2016 Update: Pwint, now a Board Member for Partners Asia, was also featured in Mary Kay Magistad’s excellent article at PRI.org.
Pwint Htun is an early recipient of a Partners Asia Emerging Leaders grant. She is a telecommunication expert and a passionate advocate for the rural poor in Burma. She has been influential in establishing policy and envisions technology and access to information as a leveling tool. This interview highlights the importance of identifying and supporting emerging leaders and the impact a small, yet strategically timed, grant can make for the people of Burma.
You work tirelessly to promote a better telecommunication system in Burma. What is behind your passion?
PH: I grew up in a village in the Bago Region of Burma as one of four daughters. I remember walking to school with my uniform tucked securely in my backpack since I knew I was bound to slip on the slick mud. I loved school but my teachers seemed to have “family emergencies” on a regular basis and would flee to the city to escape the remoteness of my village. After my eldest sister failed to pass her exams, my mother finally decided to send us to a proper school in Yangon.
Life was harder in Yangon, I missed the freedom of my village. While in the city, I shared a two-bedroom apartment with nineteen other family members. When we were not in school, we spent time with our grandmother who watched out for us while my mother worked as a medical doctor. As a young child, one of my earliest memories was getting dressed up to travel to a microwave radio station. My entire family would pile into a motorcycle’s sidecar filled with anticipation. This was a special day — we would be able to speak to my father who worked in Malaysia. I thought the telephone was magic and I attribute this experience to sparking my interest in telecommunications.
During the mid eighties, Burma was experiencing major unrest. How did this affect you and your family?
PH: I wasn’t aware of the political unrest around me until a fateful day in 1988 when that all changed. Looking out the window from our third story apartment, I saw protesters below and knew that my mother was among them. She was tending to the wounded and setting up a makeshift medical station since injured protesters would be arrested if they went to the hospital. As a result, in the weeks that followed, we had little option but to flee to Thailand rather than wait for my mother to be arrested.
What was life like as a Burmese refugee?
PH: When I arrived in Thailand I didn’t speak a word of English or Thai so attending school was out of the question. Instead, my mother would bring home books; I began a self-study program when I was not taking care of the village children. I would probably still be in that camp today if it were not for two American women who lived next door. They saw my interest in education and sponsored me to come to Seattle to attend college. I arrived without a penny to my name but with something money couldn’t buy — two women who gave me a home and lots of encouragement.
How did you make the decision to major in electrical engineering and eventually receive the first scholarship from Aung San Suu Kyi’s Prospect Burma Foundation?
PH: Majoring in electrical engineering was an easy decision. I always excelled in math and since my English was still a bit shaky, I was much better suited for sciences. Receiving Aung San Suu Kyi’s scholarship was a different story. As classes got more demanding, keeping up with homework and working full time to support myself became a challenge. I decided to take a bold step and wrote to Aung San Suu Kyi’s Foundation’s administrator. I knew she had received prize money from the Nobel Peace award and thought they should dedicate some of the funding to support Burmese students. Much to my surprise and utter amazement, I received a letter four months later to announce that I would be awarded the first educational scholarship from Prospect Burma, Aung San Suu Kyi’s Foundation. This not only paid for my tuition but also showed me that dreams do come true if you are willing to take risks.
Leap forward a few years. You finished your master’s degree and held successful positions in leading telecommunication firms. What made you walk away from a six-figure salary and head back to Burma?
PH: When Cyclone Nargis hit Burma in 2008 I watched as the government refused international aid and forced displaced communities to return to their devastated land. I couldn’t stand by knowing that so many people were suffering. My husband, who is from Karen State in Eastern Burma, and I decided to organize the shipment of thousands of water purification supplies into the country.
This was my first time back in the country. After seeing so much loss and suffering, I left the country feeling dejected about the situation. I thought the political problems were too entrenched and that nothing would ever change. Being back in the country and seeing first hand the suffering and isolation of the rural poor changed the direction of my life. I knew I would never be the same.
So you had a vision, but what was your plan?
PH: I knew I had a vision and yet I lacked the confidence to make it happen. I remember walking along Alki beach in October of 2012 and talking to Therese from Partners Asia. I had just returned from Burma and told her how critical the next several months would be for establishing telecommunications infrastructure. Decisions concerning Myanmar’s telecommunication policy would set the course for years to come. I wanted the policymakers in Burma to consider including a mobile banking system for the rural communities and include it as a requirement by the providers who were bidding for the contract. Therese turned to me and said, “This is precisely why Partner’s Asia exists.” She further elaborated and explained that it was the intention of Partners Asia to use their flexible funding to support emerging leaders who have thoughtful strategies to improve the conditions of those struggling. The $3000 Partners Asia grant, combined with the support and network of Partners Asia, gave me that extra boost of confidence that I needed to get back into Burma and start making the difference that I envisioned.
So what was the result? How has your plan done so far?
PH: It’s been quite incredible actually. I was able to convince the deputy minister of telecommunication and his colleagues to visit Tanzania to witness mobile banking for the poor. They had thought they wanted to come to the US but I explained that Tanzania’s system would apply much better than a US system. After this trip, I returned to help write the electronic bank transaction regulations which are still in the process of being passed by the government. Recently, the president of the World Bank agreed to provide universal financial service coverage by 2020 for the entire population of Burma –they can’t do this without the regulations that I helped draft.
That was quite an achievement. What’s next for you?
PH: I envision technology and access to information as a leveling tool and as a social safety net. I believe connectivity can be a way of helping people weather challenging times. I want those who can afford the latest iPhone and those who can afford a $40 Chinese-made android phone on a yearlong payment plan to have equal access to information that can improve their lives. I plan to continue working towards achieving my vision of a democratic Burma where citizens have unencumbered access to information and every Burmese citizen is empowered to take action to make their village his or her own vision of heaven on earth.
I am so grateful for that small grant from Partners Asia nearly two years ago. It was that added support which encouraged me to take a bold step. I want to open doors for other emerging leaders so when Partners Asia asked me to join their board of directors, I didn’t hesitate.