Myanmar: Youth-led Participatory Research on Social Cohesion in Urban Areas
Shiva Dhungana & Nandita Palrecha
In 2010, Myanmar began its democratic transition towards a civilian-led government. However, despite an ongoing national peace process between the government and multiple ethnic armed organizations (EAOs), emerging intercommunal conflicts present new challenges to peace and development. The country is facing significant challenges in interethnic relationships, inappropriate use of social and online media, emerging practices of hate speech, and the spread of false news. Altogether, these obstacles further strain interethnic relationships and result in more frequent incidences of interethnic violence, particularly among Myanmar’s youth. This is not to deny the simultaneous growing recognition of the scope and role of Myanmar’s youth in ensuring social cohesion and peacebuilding.
In light of this, Search for Common Ground (Search) implemented the “Let’s Think, Let’s Change: Promoting Diversity through Popular Culture Media Project.” The project worked towards the acceptance and normalization of diversity as a social norm in Myanmar in order to strengthen social cohesion and inter-communal harmony. This youth-specific project used mediums and tools that emphasized community-based, youth-led engagement with a multimedia campaign, television public service announcements, and a radio talk show. The visible impact of this project, seen in terms of the increased engagement of listeners from other religious and cultural backgrounds, paved the way for a Phase 2.
However prior to the implementation of Phase 2, a youth-led research project was conducted in Lashio in the Northern Shan and Greater Yangon states due to their diversity, scope for peace, and participation in the initial phase. This research had the following objectives: to identify the challenges that continue to confront youth in Myanmar; to map how youth connect, mobilize, and influence their respective communities; to understand the generational dynamics and perspectives, identifying differences and entry-points that could be utilized for the building of trust; and to determine the role of mainstream and social media in influencing and mobilizing public opinion.
The research applied Search’s Youth-Led Research Toolkit (1) and Listening and Learning Toolkit (2). A total of 52 young local researchers (26 in both Lashio and Yangon) conducted the research and interviewed 553 respondents (238 in Lashio and 233 in Yangon) in all. Of the total respondents, 85 percent were youth between the ages of 18 and 35 years old, while 15 percent of respondents were individuals above the age of 36 years old. Both categories had nearly equal male and female representation. Questionnaires with qualitative/quantitative and open-ended/close-ended questions were used for data-collection over a period of 10 days.
Social cohesion and challenges
The respondents believed that the top three characteristics of a peaceful society are mutual understanding and respect, a sense of unity/social cohesion and being able to work together, and love and empathy. And, 90 percent of the youth felt it was acceptable to engage, celebrate, work, and socialize with those belonging to other religions and communities, which was slightly higher than those falling in the adult category. However, the lack of job opportunities, drug use and addiction, low education standards, sexual harassment, and lack of moral guidance and support were identified as key challenges among youth. These social elements manifested in greater youth participation in violence, with one third of youth participants admitting to involvement in crime and violence within their communities. This subsequently served as an impediment to social cohesion.
Youth mobilisation and connection
Almost 50 percent of the youth respondents were part of a youth group or organization, indicative of favourable youth mobilization. The medium with which 80 percent of the youth respondents used to connect and mobilize with others was Facebook, indicating the platform’s significant capacity to influence a broad spectrum of youth. However, the provision of emotional and psycho-social support, and the development of critical thinking skills, were emphasized as preconditions for more effective youth mobilization towards peacebuilding and social harmony.
An equal percentage of the youth described intergenerational relationships positively and negatively. In terms of trust, the youth identified their parents, teachers, peers, and community leaders as the ones who trusted them the most. This was corroborated by the two-thirds of the adult respondents who indicated overall trust in youth.
Influence of media
The research shows that there is immense potential in the social media domain to mobilize youth in Myanmar towards promoting peace and social cohesion. It was found that 84 percent of young women and men interviewed accessed social media once a day or more compared to 53 percent of adult respondents. But, the respondents were still aware of the negative influence of social media use on community relations, with 20 percent indicating increased tensions as a result of social media. In the mainstream domain, television and radio were identified as influential by 44 percent and 26 percent of the youth respectively. It is also interesting to note that 38 percent and 47 percent of the youth respondents did not find television and radio influential.
On the basis of the above responses, this study makes the following major recommendations:
- Social media, with particular emphasis on Facebook, should be used to promote social cohesion among youth along with other traditional media.
- Programming must depict everyday challenges of the youth including unemployment, drug use, inadequate access to quality education, and discrimination and violence, along with an emphasis on the resultant emotional and psycho-social needs of the youth. However, this depiction of reality must also be accompanied with features that increase the knowledge base, encourage peace, and enable critical thinking among viewers/listeners.
- Positive depictions of intergenerational relationships and dialogue that show understanding, respect, trust, adaptability and friendliness must also be integrated into the programming.
- Thus, programming that addresses youth and adults will allow the program to have a more expansive message. In concomitance, common perceptions and shared concerns of adults and youth about a peaceful society and social cohesion can be utilized as entry-points for building trust.
- In addition to messaging, a platform such as town hall meetings, where the youth are allowed to reach government and community authorities, should be integrated into the programming. This will enable trust-building between the youth and authorities.
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