This webinar by Alex Aung Khant, Executive Director of Urbanize, a local policy institute on urban and regional planning, and former independent candidate for the 2019 Yangon municipal elections, discussed the topic of youth and elections in Myanmar.
MYANMAR STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
Thursday, 1 October 2020 – In this webinar, Mr Aung Khant, shared his views on the interest and engagement of Myanmar youth in the upcoming general elections scheduled for 8 November 2020. About 5 million first-time voters would be going to the polls, and their aspirations and concerns are different from those of even a generation before. Faced with an uncertain future, they are more interested in what political parties have to say about access to education, development goals and plans, and employment opportunities, and the space for young candidates. Mr Aung Khant also shared his own experience of running as an independent candidate in the 2019 Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) municipal elections. Dr Nyi Nyi Kyaw, Visiting Research Fellow at the ISEAS Myanmar Studies Programme moderated the webinar.
Key points highlighted by Mr Aung Khant in his talk centred on four critical questions:
1. Who are the youth (in Myanmar):
Myanmar’s last nation-wide census in 2014 found that the 18-22 year-old age group constituted about five million or roughly ten percent of the country’s total population of about 51 million. For 2020, these first-time voters are the largest voter base in Myanmar, and would outnumber voters in other age groups, particularly those above the 60 year-old age range. In 2025, the number of young voters would be even larger, as per the 2014 census data, the 10-14 year-old age group exceeded ten percent of the total population. Youth thus present the largest share of some 37 million eligible voters in Myanmar. But they also constitute the least mobilized and participatory voter base.
2. What are their preferences:
Today, young people constitute the highest number of social media users in Myanmar. Almost 80% of all social media users in Myanmar are between the ages of 18-34. They have better exposure and access to various information and news sources online. Young millennials, especially those born around or after 2000 have a different concept or view of Myanmar’s political legacy issues that continue to haunt older generations. Discussions of national-level political legacy topics should be framed around how these issues affect the daily lives and future aspirations of young people. Topics of interest for the youth are mainly on access to education, health and social services; labour rights; employment opportunities, and freedom of expression.
3. Why is youth participation in the elections still low:
Historically, youth or young leaders had played pivotal roles in Myanmar’s political movements. Youth voice was suppressed under authoritarian and military rule from the 1960s to 2010, and young people are finding their voice (again) only now, within a still restrictive legal framework. Under the present circumstances, election campaigning and rallying had shifted online, and thus young people are in a well-placed position to follow various election-related discussions and party manifestos. However, people in Myanmar have unequal access to information and the internet. Concerns over safety during the Covid-19 second wave in Myanmar might also affect voter turnout. Voter turnout in the 2015 general elections had been about 69 percent, but decreased to about 37 percent in the 2017 by-elections, and even lower (12 percent) in the 2019 YCDC elections
4. What are the challenges:
There are more youth candidates running for seats in the 2020 elections; most of them are in the ethnic political parties. There is also more youth-targeted campaigning, but mainstream parties still seem to view (and treat) youth and women’s concerns as secondary to the broad political legacy topics such as constitutional reform, civil-military relations and macro-level policy measures. There should be greater efforts to increase voter education/awareness and, where possible (especially in rural or ethnic areas) on-ground campaigning and engagement on issues and challenges that communities face daily.
Topics raised in the question-and-answer session included: mainstream political parties’ need to include youth concerns in their election priorities; engaging and sustaining young people’s interest in politics and political issues; youth attitudes towards “legacy issues” in Myanmar, and young voters’ preference among the spectrum of political parties and their platforms. The webinar attracted 108 attendees from Myanmar, Singapore and other countries in the region and beyond.