Loikaw, Kayah State. Union of Karenni State Youth and their fellow organizations are getting busy in the mutations affecting the State. A new energy in the world of associations matching issues – old and new – faced by the region since the country opened up in 2011.
In a state among the poorest and most remote of Burma, Karenni people slowly emerge from 50 years of civil war which left some scars. Ceasefire in 2012 between the military and the main Karenni armed group just worsened military presence in the area. Landgrabs are increasing: a way for the military to secure resources the economic opening is making more valuable.
Karenni organizations driven by a will to change things are emerging around the State capital Loikaw in order to make a difference and fight for people to be part of the crucial decision-making taking place.
Commitment to democracy and emancipation through education
Union of Karenni State Youth (UKSY) was created in 2007. One of the most active in the region, the organization takes part in every struggle led by civil society against the hardly forgotten junta governement’s actions. UKSY is an umbrella organization working with a network of other Karenni organizations. Among them, Kayan New Generation Youth (KNGY) is focusing on helping and bringing education to the Kayan minority.
KNPLF(Karenni National People Liberation Front)-Youth is composed of the younger generation from one prominent local armed group, working on the peace process. Karenni Student Union, Karenni Women Organization as well as newly-born farmer networks fighting against landgrabs are also supported by UKSY.
At UKSY office in Loikaw’s outskirts, there is a big red poster at the back of the meeting room. On it lie the aims and ideals the union of youth is standing for. « We want young people to be able to understand and take part in politics. They have to become a new generation of leaders fighting for democracy. It’s important for us to inform people about their rights, so that their voice can be heard in the democratic process. » Khun Bedhu explains. He is UKSY chairman and one of the founding father.
UKSY is engaged in a long-term approach focusing on emancipating Karenni society through emphasizing on education. Such a process should eventually bring about a new generation of people, freed from the frame of mind induced by living among habits from a junta handled society. Training the new stakeholders from civil society and getting away from old elites willy nilly corrupted by junta-era ways.
To confront the harshness of political and social changes coming their way, UKSY is betting on a slow transformation of people ‘s viewpoint and state of mind. Involving youth is what matters the most, for instance providing them with a clear view on democracy, peace or human rights issues. According to Dee Dee, one of USKSY’s founding father, their activities must go beyond the humanitarian work of international non-governmental organizations. « This help on basic needs is a good thing, but we can’t do this on our side. So we go to the villages, we tell them they have rights and they have to fight for it. But once people got food and all from the ngos, they are not really interested anymore, it’s too abstract. But material relief is not enough for things to really change. »
From illegal to just suspicious
UKSY was born in secret at the time of the junta. In 2008, three of its founding members were arrested while campaigning against the 2008 Constitution. Tortured by the police for ten days before being emprisoned under false accusations, Kawrio, Bedhu and Dee Dee were released in 2012, when the regime softened. « After I was released, my father told me to stay away from politics, but you can’t just let go of what you believe. We wanted to go on because it’s better for everyone, not just for us or this generation, but for everyone, even our enemy. So we risked it. » Dee Dee says.
UKSY could then reorganize openly and get broader ambitions. « Today, we want to grow, make new projects and get more people to join so that civil society matters in upcoming reforms. Not only government, military and armed groups. »
But joining an activist organization still scares away a lot of people. Spies and informers are still around and everyone still remember a past of recent repressions. « Parents often disagree with their children joining us. They are afraid to see their names assiociated with ex-prisoners or illegal activities. Karenni people still fear being noticed by the special police. A strange man could be behind you in a restaurant taking notes, or passing slowly in front of your house in his car. Everyone still is cautious. UKSY activities still are frowned upon by the authorities. A couple of years ago, their office in downtown Loikaw was repelled to the outskirts of town.
Multitasking and ever renewed
Apart from their founding members and staff, UKSY is composed of volunteer teachers and trainers traveling to villages to support and inform people on their rights, advisors working on the peace-process with armed groups, coordinators helping and building networks for other organizations or interest groups, also raising awareness for the press and public opinion on those issues. Everyone has its own field of action and takes care of a various range of activities in cooperation with other groups: seminars, workshops, trainings, demonstrations, material and moral support, exhibitions, field trips or documentary. But the true core of this, is definitely the young ones. For now, interns and trainees, they will soon have a chance to become trainers and then maybe political leaders one day.
A month ago, about twenty young activists finished their nine months training on capacity building for peace and cooperation. They are all around eighteen years old and they are the future of Karenni fights and also future key elements of a democratic political life. Through UKSY, they are already part of an ever renewed movement supplying every struggle for justice in the State and in Burma with new blood.