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The People of Myanmar

Now that I am back in the US, I am able to reflect on my experience in Myanmar.

During our time in Myanmar I had the opportunity to interact with many local people, not only in Yangon but also in several villages. So many were friendly and polite. The people of Myanmar have a relaxed attitude toward life. Anyone who visits should have no trouble navigating Myanmar culture and interacting with locals as long as he or she uses common sense. The locals are genuine. Every time they smiled at me I felt warmth—a sense of happiness filled me. While in country, I never felt in danger, annoyed, or insulted.

In fact, people in Myanmar are more courteous than I thought they would be, even toward each other. Traffic jams are a common sight in Yangon, but drivers rarely honk out of frustration. Also among locals there is a spirit of cooperation and compromise. Once I hailed a taxi and two found me at the same time. If I were home in Japan, both cab drivers would compete for my fare, but to my surprise these drivers in Yangon talked it out, reached a mutual agreement, and one driver picked me up! The process was fair and an example of true concession.

However, Myanmar still has many issues challenging their natural tendency toward harmony. Wages and standard of living are low. Many youth lack access to quality education since families can’t afford university education or do not understand its importance. Despite being one of the most underprivileged countries in Southeast Asia, the people have a sense of morality and compassion that seems to be the highest I’ve witnessed in the region. So how are these people so compassionate and fair in the face of so many challenges like lack of finances and education?

One reason that may explain their sense of morality is that 90 percent of the country is Buddhist, which profoundly shapes the people's minds. Buddhists believe in reincarnation: if they do good in their current life, such as contributing to society or helping others, their next lives will be better. Thus, locals strive to do good such as being compassionate or donating to monks.

A second reason that could explain this contradiction is this sense of morality is a learned behavior taught by parents and passed on from generation to generation. Parents teach a sense of morality and respect for age hierarchy. At a very young age children learn to respect the elderly and their parents. They show their respect for their ancestors because they believe their ancestors made their current life possible.

A third explanation came from my local friend. He mentioned that locals have lived under military and government rule for a long time. As a result, most people are used to following and not offering their opinions. Therefore, since people have a tendency to follow, it appears that locals are passive and agreeable. However, this passivity, especially combined with low wages, is a challenge to employers. Workers often avoid taking responsibility at work and are not incentivized with higher salaries, which ultimately hurts local companies’ productivity.

To resolve some of these challenges, the government could raise workers' salaries to empower workers to take responsibility, thereby increasing productivity and accelerating companies’ competitiveness. But increasing salaries is not a simple answer since the change would increase the cost of labor and could shift values toward materialism. In the end, the real challenge will be to balance upholding society’s sense of morality and compassion for each other with motivating each individual to take responsibility to take the country to the next level.

Author: Taka Sato
Photo: A group of children listen to a story.