to hold my iPhone, which acted as a torch light during a blackout in an apartment in downtown Yangon as I was jotting down details.
“Are you calculating how many years I might have to spend in prison? I have 16 cases related to article 18, which has a maximum punishment of one year in jail; and two cases related to article 505 (b) with a maximum of two years. So that’s 22 years maximum,” Moe Thway said with a smile that makes his nose wrinkle.
Since the group’s formation, 27 members have been arrested, but all are released now.
Still, the 15 full-time group members know that they might be arrested at any time.
“Even now [the police] might come and arrest us at this very moment, including you,” said Min Yan Naing, co-founder of Generation Wave.
The battery on my iPhone went out, and Moe Thway pulled out his Huawei phone to provide the light.
Huawei and Samsung are the top mobile phones used in Burma, he said.
On a rainy Saturday evening, Moe Thway and I met again at the 50th Street Cafe to talk about liberation, ethnic groups, history and geography over a glass of tomato juice.
Since returning to the country in December 2011 after fleeing to Mae Sot in Thailand in 2008, he told me he has stopped drinking alcohol.
Working with Generation Wave to fight injustice in the country, he is also working closely with the National Youth Congress to encourage the youth to lead the country themselves.
The subject of political science has changed during the 15 years Aung San Suu Kyi has been kept in house arrest, so she does not have the capacity to rule the country, Moe Thway boldly claimed, referring to the pro-democracy icon.
“We need Daw Suu to build the foundation, but for future leadership we must build ourselves and not depend on other people,” he said.
But Moe Thway does not have any plans of entering politics in the 2015 election.
For him, democracy is not just about elections but other forms of participation by the people. And to raise participation, civil society is essential.
He might consider doing so in 2020, though, together with the youth of today.
“I want to go with the wave of the generation,” he said.
At 3 PM in an apartment on the second floor of a building on Zayyar Thiri road, 17 people – nine male and eight female aged 20-35, were sitting on the floor discussing ways to organize a movement on the International Day of Peace on September 21.
Facilitate. Inclusive. Peace documentary. Facebook.
The fact that almost all of them could use English terms like these throughout their discussions enabled them to connect to other international organizations through social media.
When 26-year-old Salai David got his own Facebook account in 2008 – also the time when he moved from the Shan state to Yangon to study, sim cards cost at least US$2,000, so he had to use the cyber cafe for internet usage.
Last year he purchased a sim card for $500, and now Salai, who is also a freelance researcher on youth policy in Burma, uses the internet on his mobile phone for posting updates on the Chin Youth Network page, which he cofounded in 2012.
The Chin ethnic group is among one of the 135 ethnic groups in Burma, covering a population of around 500,000.
The network is one of the 13 youth groups in 13 townships in Burma, with 20-70 members per group. Each state also has their own youth networks for different ethnic groups, and they meet every year at the national youth forum.
In July this year, the Chin Youth Network met members of parliament in Nay Pyi Taw to submit a policy paper discussing ten issues, including the lack of access to telephone lines and technology across the Chin state.
This is the third time Salai has attended the meeting, which continues to be dominated with words like framework, democracy, motivation, solution and 88.
The 1988 pro-democracy uprising was led by young people, which is why some people like Seng Gu remain optimistic about the power of the youth.
“Now youth groups are leading the democratization process, but the problem is our government doesn’t mention the history very well. School curriculums don’t mention the 1988 uprising and the democratization process, which leads to a gap between seniors and the youth,” said the 35-year-old, who is a member of the Community Response Group which was set up in 2010 to provide peace module training to civil society.
Highlighting the point of political maturity, Yan Myo Thein reiterated that without having good education and without reading political ideas like his generation did in the past, one cannot be a politician.
“You can be an activist without studying or reading works, but our country needs a lot of mature politicians. Without them, the future of our country will be in a bad condition,” he said.
Typing away on his black Huawei smartphone, Yan Myo Thein, whose profile picture on Facebook is a peacock – a symbol of the student movement, has 1,500 friends who follow his posts on politics published at least three times a week as commentary articles in local newspapers.
