Apathetic Young Voters in Myanmar? Think Again

The received wisdom about political apathy among the country’s youth needs to be re-examined.

Ms Amy Sein Win, a young voter at the American Center Yangon, 1 February 2020. She hopes that youths in Myanmar will be more involved in politics. (Photo: usaidinmyanmar)


Nyi Nyi Kyaw

19 February 2020

In Myanmar, 4.8 million youths aged between 18 and 22 will vote for the first time in the general elections due in November this year. Outreach targeting this sizeable segment – which forms a significant proportion of the country’s more than 37 million eligible voters – has reflected the assumption that Myanmar youth are apathetic toward elections and politics, and thus require voter education. But this myth of the first-time voter’s apathy towards elections needs unpacking.

A recent commentary by the heads of the Nordic diplomatic missions in Myanmar highlights the importance of voting for electoral democracy. It lists the reasons that an unstated number of Myanmar young voters give for not planning to go to the polls, and calls upon the first-timers to vote. The reasons – or excuses – include a lack of time; prioritisation of education or work over voting; not being well-informed about the scores of active political parties and an inability to select from among the parties or candidates running.

Each of the reasons is plausible. But, together, these reasons effectively serve as the basis of a sweeping generalisation about a large group of Myanmar citizens.

Myanmar has been undergoing a challenging political transition since 2010. Thanks to international advocacy and aid, the country has been increasingly exposed to global norms, ideas, and ‘facts’ relating to what democracy or electoral democracy is and what a ‘democratic’ transition should look like. Such importation of ‘foreign’ norms and ideas is totally fine, to the extent that they reflect globally accepted norms and ideas of democracy and electoral integrity.

However, caution should be exercised when Myanmar receives, without question, ‘facts’ about political behaviour theorised and tested in other contexts such as the first-time voter’s electoral apathy. Some of these so-called facts are actually myths. As in other countries, not all eligible voters in Myanmar will vote in the coming polls. But whether those who choose not to vote will include many, or even most, of those newly eligible voters is not clear.

“ …telling first-time voters to turn up for the polls for sheer practice, habit-formation or political participation will not work in the long run.”

At least four caveats apply here. First, first-time voters born between 1998 and 2002 – the Generation Y of Myanmar – are diverse in terms of gender, place of residence, upbringing, ethnicity, socio-economic background, and religious affiliation. Without accounting for and conducting rigorous research on this diversity, generalisations about the electoral behavior of members of this generation are hazardous. But such research on Myanmar youths’ participation in voting is extremely rare, if not non-existent.  

Second, there is a tendency to view youths as those who have known neither the extreme poverty of the twilight years of socialist rule in the late 1980s nor the 1988 popular uprising and the subsequent years of repressive military rule. Since the country’s political transition began in 2011, people started to enjoy freedoms of expression both online and offline. As such, narratives, stories and performances of the plight of the Myanmar people under military rule have become commonplace. Many of today’s youths have learned about the country’s turbulent past, even though they did not experience its hardships directly.

Third, timing is important. It is still too early to say that youths, who say that they are indecisive yet about voting, will really not vote. Their assumed lack of interest in day-to-day politics in early 2020 and reported indecisiveness about voting hardly ensure that they will not turn up at the polls later this year. In fact, reports of youth apathy about voting and the provision of targetted voter education and advocacy may actually persuade the ruling National League for Democracy party, other parties, and the Union Election Commission of Myanmar to pay attention to that youth voter bloc.

Fourth, telling first-time voters to turn up for the polls for sheer practice, habit-formation or political participation will not work in the long run. When the elections draw near, youths will not easily fall for the highly partisan and black-and-white campaign messages used in previous elections. Nor will they be easily convinced by normative statements that every citizen in a democracy should vote. They will be more attentive to promises of quality education and decent jobs – issues that affect their daily lives. Unfortunately, many parties contesting the elections this year, including the ruling party, do not seem to have grasped such political realities on the ground.

Nyi Nyi Kyaw is a Visiting Fellow in the Myanmar Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. He is also Assistant Professor (adjunct) in the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore.

ISEAS Commentary – 2020/17

The facts and views expressed are solely that of the author/authors and do not necessarily reflect that of ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without permission.