Written for The Diplomat
The theme of ‘lost generations’ is relevant across Southeast Asia, a region besieged by decades of civil war, foreign invasion, military dictatorship, and economic underdevelopment over the past half century.
In Myanmar, the ‘missing’ generation refers to young people who were deprived by the military regime of the right to political participation in the 1990s. The junta shut down many universities after the 1988 student uprising which forced students either to quit school or seek refuge abroad. Political science programs were removed from the curriculum which the military blamed for the rise of activism in the country. After a decade, there was already a shortage of skilled labor. Furthermore, a new generation emerged with little or no exposure to democratic politics. The youth and first time voters in this year’s historic general election belong to this generation.
Myanmar’s ‘lost’ generation also includes the children who were displaced by ethnic wars. Some of these local conflicts have been ravaging the countryside over the past 60 years. Thousands have crossed borders in Thailand to seek shelter and work. However, many end up as illegal migrants or undocumented workers. International groups have been consistently pointing out that stateless children in Thailand continue to be denied of their basic rights.
The Vietnam War affected several generations in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and the United States. We remember the young soldiers who perished during the war, the innocent villagers caught in the crossfire, and the wounded survivors who thought that their suffering was already over. Even after the war ended, thousands in Vietnam and neighboring countries continue to be wounded or killed by unexploded bombs. Meanwhile, an estimated 100,000 Vietnamese Amerasian children left behind by U.S. soldiers endured years of neglect and discrimination.
The victory of the communist Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in 1975 was followed by three years of terror that killed more than 1.5 million people or about one-fifth of the country’s total population. This explains why a majority of Cambodians today are below 30 years old. But some are worried that Cambodian children have already forgotten the country’s traumatic experience under the Khmer Rouge regime.
Another group of casualties of war are the ‘lost’ Timorese during the two-decade Indonesian invasion of East Timor which started in 1975. At least 100,000 were killed or one-third of East Timor’s population. In addition to this, an estimated 4,000 children were taken from East Timor by the Indonesian military and civilian organizations, and they were delivered for adoption in Indonesia.
Indonesia lost at least half a million people in a military-led anti-communist purge in 1965. This led to the victory of Suharto who reigned as a strongman until 1998. But a new ‘lost’ generation emerged after Indonesia was hit hard by the 1997 Asian financial crisis. The economic crisis, exacerbated by political unrest, severely affected working-class families, and their children. The number of Indonesia’s street children and child laborers swelled during this period.
When the economy is down, many seek better opportunities in other countries. This temporarily addresses a country’s unemployment problem but it also leaves behind children growing up without their parents. They could be said to be the new ‘lost’ generation. This is most evident in Indonesia, Philippines, and Thailand – countries with a high number of migrant workers.
In the case of the Philippines, 12 million out of a population of 100 million are working overseas. The emergency program to send workers abroad in the 1970s became a permanent policy that fundamentally altered various social institutions in the country, most especially the traditional concept of family. Today, the new normal is to have a family member, usually a parent, working in another country.
The ‘lost’ generation may also mean the young Filipinos who died fighting the martial law regime in the 1970s. Some of them were bright students who could have become the country’s next leaders.
As Southeast Asia faces the new century, one reason to pursue peace and prosperity is to remember that embracing war and meaningless growth would only lead to death and desolation. The proof is most poignantly provided by Southeast Asia’s ‘lost’ generations.