Aung Khant reflects on possibilities available to Myanmar youth, and the future openings and lingering limits they represent.
Like the first signs of life returning to a patch of land after a heavy winter storm, numerous start-ups, entrepreneurial companies and niche businesses have started popping up all across Myanmar in the few years since the military started releasing its hold on the country’s rule. The opening up of the country has also allowed an impressive scale of foreign investment. Suddenly, things seem to be looking up after six long decades of economic atrophy.
While much of the recent development has started healing the country’s past, the social after-effects from this era are still very much prevalent. While our democratic champion Aung San Suu Kyi went through numerous hunger-strikes to challenge the regime during her years of confinement, many people in the country were also left with no choice but to sacrifice their own businesses and livelihoods in the face of foreign sanctions, stagnant wages and rising costs of living, while succumbing to police harassment, bribes and extremely difficult red tape. On top of it all, various members of the military and their affiliates ruthlessly infiltrated every top business sector, and secured them by sheer brute force.
Under immense difficulty, unable to continue their enterprises, many business-owners initially voiced their frustrations, only leading to more misfortune. The bureaucracy under the junta’s Ministry of Trade and Commerce was set up in such a way to severely restrict business-owners from working with foreign counterparts. Company registrations were limited to 12 months, meaning it had to be renewed annually. Export permits lasted even shorter for just 3 months. Business-owners were thus stifled and suffocated by the bureaucratic layout, not to mention the constant need to bribe their way to the mere right to keep their businesses afloat. After all the bribes to officials and dodgy red-tape fees, many business-owners were forced to abandon their endeavours after failing to make a profit. When the European Union joined the US-led implementation of business sanctions on Myanmar, it furthered the demise of many small and medium business-owners. One such businessman was my own father.
While there were of course successful business-owners who refused to stoop to corruption, almost all the hugely successful magnates of today avoided these hardships and circumvented a different route entirely by siding with the military as either cronies or business associates. By doing so, they received not only protection, but also generous benefits from their connections. Being able to run their businesses successfully, they not only fared very well but achieved monumental profits throughout these harsh times. They now have secured a financial head-start in the recent opening up. Most of the country’s top businesses today are still in the same hands, by a large margin.
For the average-income parent during the junta days, the economic drought had tricked them into thinking that the only way to guide their children to a successful career boiled down to two choices: engineering and healthcare. With a prestigious title and a comfortably hefty salary as either engineers or doctors, these two sectors always had a steady demand for new recruits as there were always bridges to be built and the sick to be tended to. Even if they did not make it all the way to become a practicing doctor or an engineer, it was still of such immense pride for parents and families that their education degrees would be included in noticeable gold letters on wedding invitation cards and backdrop titles.
This very narrow channel of perceived career success has plagued Burma over recent years, with a very realistic “sink-or-swim” style determination of one’s future. For the middle-class, this meant training their children to learn entire text books by heart in the hopes that rote learning would help them achieve the required grades to enter medical school or engineering school. For lower-income parents who could not afford higher education, this meant abandoning education all together and sending their children to the nearest town to find whatever work they could, mostly as domestic workers or labourers in local teashops. 2006 UNICEF data showed that 1 in 3 Myanmar children aged 6-17 had jobs. Others who had an even gloomier fate were sent to join the army at very young ages, where they were at least ensured to find a job and a steady income, as measly as it may be.
Over time, it became a common question to ask little children which of the two most desirable jobs they would like to go to, and to give up on one’s struggles and life woes became synonymous with the expression “I’d rather just become a monk”. These social quirks continue to this day, with most people not even noticing that they are perpetuating a misguided common belief. Perhaps even more heartbreaking are the abandoned ambitions of the youth. What were once dreams of changing at least their own social circles for the better were lost in the process of forced assimilation to the oppressive status quo.
If Myanmar is to successfully emerge out to the new modern era of peaceful democracy and equal prosperity, it must also emerge out from the narrow tunnel-vision of isolation and oppression. The remnants of our past under the junta must be shed. We must examine which of our cultural traditions and heritage we deem fit to bring into our future, and which of those must be left behind for the sake of equality and equity. In addition to the economic and legal reforms, the future of Myanmar is in desperate need of agents of social change. Doctors and engineers alone cannot bridge that gap.