It was at the age of 20 that John first learned the rules to sing-along-karaoke contests. “Until then I’d never had the opportunity to attend parties or have fun. This was a new feeling — [a feeling of] freedom. Freedom to have fun without anyone looking over my shoulder,” the 24- year-old Naga Burmese says. John recounts how he had been pleasantly surprised by the idea of a new world and a new beginning, once he had crossed the Burmese border to enter the north eastern Indian state of Nagaland, where he attended school.
John is part of a lucky cohort of Burmese youth. Not many youngsters get an opportunity to seek freedom and education within or even outside their country. Schools, colleges and universities in Burma are under the military junta’s control and dire funding regime, allowing few attractive options to be pursued. Most youngsters who do make it across borders languish in refugee camps, some get enrolled into educational programmes conducted by various NGOs, while most add to the growing number of unregistered migrant labourers, toiling for survival in neighbouring countries.
“I don’t have a great academic track record to speak of. But at the point when I was deciding to get employed, I felt it was better to do something than nothing. It was important to be productive,” says John, who is today part of the Human Rights Documentation Unit (HRDU); “I help document human rights abuses of the Burmese military. It feels as though I am doing something constructive,” he adds.
What does it mean to be a young Burmese on International Youth Day? John answers after a long pause, “There are responsibilities,” he drifts away. Most conversations with young Burmese refugees lead in this direction — reflections on an overarching duty to serve a community, a cause or the nation, with no room for personal ambitions at all.
Black Town, 27, of the Community for Internally Displaced Karen People (CIDKP) in Mae Sot, Thailand echoes these thoughts, “When I was a teenager, I had no idea what the future had in store for me. Most of my friends were in the same boat. I let things take their own course and I am happy with what I am doing today.” But many of Black Town’s compatriots aren’t as fortunate. With little or no choice in deciding their future, youngsters are waging a losing battle against an array of issues.
In 2000 the United Nations (UN) declared August 12 as International Youth Day, and as of today dedicated this as the ‘Year of Youth’. A decade after the demarcation of the day, it’s motto still remains “drawing attention to cultural and legal issues surrounding the endangered demographic.”
The youth of Burma can indeed be seen as a troubled demographic. Education, health and employment remain major hurdles in their development. Add to this the innumerable cases of human rights violations on young adults by the Burmese military regime and the result is an atmosphere not very conducive to facilitating a healthy adulthood.
There has been no census recorded since 1983, making it difficult to estimate the percentage of youth comprising the entire population. According to some sources, nearly 35 percent of the population falls under the 15-24 age bracket. Young adults between 20-24 make up the largest demographic group (classified by age) in Burma.
There aren’t many policies implemented by the military to provide valuable education to the Burmese youth. Which can be seen as a calculated failure, for the more uneducated and less politically inclined youngsters are, the higher the possibility of the military junta continuing its oppressive regime — this reflects in the military’s strategies; spending a meagre 1.25% of the government’s expenditure on education. Education and political awareness are key to democratisation, and democracy, elections or not, which could lead to the worrying problem of youth apathy towards poilitics with the elections fast approaching.
“I hope the situation changes. I hope my children don’t have to struggle to be educated. Education, as we all know, is the backbone of a healthy society, and today as youngsters we must dedicate ourselves to the cause.” Black Town said.
Black Town and John’s is the second generation of young Burmese selflessly dedicating their lives to demanding freedom, democracy and everything that comes along with these values. It’s hard to predict how many more generations will pass before Burma’s youngsters can lead a life without having to demand their basic human rights.