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Archive for June 2015

Taunggyi cycling weekend: My races

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In action in Taunggyi. (Photo: Nyi Nyi Zaw)

The fourth round of the year-long MSP Cycle and Make a Difference Charity Series was held in Taunngyi, southern Shan State, Myanmar, on May 30 and 31.

This time I attended as a cyclist rather than as a journalist, although taking part in the road race required borrowing a bicycle from Bike World that was affixed with appropriate mountain-goat gearing: a vintage 1983 Pinarello with aluminum Vitus tubing. It was a fun, lightweight bike that would prove to be an asset on the uphills but a bit unstable when the speeds got too high on the descents.

Excluding the neutralized start (see below), the race was run on a 54 kilometer out-and-back course starting with a fast 5km descent followed by 10km of flat riding, a harrowing 7km climb with switchbacks, and a slightly downhill and flat 5km run to the turnaround.

The race started at 6:30am at Bogyoke Park in the center of town, but the prelude was a slow neutralized start for the steep, 10km descent off the Taunggyi Plateau to the real start line in the town of Aythaya, home to Myanmar’s first European-style winery.


Negotiating the neutralized descent from Taunggyi. (Photo: Nyi Nyi Zaw)

We stopped there for a quick photo-op, and then the starting gun was fired – at which point a group of elite riders from Nay Pyi Taw went to the front and flew down the first hill at a pace that had my crusty old Pinarello suffering from speed wobbles. I reached a top speed of 66.6kph, and later learned that the faster guys had exceeded 85kph. At any rate, the front guys slowed down when we passed through the toll gate at the bottom of the hill, allowing me and a few others to latch onto the back of the front group.

Once on the flatlands, the race was largely shaped by the lack of any tactical sense among the younger cyclists. The action (or lack thereof) started when one rider jumped off the front. In response, a single rider moved to the front of the peloton and set a tepid pace. No one would help him work, not even his teammates. Then another rider jumped off the front to join the solo break, and the single-rider chase effort was repeated. After a third guy escaped, the pace in our group dropped to about 30kph. The race for the top three places was effectively over.

Did I contribute to the pace? No, I did not. Among my excuses were: I was the sole Bike World rider in the race (and also the only foreigner), and so lacked teammates with/for whom to work; my training time is limited to five to six hours a week, compared with the 30-plus hours logged by the Nay Pyi Taw riders; and I was twice the age of most of the other cyclists – let the young’uns do the work.

Plus, I had to save some energy for the 7km climb. As soon as the road started sloping upward, I watched the fast climbers pedal off as I settled into my own pace, which was enough to leave a few of the sprinter-types in my wake. One young Nay Pyi Taw rider followed me most of the way up, only to “attack” and leave me behind about 1km from the top.

Just past the crest I caught another rider who had taken off at the start of the climb but had not been able to hold the pace of the fast climbers. He sat on my wheel during the entire 5km to the turnaround at Heho Airport, at which point he went to the front to take his turn. But our speed immediately dropped by about 3-4kph, so I went back to the front and set the pace all the way up the gentle slope to the top of the long descent.

We swooped through the hairpins and flew past trucks, cars and motorcycles, and we caught the rider who had followed me up the climb. He latched onto us for a while, but then, inexplicably, he tried to pass me on the inside of curve as we crossed a set of railroad tracks. It was a bad move as there was no space between me and the edge of the road – I felt his elbow hit my right hip, and then heard his bike hit the pavement at about 50kph. By now we were near the bottom of the hill, where an ambulance was parked alongside the road; as I sped past, I shouted for them to drive back up and check the rider who had just crashed.

Meanwhile, me and other rider continued toward the finish. Knowing that I was unlikely to catch anyone ahead of us, and determined more than anything to get in a good training ride, I went to the front and did all the work along the entire 10km flat section without asking the other rider to pull through. I tried to keep up a decent pace, at times threading the needle down the center line between slow-moving trucks in our lane and oncoming cars in the other lane.

