Positive and destructive activism, the two faces of politicized youth in Bangladesh

Positive and destructive activism, the two faces of politicized youth in Bangladesh

Civil society and governments all over the world are pondering over how to engage youth as positive agents of change. The energy of youth can be harnessed for constructive steps towards positive change, but at times it can also be violent, impressionable and even extremist. Here, Paula Williamson looks at two snapshots of different forms of youth activism in Bangladesh.

Democracy comes in a kaleidoscope of forms within which youth are playing innovative and diverse roles. The importance of engaging youth in democracy has long been touted, from the UN Youth events to the recent allowing of 16 year olds to vote in the Scottish referendum. There is much talk of the lack of voting turnout in the UK particularly amongst young people. But is a focus on voting taking precedence over other, more important areas?

Youth club members Trishita Chakma, Ripon Chakma and Milon Chakma running their Right to Information service in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts © ??
Youth club members Trishita Chakma, Ripon Chakma and Milon Chakma running their Right to Information service in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hill Tracts ©

Student Demonstrations

The concept of student protest and youth as forces for change is deeply rooted in Bangladesh’s self-identity. The seeds for the 1971 liberation war, from which the nation of Bangladesh was born, came from student demonstrations. The student leaders of that era would then go on to become the political leaders of an independent Bangladesh.

Today, however, students and youth also play a well-publicised role in the darker side of politics in Bangladesh. Student political activism can verge on the militant and press coverage of student political factions battling with hockey sticks and knives, sometimes even guns and incendiary bombs, is not uncommon.

It is a poorly kept secret that this violence is condoned and even financed by Bangladesh’s main political parties. The parties fund strong student wings and political partisanship in state universities can be pervasive, from the student unions even down to the allocation of dormitory beds. In public discourse students are depicted as political “muscle” or the foot soldiers for the political parties.

Some of the reasons touted for why students engage in violent politics range from privileged access to political party funded facilities, such as better dormitory rooms, feeling connected to a nation-wide cause, as well as the belief that violence maybe justified in engendering change.

Volunteering  

Volunteering is a tradition and in alienable part of Bangladesh people because they have deep feelings for helping others.”(Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 2010)

In stark contrast to the self-interested rioting in some universities, many youth club members have a strong sense of social responsibility and community awareness.

Young Star youth club members Ripon Chakma, Milon Chakma, and Bidorshan Chakma were active in running a Right to Information support service for their community. In 2011, market sellers in their Khagrachuri district were suffering from illegal levies. Milon Chakma led an investigation through Right to Information and he and his fellow youth club members posted their findings in public places throughout their district.

With access to accurate information on their legal rights, market sellers were empowered to start resisting illegal levies. Another example of the service provided by Milon Chakma and fellow Young Star Club volunteers was a Right to Information investigation into what medicines the local hospital is legally obliged to provide for free. The health sector is known for being a corrupt public body in Bangladesh and community members were unwilling to seek medical treatment as the local hospital was frequently charging patients for drugs they should receive for free. Young Star club found 77 drugs that should be free and distributed the list to community members.

Through such initiatives, youth club members are helping to empower community members to hold government authorities to account. The public sector in Bangladesh has a reputation for poor quality service and lack of transparency; however many of these youth club members are trying to challenge this status quo with democratic tools.

It is also worth pointing out that the Chittagong Hill Tract’s indigenous communities that Ripon and Bidorshan are from have ongoing tensions with Bangladeshi authorities over indigenous rights. Research shows that youth often turn to violence when they feel discriminated against. The fact that these youth club members are demanding their rights through peaceful methods is exemplary as a constructive alternative to violence when pursuing change.

Ripon Chakma, pictured center, and other members of Young Star Club attend Right to Information workshops to raise awareness and to teach others how to write requests petitioning Bangladeshi public authorities for information. © ??
Ripon Chakma, pictured center, and other members of Young Star Club attend Right to Information workshops to raise awareness and to teach others how to write requests petitioning Bangladeshi public authorities for information. ©

Lessons for engaging young people

Research by Mercy Corps in Somaliland, suggests that economic engagement and increasing young people’s voices is not enough to deter them from political violence. Instead, youth development projects need to offer peaceful avenues through which youth can see measurable change (MercyCorps, 2013).

Bangladesh’s youth club members are examples of how youth can be pioneering members of society and positive agents for change. This article has also depicted violent student politics in Bangladesh as an example of how youth can be vulnerable to exploitation from political groups. These dual forms of politically and socially conscious youth can be found throughout the world. There is scope for further exploration of where and how positive forms of youth activism can be promoted as a viable alternative to violent activism.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

***

Have an opinion on this or another topic? Why not write for our blog? Click here to find out more and get in touch.

