Once Again, Military Rule Sparks a Brain Drain in Myanmar 

By The Irrawaddy 17 June 2022

Since the coup, Myanmar has witnessed a mass exodus. Myanmar citizens are once again fleeing the country, and this time entrepreneurs, businessmen, professionals, IT technicians and media personnel are among those who have left or are planning to do so.

A generation ago, after the military crushed the pro-democracy uprising and staged a coup in September 1988, thousands of student activists and some politicians left the country. Many went to Myanmar’s borders with Thailand and India, from where they waged unsuccessful military campaigns against the regime.

Others resettled in Western countries and are now integrated into their new environments, becoming successful professionals such as IT technicians, physicians and  professors, or working in hospitality and other service industries. But they haven’t forgotten their experiences in the early days and years prior to resettlement in third countries: While they often have mixed feelings, they still remember the welcome they received in India and Thailand, and in other Southeast Asian countries. They share these stories with their families and the new generation born abroad. It is through such stories that a true understanding between neighboring countries begins—through people-to-people relations, and not the actions of a bunch of men in khaki.

These experiences can also provide a basis for a better mutual understanding and a better shared future for Thailand, India and Myanmar.

A precedent was set in 1962, when General Ne Win staged a coup and nationalized private companies and businesses, prompting many intellectuals, businessmen (mostly Chinese and Indian) and politicians to flee. Neighboring countries welcomed them and integrated them into their societies, and they went on to become successful entrepreneurs and professionals in their respective fields.

Sadly, successive coups in Myanmar have continued to drive many of the country’s brightest talents into exile, with neighboring and Western countries being the prime beneficiaries of this disastrous brain drain.

Military vehicles are mobilized on a boulevard in Naypyitaw after the coup in February 2021. / The Irrawaddy

Once again, many Myanmar citizens have left or are fleeing a brutal regime and its repression. Many have decided to leave the country for good. Businessmen, including even some regime cronies, are preparing to move their finances, wealth and families to other countries in Asia or the West.

Exactly 10 years ago Myanmar’s diaspora—many of whom belonged to groups that had been purposely marginalized by the previous regime—began trickling back, seeing that the doors were slowly opening in Myanmar. They wanted to return and assist their homeland, despite having settled abroad and having steady jobs and incomes.

Soon, the quasi-civilian government under President U Thein Sein began actively trying to lure Myanmar exiles back as the country’s economy opened up, and many of them responded.

Precise figures on the size of Myanmar’s diaspora are hard to come by, but it is estimated to exceed 200,000 in the US, UK, EU and Australia, with millions more living in Thailand, Singapore, Malaysia and India.

Once the richest country in Southeast Asia, Myanmar has suffered from decades of isolation and stagnation, but as the political and economic reforms of the 2010s took hold, hopes were high. Nevertheless, many also held back as they were suspicious of the government’s political opening, preferring to wait until they saw concrete change. But there was a common feeling that the reforms, however halting, would take root.

With a quasi-civilian government in power over the past decade, many assumed the country would start to enjoy the fruits of a gradual shift from brain drain to brain gain. The pace of the diaspora’s return picked up and began to include more affluent people after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government came to power in 2016. People returned to Myanmar to work or invest, by this time convinced there would be no U-turn, no return to a fully dictatorial military regime.

But on Feb. 1, 2021, all of those hopes and expectations evaporated as Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and his thugs staged a coup. Once again, many people were forced to make the difficult decision to leave the country.

Today, businesspeople and members of middle class families—many of them young and educated—have left or are leaving for Thailand, Singapore and Dubai, or are migrating to Western countries.

Myanmar students have enrolled at universities and international schools in Bangkok, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai—in many cases, their parents moving with them. In Thailand and elsewhere emigres have set up social media groups to share information on how to get set up in their new country. Many now plan to open businesses, as their children settle into schools to further their education. This time it is not just owners but also mid-level businessmen who are leaving Myanmar, applying for long-term visas in neighboring countries including Thailand and Singapore.

For some the reason for leaving is economic, for others political.

For the most part, those who can afford to leave the country have left; many clearly have no hope for the future with the country in the hands of military leaders accused of war crimes; they are saying goodbye to the regime and to the Golden Land.

Neighbors look on in alarm as dismay as Myanmar continues its descent into a failed state. But Thailand, India and neighboring countries in Southeast Asia should also prepare to welcome the flow of Myanmar families, students, businessmen and political activists looking to integrate and to continue to realize their future business, career and educational aspirations. They will remember how they are being welcomed and treated in their hour of need and they will surely make contributions to their second homes.

We must prepare to help them realize their potential.