The Future They Want – Turning Twenty in Myanmar today

News and Press Release
Originally published

Achim Steiner, Administrator United Nations Development Programme

Half of Myanmar’s population is under the age of thirty. Many of these young people have benefitted from the fragile and imperfect democratic transition their country has traversed over the past ten years. They know the latest developments could reverse the progress of a decade of hard-won gains in human development and fundamental freedoms. This is their future at stake.

Armed Forces Day, a day in which General Min Aung Hlaing said the military’s role was to protect the people and promote democracy, turned into the bloodiest day since the military coup. A father clutching his dying son poignantly and tragically underlined on this day that both lives and futures are being lost. It is the prospects of a vanishing future that have brought thousands of young people out on the streets across Myanmar. They refuse to live without hope.

The signs are already increasingly tangible. UNDP’s Household Vulnerability survey conducted late last year signaled that poor households are being pushed further below the poverty line, vulnerable households will now be moving even closer to it and previously financially secure households face massive shocks due to the temporary closure of their small businesses and loss of employment. These are the effects of compounded crises: COVID-19, poverty, learning, democracy, and freedoms. The World Bank regional report that came out recently forecasts Myanmar's 2021 GDP growth to be a negative 10 percent. This is a dramatic reduction from 6.8 percent growth in 2019 and 1.7 percent growth in 2020, a COVID-impacted year.

While sharing of this evidence must continue knowledge of these trajectories and numbers do not bring sufficient relief to those being impacted daily. On the streets, they know and feel all this in very stark terms, as the personal tragedies rapidly unfold behind the data. The young are seeing jobs disappearing as investment falls away precipitously. International buyers and factory owners are questioning the viability of operations given worker safety and security of workplaces. The inability to guarantee reliable logistics and continued operations are halting businesses and industry. And with it, more young people will lose their jobs. Their threads of fragile livelihoods.

The internet is the lifeblood of the young, but it has been restricted severely. The suppression of information, free speech and internet access threaten to push Myanmar back into isolation, information control, and limited engagement within the country and with the rest of the world. But this happens now, at times when a whole generation of young people have experienced better jobs, freedom of speech, access to information and improved education. These developments shaped the values and aspirations of this generation of young people, growing up to civic consciousness in an early democratic transition. Their dreams and aspirations have been shaped by seeing the possible ahead, the potential of a different future. And they refuse to let it be snatched away.

History is a stark reminder of what the young may likely face. In 1950, per capita income in Myanmar was higher than that of Malaysia or Thailand. The following decades of a ‘closed door’ policy, under - investments in economic and social sectors had a corrosive effect on human capital and democratic institutions, turning Myanmar from one of the most promising economies in Asia to one of the worst performers. The parents and grandparents know what it was like, and their bitter experience has been recounted to their children – to a Young Myanmar that does not want the clock wound back.

They will not be silenced.

19-year-old taekwondo champion and dancer Kyal Sin, who was known as Angel, was killed by security forces in Mandalay wearing an Everything will be ok shirt. Angel would have turned twenty this year. Her posture before she was shot was optimistic and so full of a defiant positivity, as she stood facing the military. Thousands of young people like her stand on the streets each day, courageously calling for the country they want. For the future they want. And they have every right to do so.

The UN Secretary General has stated forcefully - the way forward is clear. The security forces must stop the violence, the country must return to its democratic path, the results of the election must be respected, and all political prisoners must be freed. There is an urgent need to ensure COVID-19 does not spread. Progress on reforms that embrace fair economic development, peace and human rights, including the freedom of movement, citizenship and the right of safe return for refugees, is a sign of a country investing in its human development, in its very humanity. It would be a society at peace with itself.

Armed Forces Day should be a celebration of a commitment to protect the future of the young, not a day in which the world mourns that future being so violently snatched away.