During our informal introductions at the Yangon School of Political Science, a 26-year-old student began by saying: “I guess I’m lucky, reintegrating into the community after my prison sentence ended was easier because many of my family members had been in jail too”. She had been imprisoned for eight years solely because her father was a political activist who participated in opposition demonstrations. Unlike us – we were the visiting Oxonians – the other students had little reaction to this woman’s revelation of imprisonment for no crime other than being related to a political activist. What quickly emerged over further conversations was that over half of them had been incarcerated for time periods ranging from six months to over ten years. For local students interested in opposition politics, time in prison was not out of the ordinary.
These students yearn for democracy and progress, and are willing to risk the brutal conditions of Myanmar’s prisons for the sake of fulfilling their political ideologies. Instantly, we found ourselves asking the same question David Cameron had asked a student debating society he met in Yangon last year – how are so many young people so fearlessly passionate about politics?
When we arrived in Myanmar, we expected to be surrounded by sectarian violence, minimal infrastructure, and fierce government censorship. Just a few days before our departure, religious violence erupted in Meiktila and sparked a three-day riot through Muslim areas of the country that some sources described as ethnic cleansing. We were warned that if we wanted phone signal, a sim card would cost $260, a discount to be grateful for given the price had been $1000 in 2010. The local exchange rate varied hugely depending on how crisp dollar bills are and internet penetration was around 7 per cent – it was looking like the outside world wouldn’t be hearing much from us over the two weeks.
Instead, what we found was an accessible and diverse nation that boasts over 135 different ethnic groups going through a tumultuous transition period. The volatility of this transition to democracy was startling. At the start of our visit, there were celebrations in Yangon as privately owned daily newspapers hit newsstands for the first time in 50 years. However, only a week later in the same city, ethnic tensions were escalating as 13 children died in a fire started at a Muslim school.
The dividing lines within Myanmar are not solely limited to religion or income – travelling throughout the country, the differences between rural areas and cities showed that the pace at which Myanmar is changing remains vastly inconsistent. Whilst cities are home to countless NGOs, five stars hotels and bars, many rural areas still lack access to clean water and electricity. Although foreign investment floods into the larger urban areas, the majority of the population living in the countryside never benefit from the developments that such investments fund. As one community leader told us: “we hear a lot of thunder, but we don’t see much rain.”
After meeting with a wide range of civil society organisations, we learned that most individuals’ politicisation came from experiencing the inescapable inequality of Myanmar. The lack of autonomy the country suffered during its years as a police state meant that activism was, and still is, the key way for people to try and challenge the status quo and achieve progress towards a different and better future.
Despite the different cultures, languages, and customs of the many ethnic groups we met with, their aims were similar. These decentralised groups all long to promote universal education, fight corruption, and teach social responsibility. They all agree that they are no longer content with rote learning – they want the generations following theirs to think critically and question everything around them.
The authoritarian regime that gripped Myanmar had allowed corruption to infiltrate all aspects of life and instil mistrust within the culture that is prevalent to this day. This lack of trust means that many organisations remain suspicious of each other and are unwilling to share information. Today, hundreds of small groups all working towards a common cause are failing to cooperate and, consequently, making it unnecessarily more difficult for themselves to pursue their goals.
Everywhere we went, we would ask whether we could help, and, if we could, what we could do. Specifically, as students, could we contribute and try to re-establish links between young people in Oxford and Myanmar? The answers we got made it apparent how much the infrastructure of the student unions and debating societies that we sometimes take for granted could benefit the local youth.
Helping the disjointed student groups engage in dialogue to form a centralised and functioning student union could enable them to share ideas and information much more effectively. Sending volunteers to teach anything from English to maths could provide invaluable resources for understaffed schools. Spreading our knowledge of debating could teach students how to more critically construct arguments. Even sending over a few unused textbooks would double the assests of some institutions.
It was humbling to see how committed young people in Myanmar are to their local communities. We were constantly reminded that, as students, we are in the unique position of having the capacity to work in unison that is difficult to replicate. Some of the most influential uprisings all over the world have been organised by students fighting to have their voices heard. It’s vital we never forget the impact that student movements such as Myanmar’s 8888 uprising are capable of having.
The democratic processes that Myanmar longs for have to be rebuilt carefully, every day, and the rights of citizenship that we enjoy also entail responsibilities. There is a lot we can learn from the people of Myanmar, especially from those that risk years in prison to attain the freedoms that we have the privilage of taking for granted. In light of the opportunities we have been given, the impact we could, and should, have if we commit ourselves to helping the wider community is enormous.