The rain was pouring on the rooftop of the conference room in Myanmar. It made a rushing, pounding, deafening noise. Maybe that’s what it feels like when a government is preventing its people from exercising free expression, like a constant murmur of white noise that extinguishes each beginning of constructive dialogue.

But in this case, our workshop participants, especially those who were aspiring young political leaders of Myanmar, did not let the crashing rain intimidate them. Instead, their voices rose high above the noise of the rain, projecting across the room, using dialogue to build bridges as they brainstormed together how they might take concrete action to change their country.

The reality we witnessed through listening to these young people, and through engaging with them directly, showed that leaders are emerging in each different ethnic group. These young leaders are eager and willing to collaborate and build change together because they feel that they share similar concerns. We had among us representatives of several divergent political parties, including the military.

The discussion on ethnic groups kicked off with statistics showing that there are in fact seven majority ethnic groups in Myanmar, including the Burmese, but then many additional minorities. The different groups, spread across different states, are actually facing a similar challenge which is that the wealth of the country’s natural resources are not lifting them out of poverty, but instead are being channelled straight to the government, where budget allocation lacks transparency. This emerged as the central problem, shared by ethnic groups throughout the nation. However diverse the country’s demographics, the needs and objectives of the people are in fact the same.

Other topics that came up included the question of how to incentivise teachers to improve the quality of education, the need to decentralize local government structures in order to give a voice to the different regions, and the need for infrastructure investment – especially in health and IT. Two Young Global Leaders shared their experiences of their own countries in transition, Turkey and South Africa, to identify similarities and divergences compared to Myanmar’s situation. All participants spoke passionately about one shared vision: positive change.

By opening its doors to freedom in the 21st century, Myanmar has the advantage of being able to look back on the history of industrialization across the world, identify the mistakes made, and avoid repeating them. The window of opportunity is now ajar – but will it be thrust open?

Author: Melisande Middleton is the Founder and Director of the Center for International Media Ethics (CIME) and is a 2013 Young Global Leader

Image: Passengers are seen taking a ferry in Yangon REUTERS/Damir Sagolj