Rangoon. Burma’s youth, no strangers to the country’s long struggle for democracy, are increasingly daring to emerge from the political shadows of dictatorship as the regime promises a new era of openness.
Their enthusiasm offers much-needed new blood for Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, whose top ranks are filled with elderly men in their 80s and 90s known as the “uncles.”
With the opposition gearing up for April 1 by-elections expected to propel Suu Kyi and possibly dozens more party members into Parliament for the first time, many young people are heeding the call to battle.
“I want to fight for the truth,” 25-year-old NLD member Thuzar Lwin said at the party’s ramshackle Rangoon headquarters, where she was helping to reregister recently freed dissidents on the membership list.
“I believe in my leader, Aung San Suu Kyi.”
Young Burmese have often been at the vanguard of their country’s decades-old resistance to oppression and military rule, but in the past they often waged their campaign on the street or in the shadows.
Now they feel more able to make their voices heard.
“They always suspected us, the government. Not now. Now we are free again,” said 21-year-old student Zar Yar Phyo.
In 1988 students were at the forefront of the biggest ever uprising against the military regime, which cracked down brutally on protesters, resulting in up to 3,000 deaths and leaving students under the close watch of the authorities.
Almost two decades later in 2007, the same activists again took to the streets to join monk-led protests dubbed the “Saffron Revolution” that were crushed by the regime.
Many were handed long prison sentences for their roles in the unrest and some were only recently released by the new military-backed government as part of prisoner amnesties long demanded by the international community and activists.
Now in their 40s, they are mak ing way for a new generation.
“We’re not as young as we were, the former students of the 1988 movement. So we’re trying to work with members of the young generation and in another month or so we expect to stand united,” said NLD youth spokesman Myo Nyunt.
Not all youth activists, however, are signing up to the NLD.
Bo Bo, 23, quit university in 2008 and joined the Generation Wave underground movement, which uses music, poetry and other forms of peaceful expression. The group has now started to organize more open activities to campaign for some basic political and human rights.
“I wanted to do something for the country,” he said.
“In the 2007 Saffron Revolution I saw many bad things such as they attacked the monks who protested on the road very peacefully. It made me really angry and also it encouraged me to do politics and to do more for the country.”
Some 30 members of the group were thrown in prison. They were released as part of the sweeping changes that are also being felt on the streets.
“We are not going to form a political party. We would like to be an activist organization, that’s all,” Bo Bo said.
Many young voters in the constituencies involved in the April by-election, where 48 seats will be at stake, will be casting ballots for the second time.
The new government has promised that this time the vote in Burma, also known as Myanmar, will be free and fair, unlike a 2010 nationwide election that was marred by widespread complaints of cheating and swept the army’s political allies to power.
The regime has since surprised observers with a series of reforms, including welcoming the NLD back into the political mainstream, inking cease-fire deals with ethnic minority rebels and releasing hundreds of political prisoners.
“I think it is changing now more than ever,” said student Zar Yar Phyo. “Everything can happen today in Myanmar.”