National League for Democracy supporters celebrate news of electoral victory in front of the party's Yangon headquarters on the evening of November 8. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

‘A country of immense potential’: Despite challenges, Myanmar capable of ‘tremendous change’, student writes

The Purrfect English Youth Essay Competition asked Myanmar youth, after the November 8 election, to imagine their country in five years’ time. Runner-up Zaw Phyo Oo takes stock of the country’s many challenges, but remains deeply optimistic.

By ZAW PHYO OO | FRONTIER

Just before the holiday break, Frontier Myanmar took part as a judge in a youth writing competition sponsored by Purrfect English, an English language school and career counselling centre for Myanmar youths.
The competition asked entrants to respond to the prompt, “As a youth citizen of Myanmar, what is your outlook for the next five years? How do you envision Myanmar in 2025?” Hundreds of entries were narrowed to 10, from which a panel of judges selected their top picks. Below, Queen’s University Belfast student Zaw Phyo Oo writes about the most pressing challenges his country faces.  

On the morning of November 8, I voted for the first time in my life. I can vividly recall queuing in the sweltering Yangon heat amongst hundreds of other spirited compatriots at my local polling station, patiently waiting to cast our ballots in the second democratic election since the end of five decades of authoritarian rule in Myanmar. When I later learnt that the incumbent National League for Democracy had secured a second landslide victory, the same strong hope for change that I, along with millions of others, was imbued with five years earlier was rekindled. While significant progress has been made by the NLD since 2015, with considerable improvements in public health, greater political freedom and a proactive approach to tackling corruption, I believe that a more concentrated effort will be needed by the administration to address the many deep-seated social and economic problems that have long been plaguing the nation.

I was fortunate enough to have grown up with the privilege of accessing a good education within and outside Myanmar. My parents’ generation, however, bore the brunt of the isolationist era, in which our national education system was grossly underfunded and universities were closed for years at a time due to civil strife. Compounded by extreme poverty, the after-effects of years of systemic educational deprivation still persist to this day. According to the World Bank, one-third of Myanmar students in Grade 3, where children are mostly aged eight or nine, are “unable to read fluently with comprehension or solve basic age-appropriate mathematical problems”. Many students from rural areas are forced to drop out in their early teens in search of work to support their household, leaving a legacy of child labour and a vicious cycle of poverty. To break free of these shackles, we must fundamentally transform access to quality basic education in Myanmar, such as through providing conditional cash transfers to disadvantaged families, and develop a modern, up-to-standard curriculum that can be taught in both Burmese and English languages through digital tablets. In a country like Myanmar where many graduates end up with jobs that do not match their qualifications, we will need to enhance the coordination between skills development and the job market. Creating more vocational training opportunities, especially in the STEM field, could develop an employable and competent workforce aligned with the current and future needs of Myanmar industry.

Another critical challenge that we will need to tackle over the next few years in Myanmar is economic development. We are a nation in which one in four people still live below the poverty line, according to a 2017 United Nations Development Programme report, where, according to the World Bank, more than 90 percent of jobs are in low-productivity and low-paid sectors like traditional agriculture.

Fighting poverty in Myanmar will entail boosting agricultural productivity including through crop diversification, while concurrently developing new capacities across a diverse range of high-value sectors, including manufacturing and services. This endeavour will require significantly greater foreign direct investment, which is being hampered not only by poor infrastructure but also weak legislation and governance. We will therefore need to enact and enforce modern laws and regulations that promote a climate conducive to business creation and growth.

At the same time, I believe that we must also strengthen our own national capacity by fostering local entrepreneurship through easy access to SME grants and loans, as well as offering leadership and entrepreneurship classes at the high-school level and beyond. This would not only encourage Myanmar youth to engage in invention and innovation, but also create sustainable employment opportunities that could help retain young talent within the country.

Economic development is also inevitably tied to the success of Myanmar’s national peace process. Ending the protracted ethnic armed conflict will be instrumental in achieving social stability and in generating opportunities for growth. It is therefore crucial that our government constructively drives this process forward during their second term.

Drug abuse is another of Myanmar’s key problems, largely affecting youth, with heroin and methamphetamine use prevalent throughout the country. Today, many young people are serving long sentences for non-violent drug offences, while drug traffickers and manufacturers roam free. Studies have indicated that decriminalising drug use and investing in treatment services can reduce incarcerations and save criminal justice costs. Treating drug addiction as an illness and not a crime in Myanmar would reduce stigma for young people seeking medical help, and equip them with the tools to put their lives back on track.

But arguably our greatest national concern is the imminent threat of climate change. According to the Global Climate Risk Index 2020, Myanmar is the second-most climate change affected country in the world. Frequent droughts, extreme flooding and tropical cyclones, including the catastrophic 2008 Cyclone Nargis, have not only resulted in billions of dollars in damage throughout Myanmar, but also the loss of thousands of lives, food sources and livelihoods. If we do not urgently implement mitigation and adaptive measures, we may suffer through the worst effects of the climate crisis, including mass food and water shortages, and whole populations being displaced. In the coming years, we will need to drastically change how we develop infrastructure, and provide farmers with training and support in more productive and sustainable agriculture ­– especially since the majority of our population depends on agriculture for food and income.

Myanmar today is a country of immense potential. While our nation may still be mired in poverty and conflict, we have a democratically elected government that has the capacity to bring about tremendous change. By 2025, I envision a peaceful Myanmar where our leaders have taken bold steps to build a robust and inclusive political system with greater youth participation, predicated on the principles of meaningful democracy, human rights and equality, and on track to economic prosperity. It behoves us, the youth of Myanmar, to collectively mobilise around our future and push for all the radical changes necessary to create the country that we want to live in.

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