Roundtable: Youth and leadership

Jan 13, 2009 (DVB), The recent election of 47-year-old Barack Obama as US president and the nomination of 44-year-old Abhisit Vejjajiva as prime minister of Burma's neighbour Thailand have highlighted the changing face of world leadership.

But as a younger generation comes to power in some parts of the world, many leading Burmese activists of the same age are facing 65-year prison terms.

DVB discussed the issue of youth and leadership with a panel of opposition leaders from three different generations.

Zaw Min of the Democratic Party for a New Society is in his forties, Dr Sein Win of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma is in his sixties, and National League for Democracy senior member Win Tin is in his eighties.

DVB began by asking the panel about the arrival of a younger generation of leaders.

Zaw Min: "I welcome Abhisit's nomination as prime minister of Thailand. I see it as a good sign because by welcoming in the new generation now, they will become mature national leaders in 10-20 years' time."

Dr Sein Win: "This latest trend started with President John F Kennedy in the US and Tony Blair in the UK. In our country people in their 40s are being sent to prison for 65 years."

Win Tin: "We fully intend to listen to the views and desires of the new generation, to acknowledge their power and to promote them. [We intend] to hand over to them and to nurture them."

DVB: Do you admire the new Thai prime minister?

ZM: "Some people might see 44-year-old Abhisit becoming prime minister as a good example to follow, some people might say it has nothing to do with them. I think it is worth imitating. I want to see young people become able leaders of the country when the time comes. Before he became prime minister, Mr Abhisit was nurtured by Democratic party leaders for ten years and he worked diligently himself. This is the situation in Thailand, a lesson to be learnt by Burma. But in military-ruled Burma, even in the army, there is no way for young army and medium army officers to become leaders, as old army officers including senior-general Than Shwe are not giving them that space."

DVB: Dr Sein Win, you were educated abroad: do you think young people need to study abroad to gain higher education like the US president?

SW: "It is very hard for people inside the country. They have been oppressed in various ways and sent to prison. This is very worrying. There are many experts behind the president. No young person can get to the top suddenly, they have to put in effort and hard work. You have to give them the opportunity to rise up the ranks."

DVB: We have heard reports of quarrels between young people and the older generation within the NLD.

WT: "I don’t want to waste the power of young people. I am in my 80s. Some people are in the current Central Executive Committee are over 90. Two out of the nine CEC members are over 90, while U Khin Maung Swe is the only one under 60. I am aware of that. But we have not been able to select new leaders. The government has imposed many restrictions. But should we be afraid of the government? Should we obey it?

"First, we are looking for attitude. We see this when we are negotiating to build a young and fresh leadership. Secondly, we need to think about how we are going to nurture the new people and harness the new energy. You can’t just select or reject people because they are 18 or because they are in their 70s or 80s , we need systematic plans. We are starting to consider them now."

DVB: The former Democratic party leader who made way for Abhisit, Chuan Leekpai, is not yet 70. Is it only the generals to blame for our failure? Can't we also blame the tradition in Burma of people clinging on to power until it is taken from them?

ZM: "There are many reasons. Firstly, there is a weakness in nurturing young people. Secondly, it is not appropriate to hand over responsibilities to young leaders suddenly as there is a tradition of old people being leaders. In order to hand over power, the older generation has to nurture the young. You can’t just say, here, take the leadership. It wouldn't work well for any organisation."

DVB: What about Dr Sein Win who has been prime minister for 18 years?SW: "There are many limitations. One, only 30 MPs legitimately elected in the 1990 election came out [of Burma]. When we came out we were already not that young. Also, we do not have the same limitation in our constitution as the US system whereby you are not allowed to stand for election after a certain number of terms in office. Although we are able to live outside the country, we are not really a government. Real governments have financial departments, civil servants and the like. We are working on our own initiative and many parts are missing, that is certain."

DVB: Isn’t it worse for the NLD living under military rule in Burma?

WT: "[The military regime] has been trying to tear us and the young people apart. We are trying to overcome it. There have been political generation gaps for a long time in our country. Look at Min Ko Naing, Ko Ko Gyi, Htay Kywe, Mya Aye, Jimmy and the like who came out of the struggle and have been imprisoned. According to [late NLD leader] U Kyi Maung, this is an act of cutting the fallopian tube of politics – to be more accurate, it is cutting the throat. Secondly, we are not only trying to nurture young people, but also the generation in their 50s and 60s. Have no doubt; that is something we are thinking about, negotiating and doing."

Reporting by Htet Aung Kyaw

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