Youth inclusion a must in governing

Youth inclusion a must in governing

As Myanmar gears up to hold its second election since its transition to democracy began in 2011, the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) -- with its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi -- looks set to retain its majority in the quasi-civilian regime. However, its projected victory hides the growing divide between its younger and older members, which, if left unaddressed, poses a risk to its ability to effectively run the government.

Thailand, as one of Myanmar's neighbours, should pay attention to how the NLD under Ms Suu Kyi deals with the problem, as this nation is now also faced with a similar issue -- a growing generational divide which risks ripping the underlying fabric of society.

In the lead-up to today's vote, several younger NLD members voiced their disappointment with how the party is run. These members, including NLD MP and former youth leader Aung Hlaing Win, said the party's structure favours older comrades of Ms Suu Kyi, effectively sidelining youth's chance to govern in favour of "old guards" who were imprisoned by the junta in the struggle to democratise the country.

"Younger members of the party were largely reduced to being supporting acts for their seniors, required to ask permission to speak to anyone outside the party and submit speeches for 'censorship'," Aung Hlaing Win told AFP.

And these guards are really old indeed: the report noted the average age of the 12 members of the NLD's top decision-making body is more than 70. The median age in Myanmar, according to the latest statistics, is about 29 years old. This doesn't only go against the trend of younger politicians taking on their country's top job -- think Austria's Sebastian Kurz and New Zealand's Jacinda Ardern, who are government leaders at 34 and 40 years old, respectively -- but it also risks complicating the country's push towards democratisation, and the legitimacy of its actions in parliament.

Rival factions are starting to appear, with younger politicians and pro-democracy activists converging around their dissatisfaction with the NLD's way of doing things. One such faction is headed by former NLD lawmaker Thet Thet Khine, who now leads the People's Pioneer Party. While competition is a sign of a healthy democracy, in a system as fragile as Myanmar's, a rift can easily tip the scales in favour of the military, which still controls 25% of parliament.

To ensure the push towards democracy can be maintained, Ms Suu Kyi and the NLD's upper echelons need to realise their way of doing politics can no longer be sustained.

Granting extra weight to some members' opinions in the decision-making process doesn't work in a democracy, and especially so in one with a quickly changing demographic. And understandably so -- there are bound to be differences in perspective between those who were alive and protesting in 1988, and the voting public in Myanmar, most of whom were born after 1980, according to published figures.

Disenfranchising youths in any political system has never benefited any regime, and even a cursory reading of region's history should have been enough to show government leaders -- both in Nay Pyi Taw and Bangkok -- the consequences of such action. In 1998 Gen Suharto was ousted following brutal crackdowns on student protesters in Jakarta. In the Philippines Ferdinand Marcos was kicked out of office following the EDSA revolution of 1986, his doom foretold by the assassinated senator Benigno Aquino, who noted in an interview that the root cause of the unrest under the conjugal dictatorship was the "alienation of youths".

While Thailand has already held its own election (which attracted its fair share of criticism) last year, the entire nation, especially those who are advocating the status quo, can stand to learn a thing or two from Myanmar's experience.

Just like across the border, there is a pronounced divide between generations here too. The older, ruling elite, perhaps all too aware of their tenuous grip on power, are pushing to maintain the status quo from which they have benefited so much. The younger, more progressive generation, meanwhile, is finding it hard to understand -- let alone, benefit from -- the political system, which as has been pointed out time and time again, was rigged to favour the ruling elite.

The unrest everyone is seeing now is the result of precisely this: no solution to the crisis will ever be agreed on if the conflicting stakeholders are unable to see eye to eye. And how could they, if either side can't understand the other's logic? This is what those in power in Nay Pyi Taw and Bangkok need to realise -- it is time to include youth in moving both countries forward.

And if it means the government needs to make more concessions, then so be it. After all, no one, not even in an authoritarian regime, is meant to stay in power forever. Facilitating change may provide them with the soft exit they need.


Bangkok Post editorial column

These editorials represent Bangkok Post thoughts about current issues and situations.

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