Can the brain drain become a brain gain for Burma?
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Can the brain drain become a brain gain for Burma?

Many Burmese professionals have been residing in foreign countries for few decades. As the country started its first steps towards development, should Burmese working abroad consider going back to their native country? Can the brain drain be transformed into brain gain?

Despite some tensions and riots in the country, recent changes in Burma have been exciting news for Burmese around the world. Since 2010 more people have been returning to Burma with some staying for good.

They left Burma for various reasons – further education, to support family, lack of employment opportunities for young graduates at home, and higher living standards abroad are the most common.

“What do you think when you visit a friend whose house is much greater than yours? You wish your house could be as grand as your friend’s but you’d never think that you want to live there forever,” Kaung Htet Thu, a scholarship student in Japan, reasoned. “I love Japan more than any other country but this is not my place, not my home.”

Burmese emigrants have many reasons for returning to their home country, with family matters, attachment to their own traditions and contributing to the country’s development the most popular justifications. “Get a skill and settle down back at home. You won’t make as much money as you do in foreign countries, but your children will,” said Thar Htet, who is running a tech start-up in Yangon after living in Singapore for 11 years.

Few people are fortunate enough to secure a job back home that pays as well as what they earned in foreign countries and those trying to run their own businesses face many challenges. Poor infrastructure and a different working culture makes many people hesitant to return to Burma.

Kyaw Thu Soe Naing, who is working in the Indonesian garment industry, wishes he could go back but he still doesn’t think the country is ready. “I am starting to dream about going back home and living there forever,” he said. “But then I think our country is not improving quickly enough. All of people in our country have to learn how to live in a true democracy. Both citizens and Government have to change their attitudes.”

For some, after being familiarized with foreign working culture and society, it is almost impossible to fit into Burmese society. Phay Thaw (name changed) described why he does not want to go back there anymore. “In reality, I found myself as a guest when I went back there. And when I see all those attitudes almost daily online – all those judgments and opinions on political, religious and social issues, I do not want to stay in a place where many people have totally different views with me on those issues,” he said.

Some people think several thousands of people working abroad is a loss for the country transitioning towards democracy and development. However, opinions are always divided when it comes to the controversial issue of defining the brain drain.

“I think that all those who are highly educated but working abroad is a loss for the country,” said Tin Aye Nyein, who works for a local business venture. “But you can’t really blame them for wanting a decent salary and making a living.” But some people suppose working abroad could be beneficial for Burma. “If they came back and use their earnings as capital for local business and share their knowledge with local people, that would not really be a loss for country,” said Waing, who works at a Japanese firm in Yangon. That is also the main reason that many Burmese hold the hope that brain drain can be transformed into a brain gain.

However, the reality is that many people are overqualified for a return to Burma. Tin Aye Nyein points out that, “For example, someone who is working in astrophysics cannot work in Myanmar yet because there will be no such jobs here.” Cho Zin Myint, who is pursing doctorate degree in biomedical engineering in Australia, also adds, “If people do not look for suitable jobs in foreign countries, they could just end up unemployed in Myanmar.”

Giant corporations rushing to invest in Burma may create certain employment opportunities to entice local people working abroad. Yet that could still be a long way off. To let internationally experienced professionals contribute to the country’s development, the government should support them with the proper working environments, decent infrastructure and transparent procedures for doing business.