Teenage life in a dictatorship
I went to Burma to find out how teenage and student life compares to London. Playing football or guitar, hanging out, texting and facebooking friends… Much the same as here? Not! There’s no real freedom, or democracy, and until recently a mobile phone cost US$1,000! Jack Goodman tells all
As the sun sets in any part of Burma the same thing happens. The young come out and groups of teenage boys will sit together with a guitar and sing, groups of girls will walk arm in arm and couples sit together and talk in the shadows.
Wander around the university district of Yangon, the capital city, and you’ll recognise other scenes. Friends meeting after school or after lectures at a café sharing a milkshake, young people playing on their phones and girls wandering round shops selling the latest fashion trends.
First-ever election – in 2010
This generation may grow up in a country unrecognisable to the one their parents grew up in. Not just because of new technology like iPods or Skype, but things like the ability to vote, to say what they want and to keep what is theirs.
In 2010, the first ever elections were held in Burma that signalled the end to a long military dictatorship. Things are still by no means fair and equal yet but the horizon is changing.
In 2015, if the elections are fair, Aung San Suu Kyi’s opposition party, the National League for Democracy, should be voted into power.
Foreign news, music and fashion were banned
But it is what you don’t see that has changed the lives of young people here the most. Censorship laws are not currently being enforced and Facebook is widely accessed by anyone with an Internet connection. But for years international news, music and films was forbidden.
Even now internet connection is rare, and expensive - via just a few hotels and the odd cyber cafe – but people are seeing new fashions on the Internet. Young people relish connection with someone in London or New York, because before they lived in a technologically isolated country. Now they are getting to listen to what they want to listen to, and watch what they want.
The latest trends from Japan and South Korea are also being replicated in Yangon shops. It wasn’t long before I saw a Burmese take on a ‘Gangnam Style’ t-shirt.
Things have changed for mobiles too. Three years ago it cost $1000 dollars for a SIM card for a mobile phone that was not even yours but was owned by the Government!
Making technology so expensive was another way of restricting freedom. Even this is changing, and the price of mobile phones is coming down every month.
So teens on phones, shopping for new fashions, has not been typical for long.
One girl’s view
I met up with Tin May, a girl who lived in the capital Yangon, but has spent time in London.
We stepped onto a bus together in down-town Yangon, heading to I don’t know where. Luckily for me she spoke perfect English.
She normally hangs out at the library, the cinema or the park. There wasn’t much to do for young people, she said. Almost everyone lives with their parents until they get married, and often afterwards too.
‘Here I might walk home or go to the shops at 8pm and people think that I’m rebellious!’
Tin May was a bit older than me and had several jobs since leaving university. Now she wants to join the foreign office and was preparing for the exams but currently works for a Japanese NGO that helps educate disabled children.
It was something she was always interested in, so she is happy with her job, but says attitude to work is very different than in UK.
No career choice – work is to survive
‘In the West, people choose their own career because they love it, they really do. But here we just do it for the money. But I’m not saying we don’t do any good in our jobs. We are just in it for something. The daily struggle with money becomes the only deciding factor in people’s lives.’
That doesn’t sound so different to London, I said.
But she told me there is no government support for anyone in Burma and there isn’t even any sixth form education.
You want to complain about your job or about your house? That would put you in prison.
We in Britain hear politicians and journalists talk about change in Burma and about financial investment and natural resources. But what does it mean to a twenty year old student, or a 15 year old teenager? How has Burma changed for the young people, I asked her as we travelled through her city.
‘Lifestyle and the way they think. They want to enjoy more from life because they have never been that close to enjoying life before.’
Can you get any simpler than that?