I was pretty toasted by the time we passed back through the toll booth, at which point we faced the 5km climb back up to the finish line. I moved over and waved the other rider onward: He promptly pedaled past and finished about a minute ahead of me. Incredibly, the guy who had crashed on the descent caught me about halfway up the climb: Having flown off his bike and landed in the vegetation alongside the road, he had suffered only a few minor abrasions on his arms and legs.


Approaching the finish line in Aythaya with my very own police escort. (Photo: Nyi Nyi Zaw)

With fewer than five riders over the age of 40 in the race, we middle-agers were not given our own age category. Still, my efforts were enough to earn me fourth place in the Over-26 age category, which was a bit better than I had expected. The mountain bike race the next day did attract five 40-plus riders, myself included, so in this case we were given our own age group.

The mountain bike course was about 5km outside of Taunggyi toward Hopong. It was a nice 4km loop – which we did five times for a short, fast race – winding through a pine forest, starting with a fast, swoopy downhill and then a sharp right turn onto a short but very steep climb. Deceptively, the apparent top was not really the top: Although the grade lessened considerably, there was another 200 meters of slightly uphill grinding before hitting the next downhill. This section flummoxed quite a few riders who pushed too hard on the steep section and had little left to keep pedaling.


Near the start of the mountain bike race. (Photo: Thandar Khine)

The backside of the course featured a short, easy climb, another descent, another tough hill and then the fast descent to the start/finish. Rain the previous evening had made the red soil quite tacky, and the added grip meant that braking was required at only three or four points around the entire course.


Speeding across the red soil of Shan State. (Photo: Nyi Nyi Zaw)

I was one of the few riders who tackled both races over the weekend, and my legs were a bit heavy from the road race so I tried to get a good warm-up on the paved road near the course. Still, I lined up at the very back at the start so the young racers with something to prove could race without interference from my relatively slow-moving self.


Passing near the start/finish area. (Photo: Thandar Khine)

Still, I managed to pass five or six riders on the first descent, and despite my determination to take it relatively easy on the first lap, I dropped two more on the first climb. The first two laps were pretty painful, but by the third time up the most difficult hill I was feeling pretty good and started picking off riders who had started too fast. I passed five or six more before the finish, and during the entire race was caught by only one rider on the last lap. I kept him in my sights all the way to line, and when the dust settled I found that I had finished second in the Over-40 age group, bested by a very short, very fast 40-year-old from the Myanmar/Thailand border town of Tachileik.


Waiting for the awards ceremony with the other medalists. Over-40 winner Sai Tun Aung is standing just behind me in the orange jersey and blue Sky cap. (Photo: Aung Win Tun)


Shaking hands with race organizer Khin Maung Win. (Photo: Nyi Nyi Zaw)

Making a killing in Asia

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Don’t look now, but you’re surrounded by serial killers. They’re all around you, and there’s no escape.

Are they hiding in your closet? Prowling in the alleyway behind your apartment? Waiting in that suspicious-looking truck parked across the street? Hitting on you at the bar? Maybe, maybe not.

More likely, you’ll find them in your DVD player, lurking in TV series like Dexter and films like The Silence of the Lambs, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer and Zodiac. They’re also on your bookshelf, in works of fiction like Bret Eaton Ellis’s American Psycho and Thomas Harris’s Red Dragon, as well as in countless non-fiction “true crime” volumes detailing the exploits of real-life psychopaths.

And they’re on your iPod, in songs like “Midnight Rambler” by The Rolling Stones (about Boston Strangler Albert DeSalvo), “Nebraska” by Bruce Springsteen (Charles Starkweather), “Suffer Little Children” by The Smiths (Ian Brady and Myra Hindley), “Arc Arsenal” by At the Drive-in (possibly about Jeffrey Dahmer) and “Ted Admit It” by Jane’s Addiction (Ted Bundy).

