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What Is It Like To Work In Today’s Burma? – Interview With Aung Thura, a Burmese Returnee
What exactly is inside Burma? The descriptions of the country have always remained very constant in the country’s politics, a heroic leader under house arrest, and a resource-rich country that has been going backwards for years because of a oppressive government. However, economic activities take place behind the curtain and to a surprising extent: China alone, for example, has invested $ 14 billion so far, and the most recent reforms promise the more progress to come.
Aung Thura, Chief Strategist at Ignite Marketing Communications in Yangon, is no stranger to changing Burma. Thura has been part of Burma’s marketing communications scene since 1996, and has navigated business environments in various ASEAN markets, as a leader of strategic planning teams at McCann Erickson in countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. This month Thura gives AsianTalks the bigger picture of his region, and how an ancient Buddhist culture copes with these modern times.
and: Can you tell us about your background, where you are from and how you came to work in Burma?
Aung: I’m Burmese. I grew up there, but when I was very young my father was in the foreign service, so more than half of my life was spent abroad. But there was a large part of my life that I spent back in Myanmar.
So I couldn’t decide where I belonged, or what I was, until later.
Then back in 1988, we had a big student revolt, and all the universities closed. So I went out to Burma by myself, this time, to study.
From that point I was mostly abroad until 2009, when I decided to return for personal reasons. And there were opportunities in Burma that brought me back.
and: You worked at McCann Erickson in various capacities as a marketing and communications professional for 15 years. What kind of work are you currently doing in Burma?
Aung: I left McCann in 2009 and went back to work for a non-profit organization called Populations Services International (PSI) which deals with many of the diseases affecting Myanmar, but I found that I was better suited for marketing and communication side of things. So about six months ago I left PSI and started my own marketing and communications consultancy and I’ve been doing it ever since.
I was also in the hotel business for about 7 years, working in Thailand, then in Honolulu, Hawaii, where I studied.
I came back to Myanmar thinking that hotels would open up and that was the industry I wanted to go into. But politically many things have changed, and sanctions have been hit, and multinationals have pulled out.
So I looked for something else. I finished McCann in ’96, and I stayed in Burma, working for clients like Unilever and Nestle.
and: You have been living in Burma for 3 years now. What is a good adjective to describe Burma in 2012, and how is it different from 1996, or any other year when reforms seem to be on the horizon?
Aung: I think the word would be optimistic, or most optimistic. Because in 1996, 1997, at that time we were also hoping, I was also hoping. But it didn’t go well.
But this time I think many things are in a place where, because the new government is very welcoming to most of the requests and demands of the West regarding political prisoners.
Another way to answer that question is that I invested in starting my own business. I always work for someone else or in a paid position. But this time I put the money, the people, and my time. So yes, short answer is I’m very optimistic, but then again I’m touching wood now (laughs).
and: What advice do you have for the international business community outside of Burma?
Aung: Like most developing countries, people are very curious, and they are optimistic, want to learn and do new things. But what kind of anger is fueled by the fact that Burma is a closed country, and there are limits on the kind of media available to Burmese, whether online or television.
In that sense, people are never fully exposed to the more established practices of marketing, selling or just working in a multinational type of office.
So while the Burmese are excited, I think there are a lot of rough edges that multinationals need to improve or try to clean up. Because even for me as a Burmese national, it is very difficult to find people who have experience in our category of marketing, communication. The only thing I can do is hire people with the right attitude and hope they have the ability to learn.
and: But overall would you say that working as a Burmese returnee was a positive experience?
Aung: Positive experience in terms of, you know, I met other Burmese, and worked with them, and that was good. That was my original reason for working with the non-profit organization that was in public health, and you know I really wanted to do something for people. The only thing is the cultural fit didn’t work for me.
and: How open is Burma now?
Aung: Burma was a totalitarian government until recently, a repressive government in that sense. However, in the many years after socialism, in all the times I have been in and out of the country, there have been a few times when I felt threatened by the authorities, immigration, police and customs officials. And beyond casual comments to friends or strangers, I don’t discuss politics.
In that sense I avoided politics, and as a result I was able to freely go in and out of the country, see my parents, visit, and travel to Burma as a tourist.
and: Burma is predominantly a Theravada Buddhist country. How did Burmese religious views affect progress and development?
Aung: Well, it doesn’t have to be like the caste system, or the Confucius system where you kind of stick to your own class or social class. This is the core of Buddhist teaching. We should be content, and be happy with what we have in life. Because it’s like Yoda said in Star Wars (laughs): “Hate leads to anger. Anger leads to the dark side.”
The noble truth of Buddhism is that you must get rid of needs and wants. And when you remove them, or try to reduce them, that’s when you’re truly free, and in a way I get it, because when I’m really driven, or really want to get something, as a Buddhist, and as a Burmese, I feel like, oh okay, I’m pushing it a little bit. But for some Burmese, I think they follow the dogma quite literally. They may say, “Okay, I’m poor. I earn 100 dollars a month, and this is my condition in life, and all I can do in this life is to do good deeds, so that in my next life I will be born as someone who is better done, richer or more beautiful, or respected.” That is the second, more literal interpretation of the teaching.
I think in The Irrawaddy a Western columnist wrote a piece, basically saying that this is a perfect situation for the authority of the Burmese government because the Burmese feel that this is their life situation and therefore, do not force it too much. There is some truth in this, but my interpretation is that, well, you know, if I do good, good things will happen, and yes because I have needs and I want to suffer, but in one way it’s a value I’m willing. to pay, the price of success or getting things done. That’s my interpretation.
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