Each year, a handful of Myanmar’s young leaders are selected to travel more than 10,000 kilometres journey to New Zealand. With a population of more than 4.5 million, snow-capped mountains, a thriving cafe culture and left-hand drive, New Zealand is a world apart from the temple-adorned townships and bustling cities of Myanmar. Reporter Emily Spink meets the alumni of various academic and business leadership programs, who braved an unexpected journey and are now helping to shape the economic, social and political development of Myanmar.
Ko Khin Maung Htwe’s first attempt to study in New Zealand ended inauspiciously, with a rejection letter from Victoria University. “My [Myanmar] university degree was not enough,” he explained.
Perseverance paid off, however, and more than two years later, the 31-year-old is at the helm of the newly opened New Zealand Scholarship Centre in Yangon, and holds a master’s degree in public policy from Victoria University. He said there was never any question that he would return to Myanmar after completing his degree.
“Most of the ASEAN Scholar alumni see the different worlds and they have that feeling that ‘we should go back to our own country’,” he said in a recent interview.
Since 2010, 959 students from the ASEAN region have been granted one of the New Zealand Aid Program’s scholarships, attending nine institutions. Some 52 of them were from Myanmar.
A Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said the network of scholars would go on to make a difference in government, business, NGOs and their local community.
Ko Khin Maung Htwe hopes to make the scholarship application process more accessible to young people, including those living in remote areas, and where access to a computer or internet was limited.
“It’s quite hard, and very few candidates apply,” he said.
In 2010, he gained a place in the Myanmar Young Leaders Program (MYLP), through which he had his first taste of the land commonly associated with sheep, mountain ranges, rugby and hobbits.
For some in Myanmar that was all they had seen of New Zealand: limited knowledge gleaned from programs on the Discovery and National Geographic channels.
Ko Khin Maung Htwe was one of 39 students from Myanmar who had passed through the young leaders program, which involved three months of English language learning and 10 weeks studying human rights, democratic processes, basic economics, and research and proposal-writing skills.
After working in Myanmar for three years, Ko Khin Maung Htwe returned to New Zealand in 2014 as an ASEAN Scholar.
“I hope at some point I can persuade MPs to adopt a public service complaint mechanism,” he said.
Ma Thin Myat Khine, 31, was also determined to return home and contribute after studying in the Netherlands and New Zealand.
Now working on the Thai-Myanmar border, the ASEAN Scholar returned from New Zealand in 2014 after completing a master’s degree in public health.
“Before I went to NZ, my work experience was limited. I was very naive. I didn’t have critical thinking and I couldn’t participate in higher-level meetings. We didn’t dare think outside the box,” she said.
The experience gave her the confidence to develop a voice and “respectfully” express her opinion and discuss programs – whether it be in front of leaders from the National League for Democracy or officials of the Ministry of Health.
“If I hadn’t gone to university, I wouldn’t have been able to do this kind of thing,” she said.
When she returned from New Zealand, the health worker set up a Facebook page to disseminate information and connect with prospective scholars.
“In this transitional time, we need a lot of educated young leaders for the future,” she said.
As the public health institute project manager at the Karen Department of Health and Welfare, Ma Thin Myat Khine offered support and training on health-related issues, including immunisations programs and how to reduce malaria and the mortality rate during pregnancy.
“Broadly speaking, I want to help poor and vulnerable people throughout the world. Specifically, I want to change the lives of people in Myanmar, especially those in very remote, poor, and ethnic areas,” she said.
Ma Wint Wint Khaing Tun hoped that she too would be able to use her experience to contribute in some way to his evolving country.
The ASEAN Scholar completed her bachelor’s degree in Japanese at Victoria University in Wellington in 2013.
“I hope the future of Myanmar will be better. I hope to do something useful for my country as a diplomat,” she said.
Now working as first secretary at the Myanmar embassy in Jakarta, she said education was crucial to helping figure out “whether [something] is right or wrong by our own thinking”.
“We can have rational thinking and common sense,” he added.
Applying for a scholarship for postgraduate study in an English-speaking country presents high barriers for many young Myanmar people.
Ma Seik Nyan considers herself one of the lucky ones. In 2009 she received the only undergraduate scholarship offered by New Zealand through the MYLP program.
“For disadvantaged people it’s very difficult to apply for a master’s,” said Ma Seik Nyan, a workshop coordinator at the International Labour Organization. “Even though they complete their BA from government school, they can’t do a master’s degree in New Zealand.
“It’s about improving your world experience and bringing back skilled human resources to your country. Myanmar needs that.”
Ma Seik Nyan arrived a week late due to a visa delay. As a result, she missed the orientation and then had just three hours to enrol in subjects and decide on a major.
“There were so many challenges,” said the now-33-year-old, who was able to navigate application forms with the help of Kiwi connections.
She said she hoped to see more undergraduate study opportunities offered in the future.
“As Myanmar opens up a bit, and as English classes are made available, young people will understand how valuable education is for their future. With an international degree, I’m really sure you can get a more professional job,” she said.
As a die-hard hobbit fan, Ko Thuta Aung found his happy place among the shires in the remnants of the Hobbiton village movie set, while in New Zealand on an ASEAN Young Business Leaders Initiative (YBLI) 2014.
The managing director of the consultancy firm Hamsahub was one of 52 top business leaders and entrepreneurs who had visited New Zealand since the inception of ASEAN YBLI in 2011.
“Myanmar is a tricky place to do business. You need to be flexible and to take risks. You can’t expect to make a lot of money in the early stages and you can’t play safe,” said Ko Thuta Aung, 31.
He attended two weeks of classes at Victoria University to learn strategies on where to take his business and how to ensure it would remain relevant over the next five years.
“We want to play a key role in bringing economic dignity to the people of Myanmar,” he said.
He worked with organisations to create “better governance structures”.
The Asia New Zealand Foundation was contracted by the New Zealand Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade to manage the program, and about 10 Kiwis had visited ASEAN under the YBLI.
Ko Thuta Aung said gaining international exposure through experiences like those offered in New Zealand was crucial for the future development of Myanmar.
“If you want Myanmar to stay relevant to ASEAN, you can’t leapfrog. You can’t leapfrog if you don’t know what you’re jumping to … We can’t overtake Thailand if we don’t know what their advantages are.
“Myanmar was once known for its rice and rubies. What will the new Myanmar be? What do we become? That is a journey we will all have to take together.”