Yep, we love our serial killers. They’ve been a source of public obsession since Jack the Ripper enthralled newspaper readers in London in 1888, and the fascination has since grown into an industry that encompasses all forms of media, including the morally questionable online trade in murder memorabilia.

America’s far-reaching, hyperactive media meat-grinder has seen to it that the whacky hi-jinks of serial killers from the United States – Ted Bundy, John Wayne Gacy, Jeff Dahmer and the like – are well known, well dissected and well studied around the world.

But every continent has its own serial slayers, and Asia is no exception. Following is a short survey of some of the region’s most infamous sociopaths.

Shen Changyin and Shen Changping (China)

One classic misconception about serial killers is that they are reclusive social misfits who live, and kill, alone. But China’s butcher brothers, Shen Changyin and Shen Changping, turned murder and cannibalism into a family affair, and even brought in some outsiders to help.

The brothers started their two-year killing spree in June 2003 by luring a prostitute named Yao Fang into their house and stealing her bank card. After running to an ATM to confirm that the PIN she provided was correct, they strangled and dismembered her.

The Shen brothers’ next would-be victim was a bit more street-savvy. Also a prostitute, Li Chunlung was spared the chopping block after she offered to lure more victims to chez Shen. True to her word, she brought four more victims to the house over the next several months, sometimes killing them herself. Kidneys were removed and eaten, and the bodies were burned with sulfuric acid and flushed down the toilet.

In April 2004 the happy trio moved to Taiyuan, Shanxi province, and procured another helper in the form of Zhao Meiying. When she lured her first victim to the Shen’s apartment, the brothers forced her to commit the murder by stabbing the woman to death, feeding her body through a meat grinder, and committing the pieces to the commode.

The grisly group continued their spree in Hefei, Anhui province; Baotou, Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region; and Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, picking up two more helpers, and dispatching a number of victims, along the way.

Zhao was the first to surrender to police, in mid-2004, and Li was picked up soon after. In August police raided an apartment in Shijiazhuang and found Changyin and Changping, along with their newest female accomplice, in the presence of a woman’s corpse – described by Xinhua news agency as “brutally dismembered” – as well as an array tools and stolen bank cards.

The brothers confessed to murdering and dismembering 11 women, and were – along with Li – sentenced to death for their trouble. Three other women aged 16 to 26 were jailed for three to 20 years for helping procure victims.

Yang Xinhai (China)

Yang Xinhai was apparently better at killing than at keeping cool. His three-year career as a serial killer was brought to an end when he “appeared suspicious” during a routine police inspection of entertainment venues in Cangzhou, Hebei province, in November 2003.

Police brought Yang to the station for further questioning and soon realized he was wanted for homicides in Hebei, Anhui, Henan and Shandong provinces.

It wasn’t long before the cops had wrung a startling confession from Yang, who claimed to have committed 65 murders, 23 rapes and five assaults causing GBH (grievous bodily harm) starting from 2000, when he was released from a labor camp, to the time of his arrest in 2003.

His method was to enter houses at night and use different tools – usually axes, hammers and shovels – to dispatch anyone and everyone found therein. South China Morning Post cited one case in October 2002 in which Yang used a shovel to kill a man and his six-year-old daughter, then raped a pregnant woman, who survived but sustained serious head trauma.

Such stories led the media to refer to Yang as the “Monster Killer”, a nickname that surely didn’t help his cause in court. Neither did the fact that police used DNA evidence to place Yang at several of the crime scenes.

His trial lasted one hour. Verdict: guilty. Sentence: death by gunshot, lovingly carried out by Chinese authorities on Valentine’s Day 2004.

No definitive motive was established for Yang’s crime spree, with some sources saying he was angry over being rejected by his girlfriend. But Yang just seemed to enjoy being a serial killer. In an interview on China’s Central Television after his trial, he said: “When I killed people I had a desire (to kill more). This inspired me to kill more. I don’t care whether they deserve to live or not. It is none of my concern. I have no desire to be part of society. Society is not my concern.”

