Youth Activism and Democratization in Asia
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“The youth is the hope of our future,” remarked Filipino revolutionary thinker Jose Rizal, whose vast body of work inspired independence movements across post-colonial Asia. On the surface, the quote seems cliché if not an oft-quoted truism.
Yet, upon closer inspection, what the founder of the Filipino nation had in mind was no less than the role of the youth in laying the foundation for the future of a nation. He didn’t see the youth as innocent and feckless bystanders in the forward march of history, but instead as key agents of political transformation against the ossified institutions of a society (often under the yoke of the older generation).
For Rizal, the youth, in the prime of its age, should take the initiative to bring about necessary changes for social justices and the dignity of their nation. What they lacked in experience, they compensated for in their idealistic passion and unbesmirched fidelity to what is good and what is just not only for themselves but for their respective communities.
A century since Rizals’ execution at the hands of Colonial Spain, at the tender age of 35, the youth is still striving for a tangible and consequential voice in shaping history. On one hand, we have seen the proliferation of global initiatives, which surely give extensive lip service to the role of the youth in shaping our world: UN ECOSOC and UNESCO youth forum, the world youth conference, the UN world Program for Action for Youth is a policy for youth, the UNDP Youth strategy, and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Strategy on Adolescents. There is even a UN Secretary General’s special Envoy on youth office, which was created in 2013.
Numbers alone just tell us how important the youth are: Up to 1.8 billion between the ages of 15 and 29, most of them (87 percent) in the developing world; a third of the population of societies in East Asia and South Asia. Yet, their numbers hasn’t necessarily translated into actual political voice or socio-economic empowerment.
The youth are twice likely to be unemployed than other demographics; 60 percent of them are unemployed, though they constitute close to 40 percent of the global working-age population; less than 2 percent of the world’s parliamentarians; a fifth suffer from mental health concerns, while a third are grappling with the daily challenges of conflict and failed state institutions. Unemployment rates are highest in The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, while significantly lower in East and South Asia. This partly explains the fragile and explosive nature of politics in certain regions of the world, from the Arab uprisings to the so-called Islamic State proliferation and ongoing sectarian warfare across much of MENA.
In South Asia, certain cultural practices, particularly the caste-based stratification, has created deep structural inequalities, which have arbitrarily favored certain sections of the society at the expense of others, who are often stuck at the bottom rung of the ladder of social mobility. More so with the erosion of secularism and state policies based on discriminatory pre-modern cultural practices in recent years.
“The promotion of Hindu culture by the state provided them state funded extra privileges to hill Hindu Brahmin culture at the expense of the marginalization of many ethnic culture and other religions that are not Hindu,” Sanjaya Mahato, a Nepalese sociologist, writes in the Quarterly. “The extra preferences for Brahmins from the state helped them to dominate key sectors.”
Elsewhere, as in Indonesia, the concern is the absence of institutionalized mechanisms to ensure the meaningful participation of the youth.“In Indonesia, there is currently no specific mechanism to ensure the ‘youth’s] involvement” in policy-making process, Anderson King, Secretary of Youth Development Partai NasDem Indonesia (North Sumatera Branch), writes in the Quarterly. Even existing efforts to give greater voice to the youth tend to miss “the needs, realities, obstacles, priorities, and opportunities for young people,” he adds.
In some states, particularly in Malaysia, the government itself seems to be discouraging youth activism and meaningful participation in governance. As Vince Tan, a Malaysian youth activist and legal student, writes for the Quarterly, “The Government of Malaysia introduced the Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) 1971 as a way to restrict and curb student activism.” As a result, he continues, “Students tend to shy away from politics inside or outside campus to avoid disciplinary action, which might also render their scholarships withdrawn.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that the youth aren’t trying to challenge the system, particularly through the use of new technologies. Yet, their adept usage of social media has not often been accompanied by on-the-ground political reform.
Justine Belane, International Secretary of Akbayan Youth, writes in the Quarterly about the bittersweet experience of youth activists around Southeast Asia: While we see greater engagement, autocratic states have so far proven quite resilient. Case in point is the New Democracy Movement in Thailand, largely made up of youth millennials, who managed to garner huge social media following against the junta’s draconian constitutional referendum, but eventually fell short in mobilizing votes when the crucial day came.
“[P]olitical conditions aren't usually friendly for youth activists to gather in public,” Belane notes. “In Malaysia and Thailand, their governments have used draconian laws to round up critics.”
The broader challenge, as Aaron Dimaano, Secretary General of the Association of Law Students of the Philippines, writes in the Quarterly, is that “young progressive leaders must be consistent advocates of basic human rights and human dignity,” especially against “growing tide of fear and use of warmongering type of politics” regardless of short-to-medium-term results.
There are signs of hope, without a question. In Malaysia, for instance, draconian state laws haven’t prevented students from challenging various manifestations of authoritarianism. If anything, a new breed of political activists has emerged in response. As Nalina Nair, State Secretary of the Democratic Action Party's Women's Wing, shares in the Quarterly, “Students like Adam Adli, Anis Syafiqah, Hilman Idham, KS Bawani and many others became household names for the causes they fight during their time in university. This comes together with a lot of Gen-Y student activist stepping out from their comfort zone to tackle on causes that are close to their heart.”
In the Philippines for instance, a growing number of millennials have mobilized against perceived neo-authoritarianism under the Rodrigo Duterte administration. “The largely organic – unorganized – nature of the protests was unprecedented in post-Marcos history,” explains JC Tejano, National Chairperson of Akbayan Youth, in the Quarterly, referring to student protests against Dutetre’s decision (November 2016) to burry former dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the Cemetery of National Heroes. “Studies distinguished millennials from previous generations in terms of consumption behavior, spending patterns, and technological aptitude. Today, millennials manifest the same creativity and zeal in their protests.”
This edition of Socdem Asia Quarterly brings together leading young thinkers and activists from across Asia, mapping the trajectory of youth activism in the region and beyond.
Richard Javad Heydarian is an academic, policy advisor, and author. He teaches political science and international relations at De La Salle University, and as a specialist on Asian geopolitical and economic affairs he has written for or interviewed by Aljazeera English, Asia Times, BBC, Bloomberg, The New York Times, The Hufftington Post, among other leading publications.