Response to Aung Khant: Engineers, Doctors and the future of Myanmar’s Youth

Mael Raynaud argues that while options have broadened for Myanmar’s youth, education remains key.

U Aung Khant published a fascinating article on Tea Circle last month, under the title “An Engineer, a Doctor or a Monk,” where he presented a sobering but realistic vision of the professional opportunities offered to Myanmar’s youth. I would like to share a number of personal thoughts as a means to contribute to this very important conversation.

I would like, first, to agree with U Aung Khant in identifying the two key, and contradicting, elements defining Myanmar’s job market, and the economy within which it develops. Myanmar’s economy is developing fast, but it is still plagued by the consequences of many decades of mismanagement, repression and international isolation when red tape and corruption were rampant. All of the above aspects have contributed to a general atmosphere that discouraged and constrained entrepreneurship and businesses, particularly those that could not benefit from support in high places.

U Aung Khant recalls a time when his father’s business, like so many others, was forced to close, because of a combination of red tape, corruption, and international sanctions. And he describes middle class families putting their hopes in the only two careers with a potential, even if a fragile one, for their children, before the current political and economic opening: being an engineer or a doctor. While this is accurate, I would like to add, on a more positive note: there was also a great deal of commitment, among the youth of those days, to changing Myanmar for the better, a commitment that led them specifically to these two careers. I went on a tour of Burmese university towns back in 2005 and met dozens of students all across the country. I was amazed, in the strongest sense of the word, by the will they showed to participate in a change that, to me, at the time, was not even a distant dream (and I was wrong). My field notes are filled with sentences spoken by students who, between the lines, were telling me that being an engineer, a doctor, but also a teacher or an architect, meant positively contributing to society, supporting their families, all while avoiding going to jail.

These, at the time, and still today, U Aung Khant tells us, were and are the dreams of middle class families and their children.

A few years later, especially in the wake of Cyclone Nargis, another career became available to the better educated youth: working for UN agencies, international NGOs, and local NGOs. On Nargis’ first anniversary in May 2009, as I was visiting relief operations in the delta, a friend and I tried a quick mental count of the staff we knew who worked for such organizations. Our estimation at the time was that there were between ten and fifty thousand Burmese staff working in this broader “not-for-profit” sector.  Obviously, there are a lot more today.
And, as suggested by U Aung Khant, the private sector is exploding very quickly, although not always in ways everyone would describe as satisfactory… Today, businesses open a lot faster than they close down, thankfully. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi may have been a little ambitious in saying Myanmar could catch-up with Singapore in only 20 years, but the trend towards development is clear.

This is where we need to get a little more into the details, though. U Aung Khant writes about “average-income” families. What would that mean today ?

A recent report by Credit Suisse on Global Wealth identified Thailand as the second most unequal country in the world (after Russia) because the richest 1% of Thais own 58% of national wealth. There is little doubt that the figure is even higher in Myanmar, although the massive economic weight of army-owned conglomerates may upset the statistics here.

It is only fair to point to such blatant inequality as an issue, and I would very much agree to do so myself. But then again, we need to be specific, and see what is an issue and what is a strength. South Korea, for instance, has famously developed on the back of its “Chaebol”, vast conglomerates with incredibly varied activities. Myanmar’s private sector must be seen as being made up of businesses of all sizes, from individuals working in the informal economy to Serge Pun’s FMI or U Zaw Zaw’s Max Myanmar, with SMEs in between.

One such major business person, City Mart’s Daw Win Win Tint, recently published a noted Op-Ed in Frontier Myanmar, titled “Cutting Red Tape to Unleash Investment” that directly addresses several of the concerns voiced by U Aung Khant. I myself have participated in efforts to make the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) a coherent voice for the entire private sector, which it has not always been, to say the least.

From various levels of the private sector, it’s easy to move on to various socio-economic layers in Myanmar’s job market. In 2012, a Burmese expert with a deep understanding of Myanmar’s economy and access to some of the best existing data told me that he thought the equivalent of the “1%” so much discussed in the West was made up, in Myanmar, of a total of more or less three hundred thousand people. A second layer, what U Aung Khant refers to as a middle class with “average-income”, is probably made up of between one and two million people.

This leaves over 45 million Burmese in a category that can only be described as poor. And many of them are very poor indeed. To them, seeing their children become engineers or doctors is still very much a distant dream, if it is even that. This, of course, says a lot about the economic, and therefore, political change under way in Myanmar.

To say it bluntly, the rich are becoming very rich, new and quite formidable opportunities are offered to children of the middle classes, not only as engineers and doctors, but also as business people, aid workers, journalists, etc… But the poor are by and large remaining poor.

For this to change, and for Myanmar to actually become a modern and developed nation, the priorities are many, and they depend on politics, which means the government. The country needs infrastructure, which should provide thousands of jobs. It needs teachers, doctors, engineers, lawyers, and, critically, better trained civil servants.

Education is key. Much is being discussed with regards to education, from building schools to providing mother-tongue based multilingual education, to child-centered education, to debates on the respective virtues of public and private education. What I find to often be lacking is an ambitious, and broader, vision of what the objectives of the education system should be.

One of my countrymen, Léon Gambetta, once said, in the late 19th century: “What constitutes true democracy is not the recognition of equals but the making of them”. An education system that aims at reducing inequalities and creating equal opportunities for all while providing the human resources for a booming economy, this should be an absolute priority for Myanmar. And in building this new Myanmar, engineers and doctors will be important, but so will entrepreneurs, NGO workers, and civil servants.

Mael Raynaud is an independent analyst based in France. 

Author: maelraynaud

Mael Raynaud is an analyst with 15 years experience researching Myanmar politics, society, conflict, and economy. He lives in Yangon, and works as a consultant.