YANGON: Dramatic changes sweeping through Myanmar are luring back some of the country’s millions-strong diaspora to help rebuild their impoverished homeland, in a reversal of a decades-long brain drain.
Aung Naing Oo had not set foot in the country formerly known as Burma for almost a quarter century since escaping through malaria-infested jungle into Thailand after the army brutally crushed student protests in 1988.
Emboldened by a surprising series of reforms and an invitation by the new government for exiles to return, he was one of a group of academics who recently made the previously unthinkable journey home.
He told AFP after his arrival here that he hoped their return would herald a new era for exiles to join the peace-building process.
“I also look at this trip as a personal reconciliation with my own country, my own whole life, trying to heal the wounds, the trauma that we have.”
Richard Horsey, an independent Myanmar analyst, said the return of the Harvard-educated academics sent a signal to other exiles or economic migrants that they could go back, taking much-needed skills with them.
“I think this is going to be really important because it is the capacity issue which is going to hold back the reforms,” he said, noting that a lack of expertise means economic reforms have so far trailed political change.
With an economy corrupted by cronyism and an education system weakened by chronic under-investment and interference from a regime deeply suspicious of students, there has been little effort to build a skilled workforce.
Repression and lack of opportunity has created a diaspora of several million people — a significant proportion of the roughly 60 million population.
“You have this body of very well-trained young Myanmar people in Singapore, Malaysia, in Thailand and in the West who have been trained to a high standard in different areas. What does it take to get them back?” Horsey said.
A new military-backed civilian government that took power last year has surprised observers with a series of conciliatory gestures to its opponents.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi is now running for parliament in April by-elections and hundreds of political prisoners have been freed, including key figures from the 1988 student movement.
Aung Naing Oo, who has spent over half his lifetime campaigning for change from outside, described the recent reforms as some kind of miracle.
At last able to set foot on Myanmar soil without fearing arrest, even if only for a short visit this time, he plans to hold talks with government figures, activists and the private sector.
Some of his colleagues at the Vahu Development Institute — a Thailand-based think-tank on development, economic reform and governance — are now moving back to Myanmar for good.
The changes afoot have sparked hopes for an end to sanctions and the start of an economic revival after decades of isolation and mismanagement.
Following a visit last month, the International Monetary Fund said Myanmar could become the next economic frontier in Asia, with its rich natural resources, young labour force and strategic position between India and China.
But the challenge of turning potential into reality is significant for a nation with a chronic lack of infrastructure and economic imbalances including an informal exchange rate almost 100 times better than the official one.
“We have a lot of challenges…. The problem is that even though there is some capacity within the government they lack exposure and they are stymied by the old bureaucratic culture,” said Aung Naing Oo.
Meanwhile investors are clamouring for a toe-hold and firms are bracing themselves for stiff competition to hire skilled workers.
“Experienced local workers will have many job opportunities,” said Win Aung, president of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry.
The government has sent some signals to the diaspora — ditching a 10 per cent income tax for overseas workers and formalising a remittance system. But there has yet to be a comprehensive outreach effort.
In Singapore, where Myanmar students can receive a partial grant in exchange for an undertaking to work in the country for several years after graduation, there are glimmers of optimism about returning.
Business management student San May Thu, 21, who said young expatriates avidly followed changes at home on Facebook and other websites, hoped they would go back to serve the country.
“I think there is a great future for Burma,” she added.
For the older generation it may be harder to return, with many married and permanently settled.
There are also subtler questions of identity. Aung Naing Oo said he was not sure he would feel comfortable wearing the traditional longyi — a sort of sarong — after two decades in western clothes.
Ahead of the trip he said he was preparing to confront a country made strange by a quarter century absence — but still home.
“People have warned me already — as soon as you get out of the airport you find yourself in a strange world. You hear the voices that are so familiar and you realise you are Burmese to the core.”