By Will Bugler
Young people in Myanmar are fighting for their futures on several fronts: COVID, climate and coup. Myanmar’s youth have a long history of supporting peace and democracy. Their energy and creativity are needed now more than ever. Whilst many young people may feel let down, with some justification, by older generations, overcoming the challenges the country now faces requires unprecedented cooperation across age groups.
In contrast to many parts of the world, the political engagement of young people in Myanmar is not in doubt. Less than 72 hours after the military took power, thousands took to the county’s most popular social media platform, Facebook, to express their anger and frustration. The continued presence of young people on the streets, risking their lives and liberty in protest at the threat to their democracy, is a powerful demonstration of their commitment to securing a prosperous future for their country.
Today’s protests are rooted in a rich history of youth activism. From the student and youth movements that impacted state-level power structures and contributed to independence from the British colony in the late 1940s to the Saffron Revolution in 2007, Myanmar’s young people have played an essential role in influencing the country’s politics. One reason for the vociferousness of the youth protests today is that youth organisations and networks have been very active in Myanmar’s peace process since the country last emerged from dictatorship in 2015.
Despite the rich history of activism of their elders, amongst today’s younger generation there remains a deep impression that older generations have governed Myanmar at the expense of the needs and aspirations of the younger. Writing in the Financial Times, Myanmar Historian Thant Myint-U claimed the country has been “hobbled by gerontocracy and a narrow focus on elections and constitutions”.
The short-sighted mismanagement by older generations – more concerned with holding onto power than acting in future generations’ interest – is central to Myanmar’s youth climate movement’s frustrations. The active and growing groups of youth climate activists across Myanmar organised peaceful rallies and protests during the global climate-strike demonstrations in 2019, calling for climate justice.
Justice is fundamental to the climate issue
Looking beyond the immediate danger to Myanmar’s democracy, climate change represents the greatest threat to younger people’s ability to realise their ambitions. Issues of justice are intrinsic to climate change; they cannot be ignored.
Climate injustice manifests in many ways, but principally geographically, economically and temporally. The nature of geographical injustice is that climate impacts will not affect all countries equally. According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2020, Myanmar is the second most climate change-affected country in the world. However, the country’s historical contribution to global warming is minuscule compared to industrialised countries, which have benefited greatly from their fossil-fuel-drive industrial revolutions.
Linked to geographical injustice is economic injustice, both globally and within each country. Climate impacts affect the poorest sections of society more severely, while wealthier people are typically more able to adapt to climate change and withstand economic losses.
Finally, temporal injustice derives from the fact that young people, and indeed future generations, have done little or nothing to contribute to climate change, yet are the ones that will suffer the consequences of decisions made on their behalf. These facts are inescapable and must be acknowledged to ensure that our response to climate change is just.
Building bridges across divides
Trying to resolve the multi-dimensional unfairness of climate justice through ‘us vs. them’ definitions will not result in a just outcome. There is a danger in drawing battle lines when what is needed are bridges. There will be no way forward, no just solutions found, by pitching young vs old, or rich vs poor. Climate change demands unprecedented levels of cooperation across age groups, ethnicities and social groups.
Reducing greenhouse gas emissions, protecting biodiversity, restoring ecosystems, improving the lives of the poorest and most vulnerable populations, and building resilience into the fabric of societies and communities will mean working together towards a common cause. For this to work, there must be an open, intergenerational dialogue to develop a shared vision for Myanmar’s future.
Importantly it also requires bringing Myanmar’s young people closer to the decision-making processes. Over one-third of Myanmar’s population are between 15 and 35 years old; their role cannot be restricted to shouting from the sidelines, relentlessly demanding democracy, peace, and climate justice.
An effective process for climate action must enable youth representatives from diverse social groups to join with others across generations and play a substantive role in shaping the future. In 2019 the UN Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy on Youth commissioned a policy paper on youth-inclusive peace processes. The paper maps young people’s engagement in peace processes around the world, highlighting the dynamic roles that young people have taken in shaping peace agreements. The paper also shows that the positive impacts of young people’s efforts relate to their proximity to the ‘negotiation table’. This is likely to hold true for climate, just as much as for peace.
A progressive agenda
Myanmar’s youth continue to show courage in the face of forces that threaten their future. Thant Myint-U urges them to reject the “terrible legacies” that they inherited and “craft a progressive agenda across ethnic lines, centred on inequality and development as well as peace and justice.”
In a real sense, climate change presents an excellent
opportunity to bridge divides and be a central issue of Myint-U’s progressive
agenda. The international climate movement is a clear demonstration of this. Young
people in Myanmar are now part of a global groundswell of young people in
countries worldwide. This has opened dialogue between like-minded people across
continents to tackle a common problem. There is no reason why this cannot be
repeated across age groups as well, ensuring a just future for generations to