Lam Kor-wan (Hong Kong)

The Jars Murderer. The Rainy Night Butcher. The Hong Kong Butcher. Such were the colorful names given to Lam Kor-wan, a taxi driver on the nightshift who in the early 1980s murdered four women.

Method: Pick up a lone female passenger in the taxi (usually on a rainy night). Strangle her with electrical wire. Dismember the body in the apartment he shared with his brother (who never suspected a thing, as he worked during the daytime when the process of butchery occurred). Use the taxi to dispose of the body in the New Territories or Hong Kong Island (all four were eventually found).

In 1992 a movie called Doctor Lamb was made about the murderer. But don’t mistake Lam for genius cannibal Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs. In this case the killer blew his own cover in the stupidest possible way: He stopped by a Kodak shop to drop off a roll of film with photographs of one of his dismembered victims.

The shop manager tipped off police, and the hapless Lam was nabbed on August 17, 1982, when he returned to pick up his gruesome photographs. Police found other incriminating evidence when they checked his apartment, including more photos, a video of Lim having sex with a corpse, and Tupperware containers holding a collection of extraneous sex organs (thus the Jars Murderer moniker).

In early 2004 Lam was found guilty of all four murders and sentenced to death by hanging, later commuted to a life behind bars at Shek Pik Prison.

Admad Suradji (Indonesia)

Are you a good little boy or girl who always listens to your parents? What if one of those parents is your dead father? And what if your dead father tells you in a dream to kill 70 women and drink their saliva, as a means to become a powerful mystic healer?

That’s what Indonesian cattle breeder Ahmad Suradji claims happened to him, and of course he was a good little boy and did what daddy said. But daddy must have been very disappointed in his son when the killing spree was brought to halt after 11 years, with a body count of only 42 victims – well short of the 70-corpse goal.

The killer was arrested, aged 59, in May 1997 after the body of a woman, last seen at Suradji’s house, was found buried in a sugarcane field near his home in North Sumatra province. The 41 other corpses of women aged 11 to 30 were later found nearby.

Suradji apparently preyed on women who, thinking he had special powers as
a sorcerer, visited him seeking spiritual healing, good fortune and help in making their husbands or boyfriends faithful.

In dispatching his victims, the sorcerer followed a ritual in which he buried the women in the ground up to their waists, strangled them with cable and buried them with their heads pointing toward his house. Then he did like he was told and drank their saliva. Because father knows best.

When Suradji was arrested, police also hauled in his three wives, all sisters, for assisting in the murders and helping to hide the bodies. One of them, Tumini, was tried as his accomplice.

Suradji maintained his innocence throughout the trial, which started in December 1997. By that time, a film about the case had already been released in Indonesia, leading Suradji’s lawyers to argue that the publicity was preventing their client from getting a fair hearing.

Despite this protest, in April 1998 the sorcerer was found guilty by a three-judge panel and sentenced to death, amid loud cheers in the courtroom from the victims’ relatives. On July 10, 2008, he was executed by firing squad. Tumini also earned a death sentence, which was later reduced to life in prison.

Tsutomu Miyazaki (Japan)

So many Japanese psychopaths, so little space on this page. Among them all, Tsutomu Miyazaki might just deserve the title of Emperor. Although his body count (four) was relatively low among serial killers, he more than made up for this through sheer perversity.

Suffering from deformed hands due to a premature birth, Miyazaki was ostracized as a child and found solace in being alone, and later in mutilating and murdering girls aged four to seven years.

The atrocities occurred in 1988 and 1989 in Tokyo, the victims apparently selected at random. He sexually molested the corpses, drank the blood of at least one victim, and ate the hand of another.

