Myanmar’s Brain Drain Grows Amid Chaos of Life Under Military Rule

By Hein Htoo Zan 14 October 2022

Military rule in Myanmar is taking a toll on every front – from people’s day-to-day lives to their safety to their future.

To escape the deteriorating situation at home, young and middle-aged educated citizens from the middle and upper classes are now leaving the country in increasing numbers.

Many have fled abroad in search of career opportunities, better futures for their children, or simply safer living conditions.

But their varied reasons for leaving their homeland are dominated by a single impulse: They no longer want to live under a military dictatorship.

The new emigrants are heading to many different places overseas – some are crossing oceans and continents while others are seeking refuge in neighboring countries.

Ma San San is among them.

The Yangon native first thought about leaving the country in June, then spent July planning her departure before moving abroad with her two children one month later.

Previously, she had been among the many citizens waiting for stability and peace to return after the coup last year. But she waited in vain for more than a year.

Ma San San is a fashion designer who makes dresses for special events. But her career came to a halt after the coup as events and shows dried up. She and her 8-year-old twins were left completely dependent on her husband’s income as a seaman.

“I waited over one year, which was enough. It was time to think about the education of my children. Finally, my husband and I decided to move to Thailand so our children could study here,” said San San, who now lives in Chiang Mai on a guardian visa.

Like many Myanmar parents, she was expecting to send her children to public school amid high expectations of educational reforms made by the National League for Democracy (NLD) government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

But the dreams of millions in Myanmar were shattered when the military staged a coup on February 1 last year.

Among people fleeing the country are educated professionals who are at no immediate risk from the political turmoil. Many have headed to neighboring countries like Thailand, Singapore and Malaysia while others have found new homes farther afield in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States.

As a founder of a startup in Myanmar, U Myo wanted to leave the country even before the coup, frustrated by economic reforms passed by the NLD government during its first term.

But he waited, hoping that the NLD would bring economic improvement in its second term after winning the 2020 general election. The coup following the election shocked him and destroyed those expectations.

“My main reasons for leaving my country are that we no longer have a safe environment, the economy is bad, and my children’s education has become uncertain”, explained U Myo.

He and his family left the country in June for Thailand after eight months spent planning their departure.

Before the coup, Ma Thin Thin and her husband ran a company in the food and digital marketing sector. However, business has slowed in the general economic downturn since the military takeover. With a child in kindergarten, the couple decided to move the family and their business to Singapore.

They left in February but are still offering services in Myanmar remotely, while also launching a new digital marketing operation in Singapore.

Ma Thin Thin said they will only return when it is safe to do so. And there was no chance of returning while cities are being patrolled by military trucks.

“I don’t want my child to experience the same thing as I did,” she said, referring to her childhood under the previous military regime.

Ma Cho Cho, a former project coordinator for a Yangon community development NGO, found herself jobless after funds from international donors dried up following the coup.

Not wanting to join another NGO or live in Myanmar under military dictatorship, she applied for and was granted a scholarship at Chiang Mai University.

After moving to Chiang Mai in December last year, she got the idea to open a café or restaurant where Myanmar expatriates could gather.

She invested all her savings in the plan and was finally able to open a Burmese restaurant and store selling authentic Myanmar culinary and products. She requested that her business not be named over concerns for her safety.

“I have settled down here in Chiang Mai. But I feel sorrow for my home country, so my friends and I are trying our best to help those who fleeing risks and threats in Myanmar. Among them is a young medical doctor who is washing dishes at a restaurant,” she said.

Although no precise figures exist for the exodus of these middle-class professionals, Myanmar expats who have lived in Thailand for decades report a growing number of arrivals from Myanmar.

U John is a Myanmar businessman who has lived in Chiang Mai for 28 years. He used to run a tour business, catering to visitors from his home country. But political and economic turmoil after the coup forced him to switch to the real estate business last year.

He explained that most Myanmar citizens now arriving in Chiang Mai via official routes are young people seeking education and career opportunities, or families with regular foreign income who want to live in peace.

The flow of arrivals began rising in March this year, said U John, fed by middle- and upper-class scholarship holders who are also working in Thailand to fund their studies.

Low-rent condo apartments costing between 3,000 and 7,000 baht per month are doing brisk business, while wealthier Myanmar expats are taking bungalows and two-story houses for over 10,000 baht per month, according to real estate sources in Chiang Mai.

Myanmar expatriates who can afford it are also buying condo apartments and townhouses.

Elsewhere, the capital Bangkok is also seeing an influx of Myanmar citizens arriving with plans to settle for the short or long term.

“Before 2021, I was seeing only about three Myanmar people per week seeking to rent in areas around Chiang Mai University. But this year, I am helping at least five to seven per week,” said Ma Yamone, a real estate agent in Chiang Mai.

As a Myanmar programmer for a Singapore-based software enterprise, Ko Phyo was used to working from home when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. His work was only disrupted a year later when Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing launched a military takeover.

“After the coup, I joined the street protests at times. But then, with tragedies occurring daily, I was no longer able to concentrate on my work at all. I was depressed and couldn’t control my emotions,” Ko Phyo recalled.

He has also encountered major obstacles to his working life since the coup, including unstable internet and regular power blackouts hitting even Yangon, the country’s commercial capital.

After a year of disruption, he and his programmer wife left the country for Bangkok this July.

The couple are on a three-month tourist visa, which they hope to upgrade to an extendable six-month education visa.

They are also trying to get their parents out of the country over concerns about the healthcare situation in Myanmar.

Ko Phyo has decided not to return home for at least five years.

“Even if stability is restored in the country, the economy will remain collapsed. Human resources could also be destroyed and everything will need at least half a decade or more to restore.”