Channeling frustration into Action - The story of Ke Jung
Guest post by David Young, UNESCO Bangkok Office
When the COVID-19 pandemic spread to Myanmar, Ke Jung, a thirty-year old graduate student and indigenous rights activist, knew he had to take action.
“As a person who works with indigenous communities, the worry is that if something happens to something to Naga [an indigenous group in Myanmar], what can we do?” said Ke Jung.
“We really need a strategy in the future as to how to handle this situation.”
Thus far, Ke Jung has actively worked towards such a strategy. In response to the pandemic, he has been addressing some of the most pressing needs affecting his family and community, such translating critical information on the pandemic in a language they will understand, volunteering at quarantine centers where many recently unemployed indigenous youth have been held, and working with the government to ensure the safety of several villages.
Coming from a highly remote area of Myanmar, Ke Jung’s friends, family, and neighbors, who are ethnic Nagas, are already at a disadvantage. While basic services such as health and education are notoriously difficult for Myanmar’s numerous indigenous groups (a part from the majority Burmese population, there are 99 different ethnic groups) to access, violent religious and ethnic conflicts coupled with illegal acquisitions of traditional/ancestral lands puts their safety at risk on a daily basis.
COVID-19 has dramatically changed the lives of most people living around the world. For indigenous persons such as Ke Jung and his family, the impacts of the pandemic have been disproportionately felt.
Many of the challenges facing indigenous youth and communities in Myanmar relate to transportation. While the virus itself didn’t affect Myanmar as much as some of its neighboring countries (such as India and Bangladesh), the government implemented strict lockdown and curfew measures. This meant that roads connecting many of the villages and towns in the country’s remote areas were shutdown, resulting in the shortage of food and medical supplies. It also affected the ability of farmers in the region, many of whom are indigenous to sell their crops in the markets.
“The roads that connect India and mainstream Myanmar. We rely on these roads,” Ke Jung said.
“But because they’re closed, people are facing shortage of household commodities such as salt, and medical supplies. These are two important things.”
The shutdown of the roads has particularly impacted young indigenous persons, many of whom worked or studied in the cities or in neighboring countries.
“Many [indigenous youth] work in Thailand, India and in China, and also in urban areas in Myanmar,” Ke Jung shared. “We do not have job opportunities at home. A lot of people have lost their jobs because of COVID-19.”
The location of many indigenous communities in Myanmar has also affected their access to education. As a safety measure in the face of the pandemic, the government, like many others in the region, shifted to online learning. While hailed as a reasonable alternative to classroom learning, persons living in remote areas of Myanmar are without strong internet access, thus making them unable to access online courses and materials.
“The young people and students from highland regions or indigenous peoples don’t have a chance to get an internet connection,” Ke Jung commented. “Thus, they could not access to online education and information about the knowledge of new normal in this world.”
But perhaps more troubling than the previous challenges discussed is the continuance of violent conflicts and human rights violations. While groups all over the country have been told to abide by social distancing rules, conflicts between armed ethnic groups and the government have increased the vulnerability of indigenous persons. In one instance, a truck from the World Health Organization (WHO) carrying medical supplies was reportedly shot down during a conflict last April.
Despite the many challenges they have faced, indigenous youth living in Myanmar like Ke Jung have shown resolve and resilience in the face of the crisis.
“Most of the indigenous young peoples are actively volunteering . . . although they have limited knowledge about COVID-19 prevention and transmission,” Ke Jung said.
“Through the community support mechanism, many indigenous young peoples are working like philanthropic works amongst their community.”
Such philanthropic works have often included volunteering at quarantine centers, translating information into indigenous languages, and working with local authorities to monitor traffic coming in and out of the villages.
COVID-19 has dramatically altered lives across South and Southeast Asia, but for the most vulnerable groups, including indigenous communities, the pandemic has aggravated problems that were already there.
Ke Jung’s story in many ways reveals these problems, especially within the context of Myanmar. At the same time, however, his actions in response to the pandemic are indicative of the strength and unity of indigenous youth in coming together to provide innovative solutions for helping their communities. It is a strength and unity that will continue to guide them even through the most challenging of times.