ASEAN Beat | Environment | Society | Southeast Asia

The Young Activists Fighting Southeast Asia’s Climate Crisis

From Yangon to Manila, young people are demanding their governments take immediate action on global warming.

Preeti Jha
The Young Activists Fighting Southeast Asia’s Climate Crisis
Credit: ASEAN Secretariat

Bold, coordinated, and effective, young people across the world have been uniting to amplify their message about the climate crisis. The global protests inspired by 16-year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg are empowering a new generation of activists in Southeast Asia too. Despite the risks of protesting in parts of the region, young people are leading the call for their governments to act urgently and stop environmental catastrophe.

Kyaw Ye Htet, a social sciences student in Yangon, organized his first climate strike in May, in solidarity with the “Fridays for Future” movement started by Thunberg in 2018. He was already an environmental activist but wanted Myanmar to join the global youth campaign. The number of protesters in Yangon have been small compared to the turnout in some countries. But the last of the seven strikes the 21-year-old has led, in September, drew more than 200 people, up from some 20 who joined the first rally.

Most people in Myanmar think that “climatic disorder is natural” and “we cannot change or control it,” Kyaw Ye Htet wrote in an email to The Diplomat. He strives to show them otherwise through Climate Strike Myanmar, a group he founded this year to raise awareness about the climate emergency and campaign for political action.

Myanmar is widely considered to be one of the nations in the world most vulnerable to the impact of climate change. In the last two decades it was one of the top three countries affected by extreme weather, according to the Global Climate Risk Index 2019. Persuading the government to “immediately abolish projects that harm the environment” is critical, says Kyaw Ye Htet, pointing to the lingering threat of proposed schemes such as the controversial (presently suspended) Myitsone dam and new coal-powered plants.

Environmental justice for every community is another core demand. It’s a strand tying together many youth campaigners. In a recent Nature article, Harriett Thew, an environmental social scientist from the UK’s University of Leeds, was cited as saying that the framing by younger activists of climate change as a global justice issue was proving more effective than an environmental message alone.

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It is a central idea for another new grassroots organization in the region too. Ili Nadiah Dzulfakar, co-founder of Klima Action Malaysia (KAMY), said a key aim of the group was to join forces with the nation’s indigenous groups, who are already battling big business for their forest lands. It’s a “massive oversight” to leave them out of the climate movement, the environmental sciences student said.

The group, formed in March, has seized the momentum of the global climate protests to push for political commitments and climate education at home. “Climate literacy in Malaysia is really, really low,” she told The Diplomat. The team have been busy translating complex climate terminology into the Malay language. Like other climate activists, KAMY is also using art and “die-in” protests to drive home their message. Organizers said some 1,000 people joined their last march in Kuala Lumpur as part of September’s global climate strike.

The success of young activists in mobilizing worldwide protests across generations has been explained in part by the moral authority they hold as children. Thunberg’s powerful speech at last month’s UN climate summit pierced through the usual political rhetoric on climate change, as her words have done before. She has inspired millions. But the teenager has also been fielding a new round of vicious attacks from her critics.

Nadiah hadn’t anticipated that her group would also face a backlash in Malaysia. “It’s terrifying actually… Climate denial is really huge,” she said, describing an onslaught of attacks against KAMY supporters on social media. Some people don’t like us questioning “big corporations and lobbyists,” she said. At the same time, the activist is thrilled that the group has pushed more Malaysians to think about climate solutions.

Youth activism has grown at a remarkable pace and scale since Thunberg’s rallying cry last year. But there were of course young activists already advocating for change in a region on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

In the Philippines, Marinel Ubaldo, 22, speaks from personal experience. She is a survivor of Super Typhoon Haiyan, which killed more than 6,300 people in 2013, including some of her relatives and friends. Ubaldo was already working on climate change issues in her coastal home of Matarinao when the typhoon struck. It’s why climate action has become a “personal fight as well as the fight of my generation,” she told The Diplomat. Ubaldo was speaking from a leadership program in Tokyo, part of The Climate Reality Project launched by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore.

Last month the recent graduate staged two solo protests outside the headquarters of the oil and gas corporation Royal Dutch Shell in Manila. “I want them to be responsible and accountable for their emissions,” she said. The Philippines is among the countries most at risk of extreme weather events due to global warming. Last year Ubaldo testified as a community witness at a hearing in New York by the Philippines human rights commission into whether fossil fuel firms violate human rights by causing climate change – the world’s first such legal investigation. A resolution on the probe, which is part of a growing movement of climate litigation cases worldwide, is expected later this year.

Ubaldo has also faced online abuse for her advocacy. But she too remains determined to speak out in a country where grassroots activism is resolute despite the risks — the Philippines was the deadliest country for environmental defenders in 2018, according to a recent report from the watchdog Global Witness.

A new generation of climate activists has forced the world’s governments and corporations to listen to their demands. They’re waiting now for the ground they’ve gained to turn into meaningful action. Ubaldo speaks plainly: The poor are “suffering the most” from the changing climate while “those still denying” its impact “can’t feel it from the comfort of their offices and air-conditioned homes. We have to act now.”

This is the last of a three-part series exploring critical battlegrounds in Southeast Asia’s fight against the climate crisis. The earlier parts can be found here and here