Saw B C and Dolores Halpin-Bachmann

by Dolores Halpin-Bachmann, Humanitarian Co-ordinator, Caritas Denmark

Excitement high Friday morning, 28 June, at the COERR Social Services Centre, Ban Don Yang Refugee Camp, Thailand, as young voters queued to elect their ‘Prime Minister for Child and Youth Affairs’.

Five candidates, three girls and two boys, were standing for election.  Behind each candidate, there was strong party support.  To be nominated to stand for election, each candidate had to have the support of at least 10 eligible voters.

Each candidate had prepared and presented an election manifesto well in advance of Election Day.

Election posters with photos made by each of the candidates were visible in key areas of the camp as we arrived there on the big day.  I’m told election campaigning was vigorous and robust in the weeks and days leading up to polling day.

In all, 402 children from grades 7-12 were eligible to vote in this election according to the electoral register.  Voter turn-out was a high 81 percent – more than voter turn-out in general elections in many countries.  Prior to actual voting, the candidates were each given a few minutes to make a final campaign speech.

Then the voting started in what can only be described as an extremely well run, logistically impeccable, voting and election process – all overseen by an election commission composed inter alia of camp school teachers, with the COERR programme supervisor on hand to provide advice if needed, and with appropriate election monitoring by visiting COERR headquarter staff and the Caritas Denmark humanitarian co-ordinator.

The importance of this election was reflected by the presence of the Camp Committee Chairman, several members of the Camp Committee and numerous adult camp residents during proceedings which lasted just under an hour and a half.

As counting progressed, the votes were recorded and tallied on the large whiteboard on the stage.  Soon, it became clear that this would be a race between three of the five candidates.

In the end, Saw B C came out the winner with 37 percent of all votes cast.  Saw B C is 15 years old, a student in grade 10 middle school, and leader of the youth Peace Party which he founded.  He has lived as a refugee in Ban don Yang since he and his family fled Myanmar 10 years ago.  Today, his mum, dad and elder sibling can truly be proud of him.

Speaking with the newly elected prime minister after his election, I was impressed by his ability to articulate his prime ministerial agenda succinctly, eloquently and with stately confidence.

In his own words, he will be “a focal point in promoting healthy living, inclusion and unity, for and with all of the children and youth living in Ban don Yang camp”.

To illustrate his commitment to this agenda, his first prime ministerial decision was to invite the 4 losing candidates in the election and the leaders of the other youth parties to join him as ministers in his cabinet.

This election was not just a practical exercise in civic education, responsibility and democracy. The elected prime minister plays an important role in camp life and will during his term of office be the representative and spokesperson for all children and youth living in the camp.

Part of that role involves monthly meetings with the camp committee as well as presenting the achievements and concerns of camp youth at meetings with visiting dignitaries and officials.  A key prime ministerial responsibility, and one given very high importance, is representing camp children and youth on the camp child protection committee.

The prime minister also has overall responsibility for organising regular youth activities and mobilising the children and youth of the camp to understand and carry out their social and community responsibilities. The prime minister is supported in his duties by a cabinet of 8 ministers with portfolios covering education, environment, social affairs, health, agriculture, finance, music and sport.

For Caritas Denmark and COERR, this election is yet another successful milestone in the journey that Caritas Denmark and COERR embarked on 10 years ago with the setting up of what is still fondly known as the HoM component of our Thai-Burma Border Programme.

HoM, Healing of Memory, is the first phase in a Peace and Reconciliation process.  Initially, we could not use the word peace in the component’s title, as this could have been perceived as political by the Thai authorities and thus not received their approval for implementation in the refugee camps along the border.

Needless to say, the programme has moved on from this initial healing of memory phase since it was begun.  Today, this component of the programme is focused on promoting volunteerism and community outreach activities, developing and nurturing civic duty and youth leadership, and enhancing social cohesion and harmony among camp residents.

The election on 28 June was the continuation of an idea born, developed and brought to successful fruition by the Programme’s HoM Youth Group.  Three of the five candidates in the election, including the newly elected prime minister, are regular and active members of the HoM youth group in Ban don Yang.

Saw B C is the third Child Prime Minister at Ban don Yang and the first boy to be elected to the post – the previous two incumbents were girls.  With the success of the initiative in Ban don Yang, HoM youth groups in other refugee camps along the border are studying the lessons and learning from Ban don Yang and are eager to replicate the initiative in their own respective camps.

With young, confident, articulate, socially-caring and active girls and boys such as those we witnessed during Election Day, the future leadership of the refugee community in Ban don Yang will be in good hands.