02/21/2013 06:02 pm ET Updated Apr 23, 2013

Burma's New Generation

The sleepy Thai town of Mae Sot, only a few miles east of the border with Burma (also known as Myanmar), seemed an unlikely location for a mushroom-farming business venture. But the poised Burmese woman in front of me explained how her social entrepreneurship project provided revenue for Minmahaw School, where she was studying to take her GED exam. And she communicated this all in elegant, articulate English.

Only a few months ago, this 19-year-old woman (whom I will call Aye) left her family and home in Arakan State, where tensions persist following violent conflicts between the Arakanese and Rohingya ethnic groups. She traveled alone across Burma, crossed an international border, and arrived in Mae Sot to realize a life-long dream of attaining higher education. After earning her GED, Aye hopes to gain admission to a university abroad where she can pursue degrees in business and economics. Ultimately, she plans to return to Burma to develop vocational training programs in Arakan State.

I visited Minmahaw School to see what the best and brightest of Burma's youth look like -- the future leaders of a rapidly changing nation. The students hailed from all across Burma, from the metropolitan capital of Yangon to the rural farming communities of its ethnic areas. Despite a broad spectrum of social upbringings and linguistic backgrounds, the students shared one thing in common -- the ambition to strive for greater opportunities than life initially gave them.

With economic and political reforms moving at lightning speed in Burma today, Burmese youth are realigning their educational goals to match burgeoning opportunities at home. For decades, the most talented students aspired to leave their authoritarian nation, hoping to resettle abroad in wealthier countries. Now, there are growing incentives to stay in Burma, whether for financial gain or community service. The dilemma that the new generation faces was unthinkable just a few years ago -- with foreign investments expanding rapidly in Burma, will ambitious young people pursue careers in their own country, or look overseas for brighter futures?

The students' aspirations vary as widely as the country's own complex political and ethnic makeup. Emerging opportunities in tourism, foreign multinational corporations, or international aid organizations, for example, may attract youth from the wealthier urban hubs of Yangon or Mandalay.

But many students from ethnic areas such as Arakan, Kachin, and Karenni states maintain a heavy skepticism of their government -- and rightfully so. One Minmahaw student, whom I will call Khu, desires to return to Karenni state, an area of longstanding civil conflict between ethnic militias and the government military. His focus has been single-minded from the start -- he wishes to join a political youth organization working for human rights and greater civil liberties for his people. The years of being detained and bullied by government officials at road checkpoints linger painfully in Khu's memory.

Aye also remains distrustful of the Burmese government. In her opinion, the government has exploited the ethnic conflict in Arakan State to legitimize the use of military force to maintain national unity. Nevertheless, she feels strongly about returning to Burma to serve her community rather than resettling abroad.

The international media has focused heavily on Burma's "coming out" -- heralding the simultaneous relaxation of authoritarian restrictions and the growth of foreign investment. However, the freedoms bestowed upon the Burman ethnic majority contrast starkly with worsening conflicts in ethnic minority states. The Burmese military has begun to use indiscriminate force, including airstrikes, against rebel forces in the northern Kachin state. And for the hundreds of thousands of forcibly relocated refugees residing in camps along the Thai-Burmese border, resettlement to the United States will no longer be an option. Time will tell if other nations will follow suit and close their doors as well.

Just as Burma is at a political and economic crossroads, so too are its youth. On one hand, flourishing in-country opportunities will counter the effects of "brain drain" that have persisted for decades in Burma. However, relatively lucrative job opportunities in major cities may draw talented students like Aye and Khu away from their ethnic communities in need.

The road that these men and women choose will depend on their own convictions and motivations. Regardless of their backgrounds, one thing is certain -- that today's young leaders in Burma will be trailblazers in the new politico-economic climate, shaping the terrain of opportunities for generations to come.