Key Learnings: Challenges & Optimism for Myanmar

Kate Canfield ‘17

Spending ten days in Myanmar was a fascinating experience for me personally. I studied development economics in New Delhi for a semester in college and, since then, have debated the best way to leverage my career to improve the lives of those who have not yet caught the growth wave in emerging markets. This trip offered a firsthand vantage point of a country recovering from decades of decline and the work being done with a variety of strategies to help Myanmar live up to its full potential.

Reflecting on the week, some of the key takeaways for me were the challenges to development in Myanmar that are strongly felt across the board by those working in Yangon.

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1) Human capital

During the half-century of military rule in Myanmar beginning 1962, the country’s education system was decimated. The University of Rangoon was closed down, meaning there was no way for Burmese citizens to receive a college education unless they were wealthy enough to send their children abroad. As a result, the current population aged 30-50 has virtually no education past the high-school level. From a business perspective, this creates a challenge in that locals are not trained for positions in middle management and have little to no experience with leadership roles. Human capital must either be trained internally by businesses themselves or replaced with expats and/or “repats” (Burmese natives who left the country for work/education and are now returning) who require higher salaries.

Those Burmese who have been working throughout the time of military rule also have little to no ambition or instinct to think creatively or proactively. Military appointees filled all senior positions for decades, so there was never opportunity for the Burmese to grow into higher-level positions; hence, it has been culturally engrained in them to do only as told, no more and no less. This also presents a challenge to businesses seeking to grow talent internally, but business leaders are optimistic about the Burmese willingness and strong desire to learn.

2) Political uncertainty

Aung San Suu Kyi (ASSK) and the National League for Democracy (NLD) have been in power for nearly a year, and many are concerned with the lack of immediate, rapid change. ASSK is largely focused on creating peace amongst the five ethnic-driven civil wars taking place in the north of the country, in regions that are completely closed off to the rest of Myanmar. She also inherited an intensely bureaucratic government system, and while she replaced military leaders with her own appointees, many of them have little experience working in government. Her ability to create visible change in the country will take time, and there is concern that the Burmese people could become frustrated with her rule leading up to the next election.

Meanwhile, the former military ruler General Ne Win still resides in his mansion in Naypyidaw, oftentimes receiving visits from foreign ministers despite the fact that he is no longer in power. Some say he has masterfully crafted his image as he transitioned out of power; by allowing the country to open up and have free elections, the general was able to preserve his position rather than be overthrown. He and his cronies have arguably benefitted the most from the country’s reopening, as they own the majority of large businesses in the country (including large hotels, Myanmar beer, and others) that have done extremely well over the past few years. It’s difficult to predict what could happen with politics in the country in the years to come.

3) Business environment

“Everyone wants to help Myanmar; it is both a blessing and a curse,” said Ian Porter from IGC. The business environment in Myanmar is becoming crowded, making it difficult and even slower for things to get done. The government is constantly advised to do one thing by one party and the opposite by another – for example, invest in coal, or invest in gas? Because of these competing viewpoints, decisions are dragged out and business interests stalled. Similarly, resources are fragmented to different groups working to achieve the same goal, rather than all coming together to fund one unilateral project. This creates a unique challenge in a country where much is to be done.

Despite these challenges, Myanmar is full of potential. Never have I heard such universal praise for a population than from the leaders we met with on this trip in their descriptions of the Burmese people. It’s impossible to leave Myanmar without a tremendous sense of hope—I look forward to returning to the country one day to see the progress that has been made by and for the Burmese. Thanks to Professor Amit Khandelwal for the thoughtful lessons, Jennifer and Caitlin with the Chazen Institute for a seamless trip, Rayhan Arif for fun social and cultural activities, and President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton for making this trip possible for us (and many Americans to come!).

Closing dinner at Le Planteur

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