Now or Never

Daw Htay Htay Win considers Myanmar’s current critical juncture of political urgencies and social imperatives.

We have all heard the saying “time and tide wait for no man”. Now I am just reflecting on the political timing and the tidal waves of transition that bring ashore Burma’s current situation these days. Since November 2015, when we all were at the peak of ecstasy with the election results, a heavy concern has been growing over how the elected party would form a government that could live up to the people’s expectations, answering to the primary needs of people in terms of economy, education and health. Just as in a rowing competition where all the team members need to possess equal strength— putting in equal amount of effort to row the boat rhythmically to the drum beats made by the leader— the present government and its working committees should be formed with those who, if not equally qualified as their leader, have the minimum level of managerial skills and strategic qualities to make the country leap forward from its former pariah state.

What struck us to our dismay after the announcement of the government body was that it consisted of some wrong people in the wrong places from the people’s perspective, to speak bluntly. It seemed that the posts for these higher echelons were offered based on trust and loyalty rather than the merits of the appointed person (although they may have certain integrity).

The consequences of these mismatches have resulted in economic instability, a basic education system failing to meet expected improvement targets, a stalemate in the peace process, etc. There were suggestions that some of these inefficient people would be replaced with smarter ones, but the ruling party continues to say that it is not the time yet.

Another part of the population forgotten by the government are the young graduates who attended universities in developed countries and middle-aged, educated persons who came back to the motherland to either work on their own or seek opportunities to contribute their skills to the country, via the public sector. The massive sphere of the public sector has been mucky with some inefficient old-fashioned civil servants for decades, due to the country’s isolation in the past and an outdated bureaucracy. The academic diplomas or degrees earned by those old-timers may be credible, but it is questionable whether they have had the chance to apply their qualifications in full scale during the veto-system military regime, or if their knowledge is still applicable in the modern world. The young foreign-trained graduates may not make up a large number in the country, but they undoubtedly possess a huge amount of information and resources acquired from their experiences in developed countries. They can be integrated into some worthy posts in collaboration with those who already are in the offices, to plant their new ideas, modern thinking, and share their knowledge with colleagues.

Often, we come across some notions such as “don’t try to seek a position, but take on responsibility from where you are” or “do whatever you can do in building the country, such as contributing a brick or a crystal of sand”. I would like to dispute this point. It would be unreasonable to expect one would exercise one’s responsibility if the person were not provided with a decent place to carry out the task. It is also undermining these worthy young people when they are treated in the same terms as a brick or a crystal of sand when their value equals a precious gem. Those returnees from foreign universities are seen as just working for some crony companies, or as working on their own with a very thin chance to effectively provide their contribution to the nation re-building because of the rigid recruiting system of the public service. Thus this vibrant source of a workforce is wasted.

Traditionally, Burmese people have high regard for their elders but this is only virtuous within our cultural norms. The old perceptions such as “young people don’t know as much as we do” are very dominant in Myanmar society, showing less confidence in the fresh blood of the youth. Elderly people should embrace the active and educated young ones who have been trained for analytical thinking, who see things from a different angle, with innovative ideas and new concepts, even though they may seem revolutionary to the older generation. Our history has a very good example of General Aung San who, while being the youngest member of the government, was supported by his elderly and well-learned government members.

People may be too demanding of the new government, but they are also eager to see tangible results. It is a bitter truth that the country has been crushed under military boots, left in despair for decades and that a total change cannot be made in just 2 years. With the powerful brand new engines, the doubtlessly steep uphill climb will be over-ridden in just a few moments. Patience has limits for those who endured hardship for so long and hoped so highly for the change: it has become a question of now or never. A party with a political high tide should consider how to take the best chances to surf their way through the waves. Time and tide do not wait for anyone.

From 1984 until her early retirement in 2013, Htay Htay Win spent 30 years of her career in the diplomatic world based in Yangon, as Press Officer at the Singaporean Embassy, Liaison Officer at the French Embassy, and as the first pioneer staff in setting up the Canadian Embassy. Her exceptional service to French diplomacy helped establish and strengthen ties between France and Myanmar throughout the military junta years. Htay Htay Win’s mother, Daw Hla Than was also the first female pilot of the Burmese Air Force, and her grandfather U Thein Pe was a celebrated 7-cup winning jockey. Htay Htay Win has also assisted Burmese language classes alongside Prof. John Okell and Prof. Justin Watkins of SOAS, and as a volunteer English teacher at the Monastic Education School in Yangon, to various NGO and civil society groups. Her students included NLD members who later went on to become MPs in the 2015 general election. Since late 2013, Htay Htay Win continues to work as freelance cross-culture trainer, liaison and interpreter for many international organizations and foreign delegations, most notably The Elders group led by ex-President Jimmy Carter, and former High Representative Baroness Ashton of the European Commission during their visits.