My Myanmar experience goes back twenty years. Then, the nation was stuck in a time warp. It was like being in the 1940s. Slogans urging people to lead a ‘disciplined life’ lined the streets and welcomed us to government offices. Working on a project about HIV/AIDS for UNICEF, we visited quite a few offices, but our research also took us to drug rehabilitation centers – where HIV positive youth had been tested but not told about their seropositive status. In the Buddhist monasteries up in the hills of the Golden Triangle, religious leaders completely denied the existence of HIV, even as hundreds of young girls crossed the border routinely into Thailand, worked in the sex trade and sent money back home. We spent eveningsposing as potential customers in Yangon’s restaurants and Kentung’s karaoke bars, learning how young women had false, but sophisticated – notions about how HIV could be transmitted, like only if the blood groups of sexual partners matched. In the fairground where traditional all night long Zat Pwe performances were held, some of these women plied their trade.
I spotted injecting drug users rummaging through hospital waste to pick up discarded IV needles and tubes, because it was illegal to buy a syringe. In a land where deep religious faith and a complete lack of personal agency stifled all initiative, it was indeed disturbing to see how vulnerable people were to the AIDS epidemic.
On a different note, Yangon’s Bogyoke Aung San Market was a virtual Aladdin’s treasure trove, with gems, intricately carved ivory and teak statuettes, and bright fabrics spilling out of small family owned stores. This was where we were told that we should exchange our US dollars, because you could get 15-20 times the official exchange rate.
The Myanmar that I will be revisiting this year promises to be very different, but equally exciting. Coincidentally, it will be for another UNICEF, project on comprehensive education system reform. As foreign investment pours in, the country faces a huge challenge: in terms of having an educated, trained and skilled workforce that can meet the needs of the new companies, across every sector. Many schools themselves are supported by their communities, rather than relying on government support, which clearly indicates that families value education.
It isn’t surprising that Myanmar’s rich natural and mineral resources have created such a rush of investment.
If I am able to make even the tiniest contribution towards unlocking the human potential through the education system reform, I would consider it as a real privilege.
The writer is Chief Knowledge Officer – China and Regional Cultural Insights Director, Ogilvy & Mather Asia Pacific, based in Shanghai. who has written several books on his travels around the region, including Myanmar.