Updated: Jan 23, 2021
Runner-Up Essay from Purrfect Essay Competition
by Zaw Phyo Oo (Runner-up)
On the morning of the 8th of November 2020, 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 (NLD) had secured a second landslide victory, the same strong hope for change that I, along with millions of others, was imbued with a few 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 issues 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 of 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 at the Grade 3 level 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 families of disadvantaged schoolchildren, and developing 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 the 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 (UNDP 2017), with over 90% of our jobs in low-productivity and low-paid sectors such as agriculture (World Bank 2018). 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 due to 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 for firm creation and growth. At the same time, I believe that we must also strengthen our own national capacity by fostering local entrepreneurship, through providing easy access to SME grants and loans, rewarding innovation, as well as offering leadership and entrepreneurship classes at the high school level and beyond. This would not only encourage the 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 inevitably tied to the potential success of Myanmar’s ongoing 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 strives towards constructively driving this process forward during their second term.
Drug abuse is one of Myanmar’s key problems 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 (Vicknasingam 2018). Treating drug addiction as an illness and not a crime in Myanmar would reduce stigma for young people towards seeking medical help and equip them with the tools to put their lives back on track.
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 full populations being displaced from homes. 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, that is 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 shape the country that we want to live in.
Zaw Phyo Oo(Harry),22, was born in Yangon and spent his youth in the Caribbean, Africa and several countries throughtout Asia. In 2020, he graduated with a first-class honours MEng Chemaical Engineering degree from Queen's University Belfast, UK. As an undergraduate, he was the recipient of one of the two full-tuition Queen's Vice-Chancellor's International AttainmentScholarships for outstanding academic merit and extracurricular achievements. He currently works in Yangon as an engineer in the energy sector. Outside of work, Zaw's passions include playing ukulele, reading, roads and big-band jazz.