Dialogue: Burmese Days

Photos: Guillaume Périmony

Going far, far away to skateboard, and maybe bring back footage, is no new activity, and almost a routine for those who have a bit of time, a bit of money and a lot of desire to go. And most times, those trips just replicate the everyday skater life, with maybe a slightly more exotic menu…
But some trips will take you way away from home. When Guillaume Périmony went with Bastien Duverdier, Phil Zwisjen and Sam Partaix to Burma, he was aware this was going to be bit different. And they were not disappointed! Fear not, tricks were landed, on some incredible spots too, but n order to get you ready for this one, we thought it’d be good to introduce you to a country and its skate scene, to give you a bit of context. Therefore, Guillaume questioned a British skater that knows the subject inside out…

Benjamin Deberdt


Guillaume: Can you introduce yourself, and explain to us why you know Myanmar that well? I’m really curious to know how much time you’ve spent there.
My name is Ali Drummond, I’m a skateboarder, and I own and run The Harmony Skateboards and am someone who has an interest in Burmese modern political history and culture. I decided to study South East Asia Studies and Burmese Language at University in London as the course included one year spent studying the language in Burma. None of the other University courses I looked at really grabbed me, except that one. I thought it would be a great opportunity to do something that not many people get to do. I had also been fascinated by Burma ever since I happened to catch a documentary on the TV one day when I was 16 about the student killings there in 1988. I was curious at to why such awful things were going on in a country I, and most people around me, knew absolutely nothing about. In total, I’ve only actually spent the total of a solid year in Burma for various visa reasons but I’ve been learning about the place for the best part of a decade now, I guess.

Can you tell us about your past and actual projects about Burma, like Altered Focus: Burma and Youth of Yangon? Did you get in trouble after the fist one came out to get back to Burma again?
Altered Focus: Burma was a short documentary made by James Holman, Alex Pasquni and myself on our joint first trip to Burma in 2009. I decided that before I go to Burma for a year of study I should at least go and check the place out first to see if I could handle it. I managed to convince James and Pas to come with me and to bring their cameras to try and film something regardless of our scepticism that it wouldn’t be a fruitful trip. In the end the Burma trip went very smoothly. We basically just freestyled it: filmed what we saw, where we went and the people we met. The rest just kind of fell into place. We really weren’t expecting to find any skatepark in Yangon, let alone a fully fledgling skate scene. We ended up delaying the release of Altered Focus: Burma by a few years until after I had been on my year abroad there, as I was worried that I wouldn’t be allowed back in the country if the Burmese government saw the documentary as we are very critical of them in the film. In the end, it turned out to be fine and we had no problems at all.
Youth of Yangon is the documentary that James and I have wanted to make ever since first meeting and hanging out with the Burmese skateboarders, back in 2009. We couldn’t do it back in 2009, as we simply didn’t have the time or knowledge to be able to undertake such a task. We shot Youth of Yangon at the end of 2012 over the course of a couple of months. The real catalyst for getting our act together to make YOY was the destruction of the then only skatepark in Yangon, which happened in the August 2011, just after I had left to go back to finish my studies in London from my academic year living in Yangon. Overnight, the Burmese skateboard community found themselves with literally no place to go. At the time, pretty much every road in the city was unskatable as they were too rough and too full of holes. The DIY option for those guys just simply wasn’t there. I remember seeing posts on their Facebook page that “skateboarding is dying in Myanmar”. It was tragic. Youth of Yangon is basically interviews with the Burmese skateboarders about how their lives have changed since their skatepark was destroyed and how they organize and support themselves as a group of people without any outside help or support from anyone else.

Tell us about the Yangon skate scene. Why is it so unique?
There are skateboarders all over the world who are striving to have fun out there skating in the face of adversity and the Burmese guys are no exception. I think Henry Kingsford best summed up the unique aspect of the Burmese skate scene when he said, “there seemed to be this kind of ‘pure’ subculture in Yangon, as the skateboarders there have been isolated from the skateboard media, including skateboard magazines and online video content. They do approach skateboarding in their own unique way.” Skateboard magazines and actual hard copies of skateboard videos haven’t ever been available in Burma and still aren’t. It was only fairly recently, with the introduction of the internet, that the Burmese guys could download videos and video clips at painfully slow dial up speeds, while contending with frequent power outages and, until fairly recently, extortionate $1500 – 2000 internet home installation fees. Blueprint’s Lost and Found was a favourite of theirs the first time we met them, and more recently Kill City Skateboards' Hobo Tour clip was doing the rounds.

