The return of the Burmese diaspora

Mr Kriz Channyein, who has made and produced films in Singapore, returned to Myanmar in July as he wanted to make art in his home country too. He sees film-making as a way of opening people’s minds.
Mr Kriz Channyein, who has made and produced films in Singapore, returned to Myanmar in July as he wanted to make art in his home country too. He sees film-making as a way of opening people’s minds.PHOTO: CYNTHIA CHOO
Miss Nang Su Wai returned to Yangon in June as a lawyer at Yoma Strategic, a Singapore real estate developer in Myanmar. She said she wants to be “in the midst of my own country’s development".
Miss Nang Su Wai returned to Yangon in June as a lawyer at Yoma Strategic, a Singapore real estate developer in Myanmar. She said she wants to be “in the midst of my own country’s development".PHOTO: CYNTHIA CHOO

They want to contribute and capitalise on the opportunities that an increasingly open Myanmar presents. By Cynthia Choo

It cost Mr Khin Maung Win just 8,000 kyat (S$8.80) to leave Myanmar in 1997 - 3,000 kyat for a ride to the airport, 2,000 kyat for food and the remaining for good measure.

Little did he know his return trip would cost almost a thousand times more.

Under a full sponsorship from Sumitomo Chemical, Mr Khin Maung Win left Myanmar in the summer of 1997 to work as a technician in Singapore.

Eighteen years on, he was drawing $6,500 monthly and was offered an all-expenses-paid opportunity to pursue a master's degree in chemical engineering.

But he gave all that up in order to move back to Myanmar for good.

"For a long time, I was working for others. I wanted to return home and start my own business instead," said the 44-year-old.

"I am not the only one, I know many friends who are doing the same."

Mr Khin Maung Win is one of many Burmese returnees heading home to find their footing in a more liberal society, creating a new wave of Myanmar nationals in the country commonly called "the repats" - short form for repatriates.

While repatriation usually refers to the return of soldiers or refugees, the term also encompasses the voluntary return by citizens to their country of origin, for economic, social or political purposes.

"The government does not track the number of repatriates, but looking at the incentives and opportunities for them to return, it is safe to say there are thousands who have come back," said Mr Aung Myint, executive officer at the Union of

Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI), an inter-governmental body representing Burmese companies, enterprises and start-ups.

Mr Khin Maung Win saw the opportunities of an expanding car market. "After Myanmar allowed the import of foreign cars, there were so many cars on the road," said the engineer-turned-entrepreneur. "I decided to start a tyre retreading company. I knew I'd surely have business," he said.

Since starting the company in 2013, the businessman has already recovered his capital and is eager to start other ventures.

"Myanmar's economy is already beginning to be dominated by foreign companies. Entrepreneurs need to create businesses fast. If not now, then when?" said Mr Khin Maung Win, his acquired Singapore accent slipping through. After all, having studied and worked in Singapore for close to two decades, to him, Singapore is home - but so is Myanmar.

"I feel more comfortable in Myanmar where I speak the language, and it is also where my friends and family are," he said.


Mr Khin Maung Win's homecoming story is a recurring narrative in post-military-ruled Myanmar.

"This is where my roots are," said Ms Nang Su Wai, a lawyer at Yoma Strategic Holdings, a Singapore real estate developer in Myanmar.

"There was this curiosity to learn more about the country because I left when I was seven," said the 28-year-old, who moved back to Yangon in June.

Ms Nang Su Wai had heard about an opening at Yoma Strategic while she was working at another law firm in Singapore. Trying her luck, she applied for the position. Within two weeks, she was offered the job, and told to pack her bags and get on a plane to Yangon.

"I think it was pure coincidence and timing that I applied for the job when the company was looking to expand in Myanmar," she said.

Her return may have been perfectly timed, but it was by no means a coincidence.

