What is it really like inside Burma? Descriptions of the country have often lingered too much too often on the politics of the country, a heroic leader under house arrest, and an otherwise resource rich nation that has backslid over the years due to a repressive government. However, economic activities have been taking place behind the curtain and to a surprising extent: China alone, for example, has invested $14 billion to-date, and the latest reforms promise more development to come.
Aung Thura, Chief Strategist at Ignite Marketing Communications in Yangon, is no stranger to a changing Burma. Thura has been part of Burma’s marketing communication landscape since 1996, and has navigated the business environments of various ASEAN markets, as a leader of McCann Erickson’s strategic planning teams in countries like Vietnam, Thailand and Laos. This month Thura gives AsianTalks the bigger picture in his region, and how an ancient Buddhist culture is coping with these modern times.
AT: Could you just tell us about your background, where you’re 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 with the foreign service, so more than half my life was spent outside the country. But there were large parts of my life that I was spending back in Myanmar.
So I couldn’t quite decide where I belonged, or what I was, until much later.
Then back in 1988, we had a big student uprising, and all the universities closed. So that’s when I went out of Burma on my own, this time, to study.
From that point I’ve been mostly out of the country until 2009, when I decided to go back for personal reasons. And there were opportunities in Burma that made me go back.
AT: You’ve worked at McCann Erickson in various capacities as a marketing and communications professional for 15 years. What kind of work are you now doing in Burma?
Aung: I left McCann in 2009 and went back to work for a non-profit organization called Populations Services International (PSI) that dealt with a lot of the diseases that affect Myanmar, but I found out I’m bit more suited for the marketing and communications side of things. So about six months back 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 was studying.
I returned to Myanmar thinking that hotels would be opening up and that was industry I wanted to be in. But politically a lot of things changed, and sanctions hit, and the multinationals pulled out.
So I started looking for something else. I somehow ended up at McCann in ’96, and I stayed in Burma, working for clients like Unilever and Nestle.
AT: You’ve lived in Burma for 3 years now. What is one good adjective to describe Burma in 2012, and how is it different than 1996, or any other year when reforms seemed to emerge on the horizon?
Aung: I guess the word would be hopeful, or most hopeful. Because 1996, 1997, that was when we were also hopeful, I was hopeful as well. But it didn’t turn out well.
But this time I think a lot of things are in a place where, because the new government has been very accommodating towards mostly the Western requests and demands with regards to political prisoners.
Another way to answer that question is that I’ve invested in starting my own business. I’ve always worked for someone else or in a salaried position. But this time I’m putting the money in, the people in, and my time in. So yes, short answer is I’m very optimistic, but then again I’m touching wood right now (laughs).
AT: What’s one advice you have for the international business community outside Burma?
Aung: Like most developing countries, people are very curious, and they are hopeful, eager to learn and do new things. But what kind of tempers that enthusiasm is that Burma was a closed country, and there were limits to the type of media the Burmese could consume, whether it’s online or television.
In that sense, people are not really fully exposed to the more established practices in marketing, sales or just working in a multinational type of office.
So while the Burmese are eager, I think there are a lot of rough edges that multinationals need to hone or try to clean up. Because even for me as a Burmese national, it’s extremely difficult to find people with experience in our marketing, communications category. The only thing that I can do is hire people with the right attitude and hope that they have the ability to learn.
AT: But overall would you say working as a Burmese returnee is a positive experience?
Aung: Positive experience in terms of, you know, I’m meeting with other Burmese, and working with them, and that’s great. That was my original reason for working with the non-profit organization that’s into public health, and you know I really wanted to do something for people. The only thing was the cultural fit didn’t work out for me.
AT: How open is Burma right now?
Aung: Burma was a totalitarian government until very recently, a repressive government in that sense. However, in the many years after socialism, all the periods I’ve been in and out of the country, there were a few times where I do feel threatened by the authority, immigration, police and customs officers. And beyond casual remarks with friends or strangers, I wouldn’t be discussing politics.
In that sense I’ve stayed clear of politics, and as a result I’ve been freely going in and out of the country, seeing my parents, visiting, and traveling around Burma as a tourist.
AT: Burma is by and large a Theravada Buddhist country. How does the religious outlook of the Burmese affect progress and development?
Aung: Well, it’s not necessarily like the caste system, or the Confucius system where you kind of stick to your own class or social strata. It’s at the core of Buddhist teaching. We should be content, and be happy with what we have in life. Because it’s kind like what Yoda said in Star Wars (laughs): “Hate leads to anger. Anger leads to the dark side.”
The noble truth of Buddhism is that you have to get rid of those needs and wants. And when you get rid of them, or try to minimize them, then that’s when you’ll truly be free, and in a way I get it, because when I’m really driven, or really want to go get something, as a Buddhist, and as a Burmese, I feel that, oh okay, I’m pushing it a bit. But for the rest of the Burmese, I think they follow the dogma a little bit too literally. They might say, “Okay, I’m poor. I’m making 100 dollars a month, and this is my lot in life, and all I can do in this life is to do good deeds, so that in my next life I’ll be born as someone who is a bit more well to do, richer or more beautiful, or respected.” So that is a second, more literal interpretation of the teaching.
I think on The Irrawaddy a Western columnist wrote a piece, basically saying that it’s a perfect situation for Burma’s authoritarian government because the Burmese feel it’s their lot in life and therefore, not to push it too much. There’s some truth in it, but my interpretation is that, well, you know, if I do good, good things will happen, and yes because I have needs and wants I will suffer, but in a way it’s a price I’m willing to pay, at the price of being successful or getting things done. That’s my interpretation.