Written by Anna Oposa
Thirty-six youth leaders from the Greater Mekong subregion (GMS) embarked on an opportunity of a lifetime when they were selected to be part of the GMS Youth Caravan, an eight-day trip around the GMS countries that culminated in the 2nd GMS Youth Forum (YF2) and GMS Summit in Bangkok, Thailand, on 19-20 December 2014.
Recognizing youth’s crucial role to play in the future of the GMS and its economic development, the YF2 theme was GMS Youth: Connected and Contributing to a Dynamic Community. The GMS is a natural economic area bound together by the Mekong River, covering 2.6 million square kilometers and a combined population of about 326 million. The GMS countries comprise Cambodia, People's Republic of China, Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR), Myanmar, Thailand, and Viet Nam.
Building the momentum
To enhance that dynamic community and build the momentum leading to the GMS Youth Caravan and YF2, National Youth Consultations (NYC) took place in all GMS countries in October 2014. The consultations served as a platform to stimulate discussions about the theme, solicit ideas from youth across the countries on key issues in the GMS, and consolidate these thoughts for a national youth message that was delivered to national leaders at the end of the consultation.
After each NYC, the GMS YF2 organizers interviewed 12 shortlisted candidates and chose the six students (three men and three women) who would participate in the GMS Youth Caravan and YF2. The final 36 youth participants were chosen based on their ability to represent their country and their interest and knowledge of regional cooperation and integration.
Journeying through the GMS
The youth leaders met for the first time at the start of the GMS Youth Caravan, in Jinghong, Yunnan, People’s Republic of China. They then traveled through northern Lao PDR, Thailand, Myanmar, back through Thailand, across southern Lao PDR, Viet Nam, and Cambodia. In each stop, they listened to resource speakers, visited ADB-financed projects, saw examples of regional cooperation, and learned about each GMS country’s challenges and achievements.
“I care more about environmental issues since we visited many environmental projects supported by ADB,” said Yani from Thailand. “It is obvious that there is high inequality between rural and urban areas. The significant question [to ask] is how can we balance economic growth and sustainable development?”
The GMS YF2
From Cambodia, the participants headed to Bangkok for the YF2. The YF2 was part of the GMS Summit of Leaders, which happens only every three years. The first GMS Youth Forum was held during the third GMS Summit in Vientiane in 2008.
During the YF2, the representatives presented what it meant for their countries to be connected and contribute to a dynamic community through key sectors, including energy, transport, tourism, and environmental issues. The event was filled with working sessions, presentations, a photography exhibit called “What the Mekong Means to Me,” and, finally, a chance to deliver the GMS Youth Message.
“[The experience] revealed the panorama of GMS, the blueprint for an entwined future, and the common destiny we share,” said Teng, one of the 36 youth leaders.
GMS Youth Message
On the second and last day of the GMS Summit, the participants presented their message to the Summit attendees. “We want a safer and healthier GMS for future generations,” they declared.
They named some of the following issues as essential for ensuring a stronger role and a better future for youth in the dynamic GMS community: increased investment and support for human resource development; improved connectivity; more education and cultural exchanges between youth across the region; and mitigation of the potential spread of diseases and other negative social impacts, such as trafficking in women and girls.
“We realize that besides differences, the GMS countries also share many similarities and similar challenges that need the involvement of youth,” Millie from Viet Nam reflected. “Youth plays an important role in the future, and I hope there would be more youth initiatives and youth-led programs in the GMS so we can realize the power of youth in order to make a difference in the region.”
On that note, the GMS Youth Message ended with an action-oriented and hopeful tone: “As a result of our participation in the GMS Youth Forum, we plan to continue our new friendships across the GMS family and to take on the role of GMS youth ambassadors within our own countries to promote a more connected and dynamic GMS community,” it said. “Through these initiatives, we hope to enhance our own country’s growth and successful participation in the GMS.”