It looks like they just discovered recently the meaning of streets spot seeking. Is it something you introduced them about? What about the Naypyidaw and Yangon skateparks? Is there a skate scene developing in Mandalay now? It seems there was no skaters there, which could explain why skate session there get crowded so easily.
Well, I think those guys might have only actually started to skate “spots” in the streets in recent years. The only thing I introduced to the Burmese skate scene was a load of east coast videos like the Green Diamond video, Moving in Traffic and a couple of Japanese videos such as Night Prowler that I bought over and distributed around. While the Burmese skateboarders might have only been skating street spots in the last few years, they have been skating through the streets together as a group for over a decade. During the dry season they usually meet up in mid-town by the side of this four lane road, which is in front of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s got a couple of curbs and that to skate. They, then, as a group, skate down the major roads of the city a good few miles, at least, to downtown, where the other - smaller - Sule Pagoda is located. It usually takes a couple of hours as it’s pretty chill and everyone ends up having tea or coffee by the side of the road or sits by the dock on the side of the river to watch the sunrise at the end of the skate, before going home. These were also the only roads in the city that were actually “smooth”, the result of a combination of 40° C direct sunlight and years of constant traffic.
As for skateparks in the country, the Thuwanna skatepark that had been the centre for the Burmese skateboarding community, since it was built in the mid 90’s was mainly destroyed in 2011. Various stories about what the space was going to be turned into spread around town: a car park for the adjoining restaurant was one, a car showroom or a karaoke facility were others. Development has not taken place on the demolished site yet, making one ask: why bulldoze the concrete ramps in the first place?
After the demolition of Thuwanna, a small City Centre mall opened up in the heart of downtown Yangon and the owner bought some portable ramps for the skateboarders to use on the smooth and narrow space between the side of the mall and a school. If he had the interests of the skateboarders at heart when he decided to supply them with ramps, it quickly went away. It was a classic Burmese case of installing something then not wanting to have anything to do with it. The metal ramps with a wooden ply surface soon deteriorated leaving the uneven metal surface featuring all the screw tops sticking out. The ramps became pretty unskatable and the floor really started to deteriorate. Full of street kids and street dwellers, the locals’ apathy towards the space was very much apparent. Aunties allowing their babies and children to use the space as a toilet was not an uncommon sight.
The funny thing is that there are now other skateparks in Myanmar but the irony is they’re not located where the skateboarding community actually lives. The skatepark in Naypyidaw for example, which features in your edit, was built a couple of years ago in what is called the National Landmark Gardens. Essentially the NLG is a miniature version of the entire country laid out as a tourist theme park. Miniature versions of famous landmarks from Myanmar are featured through-out with the roads of the park that connect everything representing the major highways of the country. The skatepark was built in the equivalent of Kachin State, the northern most state in Myanmar. Rumours are that the engineers were originally keen to build a ski slope to replicate the mountains found in the north of the country, only they realized it would have been a logistical nightmare, so they settled for a skatepark instead. Whichever way you look at it, it’s bizarre. But I think that’s what adds to how amazing it is. It reinforces the dream that other such skateparks have been built in strange capitals of nations that we know nothing of, waiting to be discovered.
Rumours are that there is a lone skateboarder in Mandalay. I’m not sure how true this is, but I like the notion. There must be a couple of skateboarders in Mandalay now, at least, as I literally heard today from the Burmese guys that two skateparks have just opened up there. Over the past year or so, new concrete and wooden “roller parks” have cropped up in towns such as Mawlaymyine in the south and Pyinmina and Meiktila in the centre of the country. While these were built by local business men to make money from hiring out roller skates to local children and charging rent fees to use the parks, they do actually feature some stuff that can be skated and demonstrates that it’s surely only a matter of time before something substantial is built in Yangon.