Now he has daughters aged 13 and 10 who are keen to set up Facebook accounts.
“I will allow them to open [a Facebook account] at the age of 14, because sometimes I think some posts aren’t very good for children,” he said.
“Here, most of the youth only read short posts on the internet and Facebook instead of reading books. They fail to educate themselves. Most of the youth here can’t read in English, so most have to search for translated posts in Facebook and on the internet. Because of that, they are not very well updated,” said Yan Myo.
A group of young debaters, however, aim to dismiss this notion.
At 2:30 PM on a weekday in 2008, around 20 people gathered at the ground floor of the two-storey building at the American Center Debate Club (ACDC).
The motion for the day – “Environmental conservation and economic development, which is more important?”, was released one day ahead on the noticeboard opposite to the entrance of the room. Fifteen people signed their names to participate.
A male in his twenties stood up to make his stance.
“The government is exploiting natural resources out of the country and selling them to China and other countries. While they are putting money in their pockets, our people are still in poverty,” he said.
After the event ended, five of the participants were taken away by military intelligence. Luckily, they were only put into custody and questioned for a short period.
Although they were asked, the five participants did not mention Nyein Zarni Naing, who was leading the activity that day and is one of the founding members of the ACDC, which was scrapped a year later due to the risks associated with the activities.
“Before that day, someone noticed people have been following us. But I thought it was very common in Myanmar,” said Nyein Zarni.
Today, 28-year-old Nyein Zarni is the head of advocacy and consultancy at the Myanmar Debate Education Society (MDES).
Set up in 2011, the MDES is a non-profit and non-political association aimed at promoting debate culture in a country where the practice has long been extinct.
Nyein Zarni said Burma seriously needs a debate culture to bring successful peace dialogue.
“If the peace process is led by young people, it would be successful because they are really realistic and have no agenda behind. But they need experienced people. So why not bring young people into the dialogue?” he asked.
33-year-old Peter Pyaezone, who is a member of the MDEC, also sees debate as a form of dialogue.
If the debate culture really takes off, then spaces like Facebook can in fact be useful.
“If you had a problem in the stone age, you would solve it by using force and weapons. With debate, we use our rationalized thoughts and see their perspectives with respect and we can find some common ground,” he said.
If young people are well educated from the perspective of debate education, they can go online on Facebook, read the comments and identify the fallacies that exist.
This includes over-generalization, irrelevant reasons and improper premises, said Peter, adding that identifying fallacies are important because often times people tend to participate in discussions by using emotion rather than rationale.
The MDES, which claims itself to be the only debate group in the country, estimates around 500-1,000 youth participating in activities since the setting up.
41-year-old Saw Thet Tun, who was also involved in the 1988 democracy movement, was kept in prison for 17 years, and recalled how officials did not hesitate to punish and beat prisoners.
At 8 PM in a prison cell in 1995, he was playing chess with another prisoner.
Wai Moe, who was 18 years old at that time, was sitting right behind the door in the same cell and was beaten for no reason.
“Why did you beat me?” asked Wai Moe.
“I’m a superintendent. I can beat you.”
“I know you have authority. But you don’t have the right to beat any prisoner. You have to give rightful punishment if they do something wrong. I’m a prisoner, but not a criminal,” said Wai Moe, refusing to apologize.
Unlike 20 years back, Saw Thet said the youth nowadays do not believe in physical struggle anymore, and neither does Wai Moe.
When Saw Thet left prison in 2011, he set up Sky Age, an education center to educate poor young people for free.
In the academic year 2010-2011, there were a total of 39,519 schools, 273,346 teachers and 8 million students in Burma, according to latest figures released by the Department of Educational Planning and Training.
To Saw Thet, the government is not interested in improving the country’s education system, with a large amount of the budget used for military purposes.
“They pretend to be interested in issues such as human rights, ethnic conflicts and religious conflicts because they are afraid of international pressure,” he said.
