Guest Column

An Engineer, a Doctor, or a Monk

By Aung Khant 5 December 2016

Like the first signs of life returning to a patch of land after a heavy winter storm, numerous start-ups, entrepreneurial companies, and niche businesses have started popping up all across Burma in the few years since the military started releasing its hold on the country’s rule.

The opening up of the country has also allowed an impressive scale of foreign investment. Suddenly, things seem to be looking up after six long decades of economic atrophy.

While much of the recent development has started healing the country’s past, the social after-effects from this era are still very much prevalent. While our democratic champion Daw Aung San Suu Kyi went through numerous hunger-strikes to challenge the regime during her years of confinement, many people in the country were also left with no choice but to sacrifice their own businesses and livelihoods in the face of foreign sanctions, stagnant wages, and rising costs of living, while succumbing to police harassment, bribes, and extremely difficult red tape.

On top of it all, various members of the military and their affiliates ruthlessly infiltrated every top business sector, and secured them by sheer brute force.

Under immense difficulty and unable to continue their enterprises, many business-owners initially voiced their frustrations, only leading to more misfortune. The bureaucracy under the junta’s Ministry of Trade and Commerce was set up in such a way that severely restricted business-owners from working with foreign counterparts. Company registrations were limited to 12 months, meaning they had to be renewed annually. Export permits lasted an even shorter period of only three months.

Business-owners were thus stifled and suffocated by the bureaucratic layout, not to mention the constant need to offer bribes for the mere right to keep their businesses afloat. After all the bribes to officials and dodgy red-tape fees, many business-owners were forced to abandon their endeavors after failing to make a profit.

When the European Union joined the US-led implementation of business sanctions on Burma, it furthered the demise of many small and medium sized business-owners. One such businessman was my father.

While there were successful business-owners who refused to stoop to corruption, almost all the hugely successful magnates today avoided these hardships by siding with the military as either cronies or business associates.

By doing so, they received not only protection, but also generous benefits from their connections. Being able to run their businesses successfully, they not only fared well but also achieved monumental profits throughout these harsh times. They now have secured a financial head start. Most of the country’s top businesses today are still largely in the same hands.

For average-income parents during the junta days, the economic drought tricked them into thinking that the only way to guide their children to a successful career boiled down to two choices: engineering or healthcare.

With a prestigious title and a comfortable salary as either engineers or doctors, these two sectors had steady demand for new recruits. There were always bridges to be built and sick people to be tended to.

Even if children did not become practicing doctors or engineers, the education and degrees brought immense pride to parents and would be noticed in gold lettering on wedding invitations and titles.

This very narrow channel of perceived career success has plagued Burma in recent years, with a very realistic sink-or-swim style determination of one’s future.

For the middle-class, this has meant training children to learn entire textbooks by heart in the hopes that rote learning would help achieve the required grades to enter medical or engineering school.

For lower-income parents who could not afford higher education, this meant abandoning education and sending their children to the nearest town to find whatever work they could, primarily as domestic workers or laborers in local teashops.

UNICEF data from 2006 showed that 1 in 3 Burmese children aged 6-17 had jobs. Others with an even gloomier fate were sent to join the army at a young age, where they were at least ensured a job and a steady income, as meager as it may be.

Over time, it became a common question to ask young children which of the two most desirable jobs they would like, and to give up on one’s struggles became synonymous with the expression, “I’d rather just become a monk.”

These social quirks continue to this day, with most people not even noticing that they are perpetuating misguided beliefs. Perhaps even more heartbreaking are the abandoned ambitions of the youth. What were once dreams of changing their own social circles for the better were lost in the process of forced assimilation to the oppressive status quo.

If Burma is to successfully emerge into the modern era of peaceful democracy and equal prosperity, it must also emerge from the tunnel vision of isolation and oppression.

The remnants of our past under the junta must be shed. We must examine which of our cultural traditions we deem fit to bring into our future, and which of those must be left behind for the sake of equality and equity.

In addition to economic and legal reforms, the future of Burma is in desperate need of agents of social change. Doctors and engineers alone cannot bridge that gap.

This article originally appeared in Tea Circle, a forum hosted at Oxford University for emerging research and perspectives on Burma/Myanmar.