Post-Chevening Life and Experience in Burma

Pyone Kyaw Governance Adviser at UK Department for International Development

Following on the successful completion of my Chevening year at the University of Birmingham in 2012, I found myself working for the UK Department for International Development (DFID) in Burma. I was recruited to work on governance programmes and I felt extremely happy as my work and studies were quite relevant. I did my master’s degree in international development and took courses such as approaches to development, political economy, development politics, and aid management among others.

Over the last few years, I feel that I have had a front row seat in the astonishing changes that the country has undergone, especially during our 2015 general election. Part of my work was to support this, strengthening the Election Commission, educating voters, and making sure that voting was carried out freely and fairly on Election Day. I have been fortunate to be working in areas of governance during this transition period, as having good and effective governance is so crucial for our country to continue to move forward after the prolonged period of repressive regimes.

I am very grateful for my life and my job at DFID, but in the recent years, still a part of me reminisces about wanting to have my own business making clothes with my own design label. As a young girl, I was already in love with sewing and dressmaking, having learned the basics by sitting next to my grandmother as she worked on her Singer sewing machine. I worked in garment factories in the industrial suburb of Yangon before American sanctions were imposed on Burma around 1996. I was working in the trade I loved, but stuck on a production line repeating the same small task over and over again, in a hot and overcrowded working space earning barely enough to live on. Soon, however, I was beating my production targets, which meant I had free time during my shifts that I used to talk to the other women workers about the conditions and how they could organise to improve them—this promptly got me fired, no doubt!

It was at this point that I persuaded my uncle to buy me a sewing machine of my own and, even though a little young to be launching a start-up, set up shop in front of my parents’ house making and fixing clothes for neighbours and friends, and feeling the satisfaction of generating my own income for the first time in my life. At 15, I told my parents I didn’t need any more education, that I was going to be a fashion designer and tailor, and that I already had the skills I needed. My parents told my uncle, who gave me a serious telling off and before I knew it, I was enrolling at the University of Yangon. Some years later, I became a Chevening Scholar.

Having rediscovered my childhood passion, last month I decided to launch my own social business Virya Couture, with primary focus on ethical fashion and vocational training for women from disadvantaged backgrounds. I found wonderful young female designers and tailors to work with me. I have rented premises in downtown Yangon and I have started designing dresses just as I dreamt I would. Virya is a Sanskrit word meaning diligence and persistence. Women in Burma and around the world work extremely hard, and sometimes their hard work is barely acknowledged. Virya aims to promote the idea of ethical fashion in Burma and empower young women, the ones like me many years ago.

I still have my great career with DFID, but on the evenings and weekends I’m a designer and entrepreneur. We can all have dreams in our hearts. We may be in one life now, but that does not mean we cannot work on something we love and strongly believe in as well. I was a garment factory worker and a village teacher with no money once. I was a youth activist risking jail for my pro-democracy activities. But in the end, hard work always pays off and I am extremely grateful for Chevening as the sky becomes the limit when you feel empowered to live your dream. And Chevening empowered me!