Falling behind, again?
I came out of a recent trip to Myanmar with the same sinking feeling I’ve consistently had over the years every time I travel to our Asean neighbors, particularly the more dynamic ones. This time it’s to a country that we welcomed as a new fellow member of Asean in the mid-1990s with a modest scholarship program that I suggested to President Fidel V. Ramos back then — because it seemed so far behind us at the time. That was when I had just made an official visit to reciprocate an earlier one made by my Myanmar counterpart, Planning Minister General David Abel — the only Christian, and among the most powerful, in Myanmar’s Cabinet then.
On that visit two decades ago, our embassy staff in Yangon informed me that the construction equipment we were seeing around the city were mostly being operated by Filipinos, as there was hardly any local capacity to drive those machines at the time. So we had the idea of offering training in Manila for Myanmar nationals exactly for that — i.e., construction equipment operation and construction management. In my written report to President Ramos on the visit, I made an explicit recommendation to offer a modest scholarship program to help train Myanmar nationals in construction management, as well as in statistics and economic development, and other topics their government may request. On the margin of my memo, President Ramos scribbled an “Ok” to my recommendation with his trademark red felt-tip pen, with a note instructing the allocation of P5 million from the President’s Social Fund for the purpose. Thus was born the Philippines-Myanmar Human Resource Development Assistance Program, our country’s first technical assistance program to a less endowed neighbor, and a tangible contribution to Asean solidarity.
That P5 million went a long way, thanks to counterpart support from the Meralco (now MFI) Foundation, which provided the short-term technical training, and the University of the Philippines and Polytechnic University of the Philippines, which offered the masteral programs in statistics and economic development. A total of 60 Myanmar nationals and officials came, and the scholars and their Filipino classmates quickly discovered how very similar we, as fellow Southeast Asians, really are.
But the best payoff was yet to come. In late 1998, a rally in the capital city of Yangon led to the arrest and detention of a number of local and foreign demonstrators, including a few Filipino activists. Among the detainees, the Filipinos were the very first to be released, freed promptly upon representations by the Philippine Embassy in Yangon. I later heard how our embassy officials were told that the Filipinos were promptly released in recognition of the close friendship between the two countries, and particularly the debt of gratitude for our PH-Myanmar HRD Assistance Program. The P5 million that President Ramos allotted to the scholarship program was modest, but it went far beyond just equipping 60 Myanmar nationals with better skills and knowledge. It also cemented a lasting friendship between our two nations.
Last week, my dear friend General Abel, now long retired from public office at 84 but still up and about and highly respected, hosted a sumptuous dinner for us in Yangon. As we shared fond memories from our former official lives, he told us that the scholars we trained are now in high positions in government. I recall how in my first visit to Yangon, their airport looked to me more like a Philippine provincial airport. Now their impressive airport terminal puts ours to shame. Tall modern buildings stand where there was none before. And I couldn’t help wonder if we will soon be overtaken yet again by another neighbor to which we had been mentors in the not too distant past.
To be sure, Myanmar has its own persistent internal problems. But one gets the feeling that with its people’s Buddhist values of patience and interconnectedness, it is moving forward fast. Meanwhile, we, its erstwhile mentors, appear to be stuck in place, held back by deep divisions and endless political bickering, and seemingly condemned to watching our neighbors pass us by, one by one.
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