After decades of internal conflict and virtual isolation, Myanmar is finally emerging as a player on the world stage. This month, it accepted the top post of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations for 2014, a testament to its improving human rights record.

Myanmar, also known as Burma, was controlled by the military from 1962 until 2011, when the process of democratization unleashed a flood of political and economic reforms. It is a moment of truth for Myanmar, and Aung Aung is working to make sure his home country emerges stronger from nearly 50 years of authoritarian rule.

Aung, a 2011 graduate of the Master of International Development Policy program and Rotary World Peace Fellow, began working as a Program Officer with the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in August of this year.

Since that time, he has been working with the Ministry of Education and other organizations on a complete reform of Myanmar’s education system. Launched in October 2012, this is the first comprehensive review of the education sector since 1993. The findings of the review will shape new policy recommendations and are expected to lead to a comprehensive education plan by 2014.

“The objectives are to improve evidence-based policy and planning, to improve equity, and to strengthen the education system in Myanmar,” Aung said.

Another of UNESCO’s initiatives aims to address the youth unemployment rate. A parliamentary committee in Myanmar recently put the figure at a staggering 37 percent.

UNESCO is working to establish a Centre for Excellence for Business Skills Development in the Yangon Institute of Economics. The center is designed to strengthen business skills among youth to help them find jobs or go further with their studies.

“The workshops with the teachers on how to run the classes have been done, so the next step is to provide classes to students,” Aung said.

Aung has also recently written two books: Behind the Good Luck, a collection of articles on education, peace and politics, and Promoting Democracy in Myanmar: Political Party Capacity Building.

The latter, published this year, examines political parties in Myanmar and makes recommendations to help them improve their democratic practices.

“It is an analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of political parties in Myanmar based on the news from private media inside and outside Myanmar – and on my personal experiences,” he said.

A fish with little water

Born in Myanmar in 1973, Aung spent almost his entire life under authoritarian rule.

While he was never arrested or threatened by the regime, he remembers censoring many of his thoughts and opinions in his early writings.

“My life at that time was like a fish with little water because of severe restrictions adopted by the regime on freedom of expression and basic human rights,” he said. “I wanted to write freely and think freely. I wanted to be free from fear. And I wanted to be ruled by a good government.”

Aung saw only one solution for himself and his beleaguered country – education.

“I knew I had to be equipped with a fine education if I wanted to defend democracy and human rights,” he said. “If I wanted to have a big mouth, I needed to be well informed.”

He completed his bachelor’s degree while working for the Internal Revenue Department in Yangon, the country’s capital at that time. He then became assistant manager of the Myanmar Investment and Commercial Bank.

During his time with the bank, he recalls being invited to a weeklong financial conference in Singapore.

“I was astounded to see the developments in Singapore at that time,” he said. “I realized how much Myanmar was lagging behind.”

He moved to Japan in 2004 to study the language and, in 2006, went to South Korea to earn his master’s in international relations and political economy at the Korea Development Institute (KDI) – School of Public Policy and Management in Seoul.

Changing the focus of his career, he joined Save the Children, one of the largest international organizations in Myanmar, where he played an active role in liaising with local authorities, other NGOs and United Nations agencies.

Living the commitment to education

Aung learned about the Master of International Development Policy program from Natalia Mirovitskaya, an MIDP professor who was serving as a visiting lecturer at KDI while Aung was studying there. Duke is also a partner school in KDI’s Global Master’s Program. After looking into the program further, Aung decided it would help him take a more active role in policymaking and peacebuilding.

In 2009, he was accepted to the MIDP program and left Myanmar for the U.S. He also was awarded the prestigious Rotary World Peace Fellowship to fund his studies.

“My understanding of international development and peace and conflict resolution dramatically improved,” he said. “As Myanmar is known for conflicts, it is extremely important for people like me to have a sound understanding of conflict resolution.”

After graduating from the program, he worked for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Myanmar and served as a guest researcher for the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Sweden. He remains committed to the idea that education is the answer – not only for his own personal growth, but for that of Myanmar.

“In order to sustain these democratic commitments, Myanmar needs to be prosperous,” he said. “To be prosperous, it needs to create more job opportunities. To create job opportunities, it needs to invite foreign investors. To invite foreign investors, it needs to convince them that Myanmar will respect international laws and solve its domestic problems democratically. All of these can be achieved through education.”

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