Back to the Future

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DSC_0316Inspired by the political change in the country, many Burmese are returning to Myanmar to help develop their motherland. WORDS BY ATE HOEKSTRA

Myo Myint Kyaw had an excellent life in Singapore. He was making good money as a software engineer, was well connected and had enough resources to visit Myanmar almost every month. The dream of having his own business in his home country was always there, but for many years Myanmar hardly offered any opportunities to young well-educated people like him.

That changed when the Myanmar government started implementing democratic reforms five years ago. It was around the same time Myint Kyaw found inspiration in the lives of two people – Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Myanmar’s democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi.

“I watched The Social Network movie about Mark Zuckerberg and was so inspired by it that I wanted to start that kind of company,” Myint Kyaw, 31, says in his Yangon office. “Then I watched The Lady, about Aung San Suu Kyi. After that movie I was like: well, that’s it, I’m going back to Myanmar.”

The CEO and founder of IT-company Revotech, is one of numerous people who have returned to Myanmar in the last five years. Many of them are drawn back by the changes the country is going through. After being run by a military government for over five decades, the country started a democratic transformation which reached its climax on November 8, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy (NLD) won the national elections.

“In August 2012 I decided to resign from my job and to return to Myanmar,” Myint Kyaw says. By then he had worked and studied in the UK and Singapore for 10 years. Soon after his return home, the IT-specialist started Revotech with two friends. “We had no business plan, not a lot of connections and not much capital. After less than a month the partnership fell apart. Luckily I could borrow some money from my family and I had a few friends who referred clients tome.”

Now Revotech is one of Myanmar’s most successful IT businesses. e company has almost 30 staff and has worked with international clients, including Nissan, The World Bank and telecom company Ooreedoo. It also develops education apps, such as one that helps kids write the Myanmar alphabet. “You can create opportunities here, if you are willing to sacrifice, have patience and are persistent enough,” Myint Kyaw says.

Aung Thura, the founder and CEO of Yangon-based financial consulting and research company Thura Swiss, grew up in Switzerland. He held a good job in the private banking division of Credit Suisse, but the desire to move to Myanmar – the country of his mother’s birth – burned strong within him.

“I was about 19 years old when I first imagined myself working in Myanmar,” Thura says. “In 2012 it was the right time to start. In the beginning I stayed in Switzerland. I got up early in the morning, made phone calls to Myanmar, sent emails and continued working in Switzerland to have an income. In August 2012 I moved.”

Thura, whose company advises and consults for international companies and investors, always believed his work would prove valuable to Myanmar’s economy. “In other countries there are more people at the same education level, so I thought I could con- tribute to Myanmar with my education,” he says. “Here I could have much more impact.”

Working in Myanmar comes with different challenges than the ones Thura faced in Switzerland. Bureaucracy is notorious, the infrastructure is in a parlous state and it is often difficult to find the right staff . “But the people are here,” maintains Thura. “My department head for research was educated as a dentist. He was very motivated and is currently doing an MBA. You can really progress your career in this environment. And if you hire the people who know how to work in this environment, you often don’t see the problems any more.”

When the challenges are conquered, returnees – or repats – can be of great value for the development of the economy, agree Aung ura and Myo Myint Khaw. They know the country, understand the culture and speak the language. At the same time, and in contrast with most people who stayed in Myanmar, they are well-educated and return with experiences they could never have had in their home country.

“They know Myanmar very well and also understand how other countries work,” Thura says, before adding that sometimes they may have lost their roots. “Although sometimes they are too western-minded in their thinking and are disconnected from the country; they still speak Burmese, but they can no longer connect to the locals.”

For Myint Kyaw coming back to Myanmar felt like something he had to do.

“I was earning good money in Singapore. So if it were for the money, I wouldn’t be here,” he says. “But I always felt that all the people who were educated abroad should come back to be part of the nation’s development. When you look at the tech startups, maybe 95 percent of the successful entrepreneurs are educated in Singapore. They came back and are doing great because they know how to deal with foreigners and they have experience. We need that kind of people.”

Follow Ate Hoekstra on Twitter – @HoekstraAte.

 

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