A one hour drive from downtown Yangon, there is a small house situated in the Southern New Dagon Township.
Nineteen students aged 16-41 all come from a poor family outside Yangon – five of which do not have electricity.
In a country of 60 million, statistics by the Department of Electric Power indicate that there were only 2.2 million consumers of electricity in 2011, with a consumption of 6.3 billion Kwh.
At that time, 486 town and 2,250 villages had access to electricity.
Education in their home town is expensive, so when Saw Thet roamed the states outside Yangon, he attracted over 500 students who were eager to learn. But Saw Thet was an NGO, not a money-maker, so he chose 19 students to study with him at the study center which he rented out.
English is the main subject taught here, with eight volunteers who teach the students ten hours per day.
The English language is like a weapon, said Saw Thet, and it can be used to communicate with the international community and bring development to the country.
21-year-old Bhamo Mee Chan earned only 1,500 kyat per day when she was in her home town in Pathein district in the Ayeyarwady region, where there was no electricity and the house of five had to use candles as the source of light at nighttime.
She has been with Sky Age for almost two months because costs for continuing her education were too high.
Saw Thet said the students, especially women who live in the countryside, lack confidence and are afraid of expressing their feelings.
“They think that it is not good for students to ask questions to their teachers. I would like to change this mindset. Every morning I would encourage them to ask questions,” he said.
When I went to the school again to observe Wai Moe sharing his experience in prison, a 20-year-old girl raised her hand, stood up and asked to be dismissed, amidst protest by other students.
She walked to the back of the room and sat down directly in front of me.
“Excuse me, why are you not talking today?” she asked.
Later on, a whole group of girls followed the same pattern, asking questions related to what I thought about the country, the difference between Thai and Burmese culture and about my experience.
At the end of the day, Mo Mo Aung, the same girl who stood up earlier, handed me her notepad and asked me to write down my motto.
For people like Charles Petrie, who heads the Myanmar Peace Support Initiative, the internet is an untapped potential that can be a significant platform to help facilitate the peace process among ethnic groups in different regions.
“If political dialogue starts, peace will be sustainable. Those who have agreed to stop fighting will now start to talk about their political future. But assistance is only one side of what is needed. You need justice and predictability in law,” he said.
Meanwhile, political parties are also attracting young people into politics in order to bring them into their party.
Out of the 1.2 million members of the National League for Democracy (NLD), around 40,000-50,000 are under the age of 30, estimates party spokesperson Nyan Win.
“Compared to the older generation, the youth are capable of looking at things in a broader sense,” said the 70-year-old.
Over 2,000 people have graduated from the NLD’s training center located right beside the office, with topics covering politics and business.
Most of the students are less than 30 years old and come from places outside of Yangon.
The Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS) also has a youth branch, with people aged 15-32 years old.
They used to have around 200,000 members in 1990, but now they are working with around 500 party members as they try to regroup their organization.
“Because of them [the youth], we are surviving. They are our envoy in different communities,” said party leader Aung Moe Zaw, who has been in exile for 24 years.
Although the government acknowledges that there has recently been a lot of hate speeches, discrimination and campaigning on Facebook, Thaung Tin, Burma’s deputy communications and technology minister, stressed the importance of technology in encouraging the democratization process at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Nay Pyi Taw in June this year.
Even democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi is optimistic about the youth movement in the country. Her first few words before her actual reply to a question asked by a Brazillian on the last day of the WEF brought out a large cheer from a small part of the crowd where all the young people were sitting.
“May I say that my session with the YGL [Young Global Leaders] this morning was the most enjoyable I’ve had in this forum. It really was,” she said.
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This article was produced for the 2013 Southeast Asian Press Alliance (Seapa) fellowship program. Nanchanok Wongsamuth, a business reporter for the Bangkok Post, is one of the 2013 fellows. This year’s theme is Freedom of Expression Challenges to Internet Government in Southeast Asia. The article was originally published in the Bangkok Post in September 2013.