Moving Beyond Apathy: the role of the media in connecting an online generation

Moving Beyond Apathy: the role of the media in connecting an online generation

Kilian Raiser’s parents witnessed the historic fall of the Berlin wall. In today’s world, the Internet has created a sense of connectedness and immediacy that has come to play a strong role in politics. As part of the online generation, Kilian raises the important question of whether the internet has made young people less or more involved in large-scale political events than previous generations. 

My mother was an East German. She was there on November 9th, 1989. She witnessed first hand the ability for a collective of human beings to stand together to achieve their goals. Her account of that night is infectious.

The fact that my dad, a West German, thought he was dreaming when late at night my mom called him from a hotel in West Berlin, ecstatic with adrenaline, emotion, and champagne, lifts the story out of our grounded realities into the fairy-tale worlds of our imagination. And yet it happened, so why not again?

©Daniel Antal /Creative Commons License
©Daniel Antal /Creative Commons License

Every generation has had their achievements. Our modern, post World War 2 history has seen many youth led revolutions and social transformations from the birth of the welfare state, to student protests in Paris, to Tiananmen square to the Arab spring. The media has played a massive role in this. Through our allegiances to radio and television, to newspapers or blogs, we are bound together beyond the geographical demarcations of nationality, state or city.

When Obama was first running for President, one of the first news stories I followed daily, I was suddenly bound to a nation I bore no real connection to. We all, in our own ways, read the news [feed] so adamantly in hope of witnessing something extraordinary. So, June 5th, 2013, reading about the NSA leaks I wasn’t surprised about the breadth of the surveillance, although it was still shocking to see it so blatantly presented. Rather than outrage, I thought, this could be it, our generations’ Berlin wall!

The leaks definitely helped fuel a wider realisation that our supposed freedom was maybe false. It got us talking. And yet we accepted the reality of our fears, and moved on. Although the truth was offensive to our ideologies, we already knew that our so-called democratic freedom, the liberal, ever forward gazing ideal of that “western” role model was at best a fairy-tale. Unwilling to try and change this, our apathy had won.

In this behaviour, we as a generation exhibit a painstaking naivety in our dismissal of those issues that will shape the legacy we leave behind. In 2013 the British government announced plans to privatise student debt. Of a total of 14,000 students at the University of East Anglia, maybe 100 turned up to march against the policy, probably less. Of these, at least 10 were international students, devoid of any debt, participants out of pure idealism. How, if we are unable to campaign for our own well-being, will we be able to end poverty or discrimination, or even avoid a climate apocalypse?

We are bombarded daily by the breadth and speed of modern media. Our filters numbed by wave after wave of violence, racism, and tax evasion. By celebrities, football, and an endless library of entertainment, updated hourly, for our personal pleasures. Finding our voice through all this information is no doubt a daunting task. Slowly though, our generation seems to be coming together.

©DonkeyHotey /Creative Commons License
©DonkeyHotey /Creative Commons License

Racial tensions in America have rekindled our yearning for an end to discrimination. Some of our young idols have become powerful voices, speaking out for sexual equality. Together we are marching, pressuring our leaders to take responsibility for the future, to affect meaningful change. And all the time we are connected through that beautiful World Wide Web. No generation before us has been so connected, so able to stand together devoid of geographical boundaries.

The extent of our success in tackling climate change will define us. No matter the efforts we employ to end poverty or discrimination, if we do not find a way to successfully avert climate breakdown, our other achievements will be marred by failure. We have had our mouths glued to fossil fuel taps, drunk with wealth and comfort, our bar tab of environmental and human devastation gaining lengths.

So, when Alan Rusbridger recently explained why The Guardian is running a special monthly program on climate change and the environment I once again felt that shiver of hopefulness, the excitement of the prospect of change. This is truly “the biggest story in the world”. So my eyes are glued to the newspaper again, excited by what I am reading, excited by where this could lead us.

The problem with reporting climate change is that it is not news. No matter the evidence, we know what is happening, we are aware of what needs to change, and yet we have so far been unable to do so. So how do we read something that isn’t news? How do we write about climate change so that all who read our article are astounded, so that the way in which we present such common content remains extraordinary? We just continue writing. We continue enabling that connection between people, continue breaking down the boundaries of nations, states and cities, we continue giving people a platform to discuss and to support each other, to stand together with the common goal of change.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

***

Have an opinion on this or another topic? Why not write for our blog? Click here to find out more and get in touch.