Ethnic Youth Conference goes ahead despite chaotic start
HUNDREDS of young people from ethnic minorities across the country gathered at historic Panglong town for a major youth conference last night, despite attempts by authorities to suspend the event.
As late as 5pm yesterday, uncertainty remained as to whether the Ethnic Youth Conference would be allowed to go ahead. A last-minute missive from the Shan State government’s Minister for Bamar Affairs U Aung Than Maung had arrived yesterday morning telling organisers to halt proceedings.
Final permission greenlighting the conference was not secured until less than two hours before a launch celebration scheduled for 7pm.
The event coincides with a crucial meeting of ethnic armed group leaders a Mai Ja Yang in Kachin State ahead of next month’s cornerstone national peace meeting, which has been dubbed the 21st-century Panglong Conference. The modern iteration follows in the footsteps of the lauded deal reached between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s father, Bogyoke Aung San, and ethnic leaders nearly seven decades ago.
Amid the confusion over yesterday’s suspension order, it was unclear whether the directive had come from the Union level, or whether it was enforced by the state’s chief minister.
Union-level peace negotiators told The Myanmar Times yesterday that they were unaware of the suspension order until the youth organisers called asking for an explanation and assistance.
But deputy director general for the President’s Office U Zaw Htay pinned the decision on a state-level recommendation.
“The state government sent a letter to the Union government with the suggestion that the youth conference ‘should be suspended’. After discussions among the ministries, the Union government agreed,” he said. “This youth event could have consequences for the 21st-century Panglong Conference, which the government aims to hold before the end of August.”
When pressed about what kind of “consequences” he meant, U Zaw Htay said only that the Panglong Conference has its own procedures and plans in place to incorporate civil society groups, and those plans should not be disrupted.
“Actually, if they had an idea [to hold the youth conference] they should have discussed it first with the committee for the CSO Peace Forum, but they didn’t. They went and did their conference themselves,” he said. “It might be waste of time as the government will not take into account their recommendations because it already has plans for the participation of civil society groups in the peace process,” U Zaw Htay said.
Regardless of the suspension order, however, throughout the day youth organisers vowed they would go ahead with their gathering even without permission.
“We got a letter from the state government this morning telling us to suspend our meeting, we are currently in negotiations with them, but whatever happens we will go ahead,” Sai Aung Myint Oo, a committee member of the National Ethnic Youth Conference, said yesterday morning.
By that time around 300 youth had already gathered at the conference site, right next to the memorial for the historic Panglong agreement.
A further 500 young people were estimated to be on their way for the event, which officially begins today, and will run over a five-day period.
Salai Aung Lin, from Chin Youth, one of the conference’s facilitators, said, “It must go ahead. It would be a disaster if it didn’t. Seven or eight hundred young people are attending, and they are so enthusiastic.” He added that it had been very costly to arrange the event.
As he was speaking to The Myanmar Times just after 5pm, Mai Mai, a well-known Kachin youth activist, gave the shout that permission had been granted.
Event organisers said they believed they had always had the support of the Shan State government. Chief Minister U Linn Htut is due to give a speech at 10am today, according to a timetable on display at the event site.
Veteran Kachin activist Khon Ja, who was helping support the event, said the call for suspension had likely been due to a mix-up and lack of clear authority.
She suggested the decision to give permission should have been made at state level, but as the state’s chief minister had been away on business, the Bamar ethnic minister had passed the request for permission on to the Union government. However, most senior government leaders were also unavailable, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who was in Laos. The activist said it was the Union government representatives who had urged the state government to postpone the event.
Khon Ja praised the youth leaders for their efforts in the face of uncertainty. “Everyone has been working like a dog. So much energy. I am glad I’m working with young people on this, not old people!”
She added that this major ethnic youth conference had been in the works since 2012, and that the timing in relation to the Mai Ja Yang summit had been a coincidence.