Burma’s Brawn and Brain Drain
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Saturday, March 23, 2019


Burma’s Brawn and Brain Drain



With little hope of higher education or well paying jobs, Burma’s young look abroad

A teacher is giving English instruction in a small classroom packed with young students on the seventh floor of a building in Rangoon’s Sanchaung Township. The students all hope to pass entrance examinations that would admit them to foreign universities and colleges.

The Sanchaung school is just one of many where the students’ main ambition is to acquire the qualifications that would enable them to continue their studies overseas.

But why are they so eager to go abroad? Why don’t they continue their studies in Burma?

I put these questions to some of the students. One young woman said Burmese universities and colleges could not provide suitable tertiary education.

None of the students questioned said they planned to return to Burma and apply their knowledge to the development of their home country.

It’s not that they lack patriotism. The miserable employment prospects in Burma and low earning prospects deter them. How can a graduate in marine architecture, for instance, find a job in a country where the construction of a ship occurs once in a blue moon? And how can a student recover the costs of studying abroad from the meager salaries paid in Burma?

The brain drain is likely to continue as long as the Burmese military government continues to stifle the creation of new and diverse job opportunities.

The trend isn’t new—thousands of students fled Burma to neighboring countries after the 1988 uprising, fearing arrest, imprisonment and torture if they remained. Most of them were unable to continue their studies for lack of support. 

Several university professors were sacked for sympathizing with or supporting the students who took part in the 1988 uprising. They had no alternative but to leave Burma to work at foreign universities and colleges. The departure of so many students and academics was the start of Burma’s brain drain.

There’s another kind of exodus, however, that can be called a “brawn drain.” Young people have been leaving Burma in increasing numbers to seek greener pastures in such countries as Malaysia, Thailand and the United Arab Emirates as laborers and factory workers. They quit their traditional jobs, such as cultivating crops and rearing livestock, leaving children and the elderly to tend the fields and farms. Some only made it as far as Rangoon—Ma Nyo, from Zee Bin Gyi, a village in upper Burma, is one who headed for Burma’s largest city, where she now works as a shop assistant.

Millions of Burmese migrant workers are now working abroad, notably in Thailand, where a Burmese teacher at a Bangkok university told me most are living from hand to mouth.

But that is also the case in many parts of Burma itself, due to a failed economy, the scarcity of job opportunities and the pressures of a growing population. Ethnic groups are particularly affected because of regime oppression and forced relocation.

Brain drain and brawn drain—both can be stemmed only by radical changes that create the conditions for the Burmese people to at least hope for a better, more prosperous future.        

Myo Chit Thu is a Rangoon-based writer.

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