A Vibrant but Volatile Force: Youths in Social Conflict

Context

Though youths have been vital in formation and transformation of conflicts across the globe, academia started to explore the connections between youths and social conflicts very lately – mostly after the 9/11 attack in the US. In developing countries, two converse propositions dominate opinions on the role of youths in social conflicts. On one hand, advocacy organisations frequently claim that youths are problem-solvers and creative forces in managing conflicts. On the other, conventional thinkers consider youths as vulnerable groups. Amidst this contention, digging out vibrancy and volatility of youths may offer an insight on how to build a better world in partnership with youths.

Youth Bulge Theory establishes connections between youth population and occurrence of violent conflicts. It correlates conflict-ridden countries with growing youth population. As rapid growth in youth population may contribute to massive unemployment and frustration, people are vulnerable to rebel against constituted authorities. World War I, World War II, Japan’s invasion of China, present day Nigeria, Conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan are all instances of this. Similarly, youth populations in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Palestine Territory were very high when conflicts escalated. Studies have pointed to youth bulge as one of the factors of the proliferation of extremist groups such as Al Quada and Laskar-e-Toiba.

A large youth population is not always counterproductive to conflicts, but sometimes supportive to economic prosperity. With proper planning and investments, it can be mobilised as a productive group. Growing number of youths in East Asia and that in some parts of Europe (Ireland for instance) had been a boon for strong economic outputs.

The Nepal Instance

Youths make up a considerable portion of the population pyramid in Nepal. This demographic was a crucial factor in the eleven-year civil war (1996-2006) in this country. The communist insurgency in Nepal was basically a guerrilla war, which needed energetic combatants to launch assaults. So, the major forces behind this war were the youths who were a vital part of the 20,000 full time combatants and 97,000 state army combatants. The war ravaged a number of properties and human lives, but it critically questioned skewed social, political, economic and power relations in the country. Though bloodshed should not be glorified, one must admit that this war catalysed historic change after the dethroning of autocratic monarchy.

The belligerent youths created bloodshed and damages, but another remarkable portion of youths were there abroad – they sustained the national economy with continuous flow of remittance. Remittance was the mainstay of the post-war economy of Nepal without which the economy would not have been sustained. It was a backbone which helped Nepal survive financial crisis in war and post-war periods. Nepali youth diaspora, especially the blue-collar workers in Gulf countries, have still been a crutch for an economically lame Nepal.

Youths in political parties were other important actors in the transition from war to peace in Nepal. They contributed to conflict escalation and de-escalation equally. For instance, mostly youths were leading paramilitary outfits of political parties. They had also been a critical challenge to the peace process. Clashes between armed student organisations and youth groups frequently created mistrust between the parties when the peace process was in need of regular consensus. They created insecurity and horror in the society, increased the illegal use of small arms and disrupted the rule of law. But some other youths in political parties constructively settled many issues in the Constituent Assembly, pressuring senior political leaders for flexibility in negotiations and coming up with creative proposals in Assembly meetings and thematic committee discussions.

Inferences

Countries in the aftermath of war need economic revitalisation, socio-political transformation and psycho-social reintegration of fragmented societies. But occurrence of conflicts and/or building of peaceful future depend on the space that the states offer to the youths. The inference is that mobilised youths are more prone to create perils than participating youths. The process of mobilisation indoctrinates youths, but that of participation enlightens. So, participation should be a focus rather than mobilisation of youths.

Misused and militarised youth groups may trigger conflicts in unstable societies. Growing use of small arms by student union leaders, unaddressed problems of displaced and migrant youths, frustrated returnees from abroad, and delay in leadership transfer to youths in political parties increase the risk of reversion of conflicts in post-war countries.

Conflict theorists such as Lederach, Galtung and Rupesinghe emphasise actors’ transformation as the heart of conflict transformation. Hence, rapid transfer of leadership in social and political spheres gives opportunities to new ones and changes the dynamics of disputes. Due to advancement in technology in developing countries, new generations in post-war countries are technically more forward than older generations. Youth organisations, young policy advocates, and emerging youth scholars remain in daily global interactions. Capitalising on this merit may offer wider options for peaceful solution and coexistence.

In nut-shell, experience shows that youths are neither faultless, nor a panacea for every problem. But even if they are not a panacea, they can be at least a good medicine to many problems that unstable countries have. Moreover, ignoring this vibrant but volatile force can be a cost that developing countries cannot afford. At this time, International Peace Day 2013 is being celebrated with the theme ‘Education for Peace’. Let us look forward to educating our global youths so that the world becomes a better place for everyone, in every country.

- Safal Ghimire PhD Candidate Peace Studies

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