AC­TION TAKER – Ac­tivist seeks to im­prove Myan­mar so­ci­ety

Ac­tivist seeks to im­prove Myan­mar so­ci­ety

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS - Evan Erick­son

At 26 years old, Thin­zar Shun­lei Yi is one of those young peo­ple in Myan­mar who has man­aged to gain at­ten­tion not only at home, but through or­gan­i­sa­tions around the world with sig­nif­i­cant reach – re­ceiv­ing the US Depart­ment of State's Emerg­ing Young Lead­ers Award, serv­ing as an am­bas­sador for UK-based One Young World, speak­ing as part of the 2014 ASEAN Youth Fo­rum, and mak­ing many friends along the way.

As for her work in Myan­mar, Thin­zar has compiled a long list of con­tri­bu­tions, and in ad­di­tion to or­gan­is­ing events like the coun­try's first Peace EduTain­ment Sem­i­nar in 2012 and con­sec­u­tive In­ter­na­tional Day of Peace cel­e­bra­tions, she cur­rently serves as an ad­vi­sor to the Na­tional Youth Congress and Yangon Youth Net­work, and as a co­or­di­na­tor with the Ac­tion Com­mit­tee for Democ­racy De­vel­op­ment.

Her lob­by­ing ef­forts in re­cent years have tar­geted the con­tro­ver­sial Ward and Vil­lage Tract Ad­min­is­tra­tion Law enacted in 2012, and de­spite amend­ments to the law made in 2016 ef­fec­tively end­ing war­rant­less searches of pri­vate res­i­dences, she is cur­rently part of a broad coali­tion of ac­tivists who say th­ese changes have not gone nearly far enough.

Mizzima sat down to speak with Thin­zar Shun­lei Yi about her very full plate as a Yangon-based ac­tivist. While only hours ear­lier she had re­ceived an of­fi­cial de­nial let­ter from the po­lice con­cern­ing a can­dle­light peace march planned to pass through five town­ships on the fol­low­ing week­end, she said the march would go on as sched­uled.

While many peo­ple may be fa­mil­iar with your ac­tivism for a wide va­ri­ety of causes in Myan­mar over the past sev­eral years, where are you cur­rently fo­cus­ing your ef­forts?

Right now I'm fo­cus­ing more on ad­min­is­tra­tive re­form in the coun­try, be­cause it is be­ing ne­glected. Peo­ple don't re­ally want to touch it be­cause it's risky, in terms of se­cu­rity as well. For us, as civil so­ci­ety or­gan­i­sa­tions, we look at the root causes and we look at min­istries un­der con­trol of the mil­i­tary. We found that the Ward and Vil­lage Tract Ad­min­is­tra­tion Law is some­thing we can touch on.

Ad­di­tion­ally, I've been fo­cus­ing on youth par­tic­i­pa­tion in the peace process, in the peace di­a­logue, con­fer­ences, mak­ing sure young peo­ple's voices are heard. I've also been lob­by­ing for the UN Se­cu­rity Coun­cil res­o­lu­tion 2250 on Youth, Peace and Se­cu­rity, to trans­late this stuff and also chan­nel it to the grass-roots young peo­ple.

At what point in your life did you re­al­ize that you wanted to be or had be­come a so­cial ac­tivist, and how has your back­ground and en­vi­ron­ment in­formed your ap­proach?

I'm a truly de­voted Bud­dhist, and I've learned a lot of things, like to for­give, to love un­con­di­tion­ally, and that's what I fol­low. So that cre­ates a lot of tol­er­ance in­side of me.

I taught in monastery schools in­side and out­side of Yangon as a vol­un­teer for more than five years. I felt that as a teacher I can maybe teach about 300 kids in a year, whereas with mo­bi­liz­ing pol­icy change I can have a much larger im­pact. So I de­cided to be­come an ac­tivist, more of an ad­vo­cate first, but then I re­al­ized I had be­come an ac­tivist be­cause I'm al­ways ready to stand up for the op­pressed, mi­nori­ties and in­jus­tice.

I'm a truly de­voted Bud­dhist, and I've learned a lot of things, like to for­give, to love un­con­di­tion­ally, and that's what I fol­low. So that cre­ates a lot of tol­er­ance in­side of me.

Given all the hopes for greater youth en­gage­ment in Myan­mar, do you be­lieve that the coun­try's young peo­ple are ca­pa­ble of work­ing to­gether for long-term so­lu­tions? What ob­sta­cles do they face?

Young peo­ple are the prod­uct of the older gen­er­a­tions, and there is a group work­ing to em­power young peo­ple to break out of this cy­cle. Half of the pop­u­la­tion in Myan­mar are un­der 30, and still the gov­ern­ment doesn't pay much at­ten­tion. I am sure if they don't strate­gize to en­gage with this pop­u­la­tion, then they won't get votes in 2020. So, if young peo­ple are trained well, if they have an en­vi­ron­ment to think freely, I think they are them­selves the long-term so­lu­tion.

Have you found that fe­male ac­tivists face any par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges that maybe their male coun­ter­parts do not?

Of course. That's why we have fewer women ac­tivists, es­pe­cially youth ac­tivists. Now I think the po­lit­i­cal pat­tern has changed and peo­ple don't re­ally sup­port ac­tivism any­more, es­pe­cially in the NLD gov­ern­ment era. So we have found many ac­tivists voices be­ing di­min­ished. There are many pub­lic sham­ings or nam­ings. If we at­tack the gov­ern­ment, those are the type of things that we face.