Mr Arne Lugeon, head of human resources at Yoma Strategic, said: "Right now, we are specifically looking for repatriates. If we receive say, 50 to 60 applications for a position and two are from Burmese working overseas, we zoom in on those straightaway, and end up hiring one of the two."

In addition to their language advantage, overseas experience and skill sets are the biggest advantages repatriates have.

With foreign direct investments at 5 per cent of gross domestic product and a growth rate of 8 per cent last year, Myanmar requires a workforce with "international know-how to sustain its growth", said UMFCCI's Mr Aung Myint.

"The economy is growing at a much faster pace than its workforce can catch up with.

"With its ambitious plans to sustain this growth rate, we need repatriates with overseas experience to fill the skill gap," he said.


On the other hand, some repatriates return to rebuild Myanmar's economy by creating jobs for locals.

Mr Htin Aung, 48, founded Applied Membrane Engineering - a water sanitisation company - after returning last year in the hopes of improving such systems while supplying jobs to locals.

"I wanted to employ and train my own people to help them improve," said the employer of roughly 40 to 50 staff members ranging from factory managers and engineers to low-skilled workers - all of whom are Burmese.

Mr Aung Khum Kyaw - founder of Myanmar Entrepreneur, a website promoting entrepreneurship among Burmese in Myanmar and abroad - observed that repatriates were returning to improve the country's developing sectors.

"Many come home to give back," he said.

"They foster the education and engineering sectors by starting training centres and bringing international colleges to Myanmar."

Contributing to Myanmar's development is also a goal of repatriate film-maker Kriz Channyein.

"Myanmar is a lot more open than what it used to be. You can now say or do things you couldn't three years ago," said Mr Channyein, who wishes to capitalise on the increased freedom of expression in the country.

He said: "Films can be educational too. With elections looming, they can open people's minds."


But assimilating back into the culture they left behind has not been a walk in the park for these repatriates.

At 29 and with tattoos up his left arm, Mr Channyein feels like "the new kid on the block".

"Street vendors still try to sell me things and taxi drivers are always overcharging me," said Mr Channyein, "until I start speaking in Burmese."

Dressed in a crisp blue shirt and pressed jeans, he stands out in a sea of longyis, a sarong-like garment commonly worn by the Burmese.

"I don't quite yet fit in," he said wryly.

Repatriate lawyer Nang Su Wai said that it is a challenge handling the expectations of her Burmese colleagues and friends.

"They expect you to know the nuances of local culture, like how to address superiors and what specific gifts to bring to business meetings.

"But they don't understand that I'm basically a one-month-old Burmese," said Ms Nang Su Wai, who frequently meets bosses and staff of local companies when drafting legal agreements.

Still, she works hard to bridge that cultural gap.

"It's something I have to learn if I want to continue working here," she said.

Yoma Strategic's Mr Lugeon said repatriates often bear the brunt of tensions between them and other local employees who never left the country.

"Locals sometimes think that repatriates didn't stay during the tough times and instead left the country to get amazing education and work opportunities," said Mr Lugeon.

That resentment is expected, he said. After all, despite the difficulties repatriates face on returning, they can ultimately choose to stay or leave.

Ms Nang Su Wai admitted that it is common for repatriates to straddle between two countries - keeping one foot in their often more prosperous adopted homeland, and the other in Myanmar.

She said: "I think most people who return always have a backup plan if things don't work out in Myanmar."

However, as social and economic incentives increase, Mr Aung Myint said he is certain that the Burmese diaspora will find it difficult to resist the powerful pull of home.

"We are working on policies that will sustain and invite more foreign investments. We are also trying to make it easier for Myanmar nationals to start up their own businesses and find work."

In fact, he believes that repatriates will kick-start a cycle of economic growth beneficial to Myanmar.

"They will lead developing sectors and upgrade the skill sets of the local workforce to spur economic growth, perpetuating the return of a more experienced workforce," he said.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2015, with the headline 'The return of the Burmese diaspora'. Print Edition | Subscribe