The Myanmar of the Future: Empowering a Nation to Take Charge of Its Destiny

11/20/2012 01:50 pm ET | Updated Jan 20, 2013

Upon learning of President Obama's trip to Myanmar -- the first visit to the country by any sitting U.S. president -- I immediately recalled my own long relationship with the country, also known as Burma. Almost 20 years ago, I made my first trip to Myanmar under extremely difficult circumstances, to visit a group of sex workers I had managed to extract from brothels along the Thai border. I wanted to see the women first-hand to ensure that they were being well-cared for, to listen to their stories and to learn what they needed to prevent them from returning to the sex trade. This was the start of a nearly quarter century sponsorship by my small non-profit, FXB USA, and its partners in FXB Switzerland and FXB France, in support of the people of Myanmar.

The nation I saw on that first visit was very different than the Myanmar we see today. In those days, human rights were non-existent, harsh military punishment existed in place of justice and sex trafficking was an all-too-common practice. Rampant poverty led to the harshest of living conditions for a large segment of the population, and HIV/AIDS was spreading without the public health measures necessary to keep the disease in check.

FXB first began its work in Myanmar in 1993 under what was then the State Law and Order Restoration Council, or SLORC, military government. Focusing on the victims of the country's then-thriving sex trade, we established social and professional capacity-building programs to help young women escape the industry, providing vocational training to teach them income-generating activities outside of prostitution and supplying healthcare to those suffering from HIV/AIDS. Over time, as the scope of FXB's work grew, we also started programs designed to help another of Myanmar's most vulnerable populations -- orphans and other children affected by poverty and HIV/AIDS.

Today, FXB provides healthcare, education and vocational services to more than 100,000 direct beneficiaries throughout the country, helping Burmese women and children from all walks of life to become fully self-sufficient. We have seen the ripple effect of our impact through such Programs as the Sunday Empowerment Group, where nearly 6,000 people living with HIV/AIDS meet weekly to access health care, participate in self-empowerment courses, attend education seminars and learn about healthy nutrition; in carrying the skills they learn back home with them, the nearly 6,000 participants of the group help to empower an additional 15,000 family members and 30,000 members of their communities. We see it, too, through the FXB Vocational Training program, where people learn to create specialized crafts that can be sold for profit; in addition to income-generating knowledge, the program provides support and solidarity for participants and their communities that are invaluable in helping them to regain their self-worth. The progress we have made in Myanmar - a progress supported by the stories of more than 500,000 indirect beneficiaries in total - illustrates the power of human principles against all odds.

And of these principles, perhaps nothing is more central to a self-sufficient future than the assertion of a people's control over its own destiny. To that end, I am excited to make changes within the structure of FXB - moving forward, an autonomous board within Myanmar, staffed by local residents who have been a part of our programming and believe in our work, will be created to make decisions on behalf of all FXB initiatives within the country. This management change, brought to fruition by the amazing work of the people of Myanmar, will empower them to tailor FXB services to their own specific cultural, political and economic realities, creating programs that more effectively address the needs of their communities. In handing control to a fully local staff and board, we are providing them with the tools to shape their own future and enact their own change.

Though many of the problems we encountered in 1993 persist to this day, the future of Myanmar is much brighter than when we began. With the help of FXB programs and others, the women who bravely made their way out of the brothels nearly two decades ago are now living well-balanced and dignified lives. And with the 2011 dissolution of the military government and subsequent establishment of civilian rule, Myanmar has embarked upon the journey of restoring to its people the essential human rights that all citizens of the world deserve. There is still much work to be done against poverty, sex trafficking and HIV/AIDS -- but organizations like FXB, as well as the leaders of the developed world, can now look to the government of Myanmar as a partner, rather than an obstacle, in moving forward.

The White House has characterized President Obama's visit to Myanmar as an economic meeting, but his trip represents much more than economics; it is encouragement for a more free and transparent society developing within the country. It is important for the president, and indeed for all world leaders, to remember that any economic deals made with Myanmar must translate into health, education and social benefits for its people. The recent societal gains made by the Burmese people are as fragile as they are momentous, and profit must not come at the expense of human rights. Any economic partnership should ripple throughout the population, facilitate the peace process and bring pride to the people. In the past 20 years, we have worked for just that -- and on the cusp of this historic visit, our leaders must take care to see that these next 20 years and beyond bring Myanmar ever closer to a future of peace and dignity for its people.