In my work with ACDD we are pro­mot­ing fe­male po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion as well. What we found out is that with their fam­i­lies, they are not en­cour­aged to go out and speak about pol­i­tics. At the same time, women them­selves don't re­spond to fe­male lead­ers. They have been taught that women shouldn't strive for th­ese po­si­tions, so they also hes­i­tate, they also push their young daugh­ters to stay in the back­ground.

What would you like to see the Na­tional Youth Congress for which you are an ad­vi­sor ac­com­plish in the next two years?

We are still build­ing our­selves, but I would like to see the Na­tional Youth Congress as one of the strong­est youth or­gan­i­sa­tions in Myan­mar with a clear struc­ture, clear mech­a­nisms for the elec­tion of a steer­ing com­mit­tee. Now it's time to re-shape our­selves. We feel a bit weak be­cause we are mostly vol­un­teers, and now we are try­ing to in­sti­tu­tion­al­ize. Also, there should be a kind of sec­ond na­tional youth pol­icy fo­rum hosted by the NCY and other youth or­gan­i­sa­tions. That's what we did the first time to elect a rep­re­sen­ta­tive for draft­ing pol­icy, so we should have a sec­ond one to re­vise it.

In ad­di­tion to colo­nial- and junta-era laws stand­ing in the way of free ex­pres­sion, what do you think the con­se­quences will be if Myan­mar's amended Peace­ful As­sem­bly and Peace­ful Pro­ces­sion Law is made of­fi­cial?

Their in­ten­tion is to ban the protests led by cronies, led by the big bosses, led by the mil­i­tary-backed peo­ple, and also the re­li­gious ex­trem­ists, but at the same time it will also im­pact the demo­cratic pro­tester as well, like farm­ers or work­ers. The word­ing of some of the amend­ments is the same as in the con­sti­tu­tion, which are quite broad or un­clear, and they also in­creased the max­i­mum sen­tence to three years. We or­ga­nized a peace­ful march against this peace­ful as­sem­bly law on March 5. Af­ter that they have

been quite quiet, so we don't know what will hap­pen in the fu­ture, we are still watch­ing it. If you had the po­lit­i­cal power to im­me­di­ately in­sti­tute one re­form in Myan­mar, what would it be?

Ar­ti­cle 436, about chang­ing spe­cific ar­ti­cles in the con­sti­tu­tion, need­ing to have 75 per­cent agree­ment in par­lia­ment and a pub­lic ref­er­en­dum. I would change it to 50 per­cent of par­lia­ment and the ref­er­en­dum. So 436 is a big ar­ti­cle, and I think the mil­i­tary will de­fend it by any means pos­si­ble.

What role do you think in­ter­na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tions have to play in Myan­mar, and what have you dis­cov­ered about peo­ple's per­cep­tions of your coun­try in your time spent abroad?

Of course if they are not in­side Myan­mar and if they are not cit­i­zens or mem­bers of th­ese com­mu­ni­ties over the longer term, then I think it's re­ally hard to catch up. Things are chang­ing ev­ery day in Myan­mar. And I feel like we can't choose our neigh­bours. Even if we don't like them, I feel like it's re­ally im­por­tant to have diplo­matic re­la­tions with all of them in balance, not only one gov­ern­ment, not only with China, but also with Europe, also with ASEAN, ev­ery­body.

And I ap­pre­ci­ate what­ever is be­ing dis­cussed about Myan­mar, bad things or good things, I ap­pre­ci­ate it be­cause they care. But whether the in­for­ma­tion they re­ceive is wrong or one-sided, that's there own duty to sort out. I think we still have to rely a lot on the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity to make sure we are on the right track, and by see­ing their ex­pe­ri­ences they have faced in the past, we may be able to leapfrog much bet­ter than oth­ers.

How would you rate the level of en­gage­ment be­tween young peo­ple and those of prior gen­er­a­tions who have lived for decades un­der mil­i­tary rule?

Ac­tivism has no age limit. You can still be an ac­tivist un­til you die if you are com­mit­ted to your own prin­ci­ples. The younger gen­er­a­tion were born in a more open so­ci­ety, there is in­ter­net, telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions, every­thing is there. Be­fore, ev­ery­body had to work on pol­i­tics, and they would be­come ac­tivists out of ne­ces­sity be­cause of the mil­i­tary. But later on, they might be strong ac­tivist, but also able politi­cians ready to run for of­fice. So young peo­ple will be more pre­pared to rule the coun­try, to ad­min­is­ter.

What ad­vice would you of­fer to other young peo­ple in Myan­mar who may feel that their voice isn't be­ing heard and are look­ing for ways to get in­volved?

Some young peo­ple don't even rec­og­nize them­selves as youth, the main stake­hold­ers of the whole coun­try. Our role is not be­ing pro­moted na­tion­ally or re­gion­ally, so young peo­ple need to rec­og­nize that what­ever you do in th­ese years will im­pact the coun­try in the fu­ture. What­ever you do, you're not do­ing it only for your­self.

There are many dif­fer­ent chan­nels for young peo­ple right now, youth fo­rums, youth sem­i­nar, youth train­ing, youth, TV chan­nels, etc. If you are com­mit­ted in what you are do­ing, know­ing your­self, what your voice is, then you will be rec­og­nized in your own com­mu­nity and your voice will be heard.

Photo: Thin­zar Shun­lei Yi

Ac­tivist Thin­zar Shun­lei Yi.

Photo: Thin­zar Shun­lei Yi

Thin­zar Shun­lei Yi dis­cusses strat­egy.

Photo: Thin­zar Shun­lei Yi

Thin­zar Shun­lei Yi speaks at an event.

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