Can you tell us about the military Junta and the actual politics of the country? During our trip, dictatorship was pretty much invisible, the country looked just “normal”. So we could think that there is no more since the legislative elections of April 2012 and supposed changes. Obama even came to Yangon the day we left. How is it in reality? What about forced labour, politic prisoners and press censorship?
The Burmese military took over power in 1962 in a coup d’état after failings of the then civilian government to keep the peace between Burma’s diverse ethnic communities and their own and also to develop the country after independence from the British in 1948. The military has changed clothes at various times in Burma’s modern political history, from 1972 to 1988 they were officially a “civilian government”. After the student protests in 1988 and the massacre of over 3000 peaceful protestors in Yangon –who simply wanted change from the abject poverty they had been living in for decades– the then civilian clothed military returned to their uniforms which ushered in a “state of emergency” era that lasted up until a couple of years ago. The same generals that ruled the country over the last decades are still there, still ruling the country, only now they’ve put back on their civilian uniforms, released political prisoners and allowed Aung San Suu Kyi to play the politics game, and they are reaping both the financial investment of the western market and are bathing in its legitimization of them.
Undoubtedly there have been changes in recent years, including as you mentioned, freedom from press censorship. It’s still important to remember just who these military men are though, what they are responsible for and that this “change of heart” –all in self interest I might add– should not be underestimated. Just late last year, the police used white phosphorous to disperse peaceful protestors –burning Monks and local people– over the proposed copper mine in Latpataung, a joint venture between the Burmese military and the Chinese Winbao company which would see locals lose their homes, land and livelihoods.
Naturally, things will seem “normal” on the outside and in the public streets of major cities like Yangon and Mandalay. Where you see the real face of the military is when you travel outside this normalised frame work, to HIV Positive clinics where you encounter women, men and children dying in abject poverty because the government has spent most of it’s GDP on arming itself instead of supplying simple drugs for its people. Or taking a trip to any school or University in the country and seeing children and teenagers respectively being taught to “memorize” rather than to be analytical and to witness the poor standards of teaching due to the underpaid profession of being in education in Myanmar as the government spends almost nothing towards developing it. It’s when you realize Myanmar is one of the most resource rich nations in South East Asia and that the military government has been selling off this natural oil and gas –might I add that Total were one of the biggest investors in the military years before “reform” while supposed EU sanctions were in place– as well as gems, teak wood to neighbouring countries and has been keeping the profits for themselves for decades. The evidence of where the half-century of military dictatorship lies is in for the most part, what you don’t see, what isn’t there.

Phil Zwisjen, varial heel fakie

Do you feel real changes?
As a skateboarder, the “changes” are more apparent and striking. The Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC) has taken on a Singaporean style of efficiency in developing Yangon in recent years, which has meant the repaving of roads and pavements. There’s a lot of new concrete in the city and you can now actually skate around downtown for the most part. New spots have been cropping up and stuff that wasn’t satiable before –as the road/pavement was too bad or non existent– is now ready and waiting. It’s an exciting time to be a skateboarder in Yangon, for sure.
I think that personally the political changes aren’t as great as the media, influx of tourism and western investment/dropping of sanctions would suggest. Essentially, the same people in charge as I mentioned earlier; the opposition have a foot in the door but their power and influence is minimal. Big western companies that have come in are doing deals with ex military cronies and the press freedom has brought out this really racist/nationalist quality of Burmese people towards Indians/Roding’s (Calash/Bengalis as they called them) which has been dormant for the last half a century. It’s important to note that there has been many a clash between these people and Buddhist Burmese in post WW2 and post independence Burma. These clashes are nothing new. The Burmese skaters also aren’t fans of the impoverished and stateless Roding’s either. Driving through the township of  Tar-mway, a predominantly Muslim area of Yangon, some of the Burmese skaters would say “Fuckin’ Rohinga” in a joking way at anyone who looked to be Muslim. However, I knew that underneath they were being serious…

We find out during the time we spent with the local skaters that it was hard to discuss with them about politics. Is it something hard to speak about because of censorship? Or is it something they aren’t really aware of it?
During my year hanging out with those guys, we talked about politics quite a bit. They slated the then military government and, for example, when the new national flag was introduced overnight, I remember one of the skaters taking a sticker of the flag that was on his van’s windscreen and putting it on the wheel to express their thoughts towards it. Naturally, everyone in Myanmar knew how shit the government was. They weren’t trying to pretend that they loved it like they do in North Korea. But, at the same time, they weren’t going around openly criticizing the government either. And when Altered Focus came out the Burmese skateboarders weren’t too stoked to have footage of their faces and of the army in the same video.
For the most part, the Burmese skateboarders are just focused on skateboarding and developing it in their country for future generations. So that the people who control the future direction of skateboarding in Burma and who make the decisions are not some suited businessmen who know nothing of what skateboarding is, but the Burmese skateboarders for whom skateboarding is their own.

Live Skateboard MediaLive Skateboard Media

Wait to pass announcement...