The first was four-year-old Mari Konno, whose body Miyazaki left to decompose outside before chopping off the hands and feet and storing them in his closet. He cremated the rest of the corpse in his furnace, put the ashes in a box – along with the girl’s teeth, photos of her clothes and cryptic postcard reading “Mari. Cremated. Bones. Investigate. Prove.” – and left the package on her parents’ doorstep.

Other families received similar treatment, including letters detailing the murder of their children. All four families reported being harassed by repeated silent phone calls.

Miyazaki’s spree was mercifully short. He was arrested on July 23, 1989, when he attempted to take nude photos of a schoolgirl in a park in suburban Tokyo.

Searching Miyazaki’s home, police found body parts as well as nearly 6000 videotapes, with footage of his victims interspersed among violent anime and slasher films. The video collection resulted in the press dubbing him “The Otaku Murderer” and fuelled a moral backlash against violent anime. (Otaku is a Japanese term for someone with a nerdish obsession with anime, manga or video games.)

During the trial, which began in March 1990, Miyazaki refused to take the blame for his actions. He told judges that he had committed the murders in his dreams, or that he had been ordered to kill by a “rat person” alter ego, cartoonish pictures of which he drew for the court.

He also refused to apologize to the victims’ families, deeming his murders an “act of benevolence” and telling the court he had done “a good job”.

Court-appointed psychiatrists subjected Miyazaki to a battery of tests, one finding that he suffered from a multiple personality disorder, while a second said he was schizophrenic. Yet another said Miyazaki thought his crimes would resurrect his grandfather, who had died three months before the first murder.

The Tokyo District Court didn’t buy the insanity defense and pronounced a sentence of death by hanging. The world was rid of Miyazaki on June 17, 2008.

Nikolai Dzhumangaliev (Kazakhstan)

Not much has been written about Nikolai Dzhumangaliev in the English language, but what there is makes Jeffrey Dahmer look like Mary Friggin’ Poppins compared with this fanged fruit loop.

A tip to the ladies: Avoid dates with anyone who has replaced his natural teeth with white metal chompers.

Despite this unsettling quirk in Dzhumangaliev’s appearance, his acquaintances in the city of Alma-Ata, Kazakhastan, considered him to be a polite, well-spoken and generally kempt chap. Lesson: Sometimes it pays to judge a book by its metal teeth.

Dzhumangaliev, aka Metal Fang, had already spent a year in jail for manslaughter in the late 1970s before he started working as a laborer in Alma-Ata. Somewhere along the line he picked up an interesting little off-hours hobby: ridding the world of prostitutes.

Fang usually pursued his favorite hobby in a riverside park, where he lured women into dark areas, raped them, and hacked them to pieces with a knife and axe. Then it was time for Dzhumangaliev to indulge in his second hobby: whipping up rare ethnic dishes, invariably meat-based, to share with his unsuspecting friends at happy little get-togethers in his house. Strange how these little parties always occurred shortly after Fang was spotted hanging out in the park.

Dzhumangaliev’s generosity to his friends was brought a halt in 1980 when two people he had invited over for one of his special meals discovered a woman’s severed head and intestines in the kitchen, ready for the stew pot. They quickly alerted police, having apparently lost their appetites.

The killer was charged with seven murders, although it has been speculated that he might have committed many more. The court decided he was not responsible for his actions for reasons of insanity and had him committed to a mental institution in Tashkent.

In 1989 Dzhumangaliev managed to escape from authorities while being transported to another institution. He was on the lam for two years, with nary a word spoken to the public about the loose nut on the loose.

In August 1991 he was recaptured in Fergana, Uzbekistan, after a woman told police that a man with metal teeth had propositioned her earlier in the day. He was immediately picked up and tossed back into an asylum. But one wonders what hobbies he might have pursued during his two years of freedom.

Javed Iqbal (Pakistan)

In December 1999 police in Lahore, Pakistan, received a shocking parcel from a man named Javed Iqbal Mughal, who confessed in an accompanying letter to having murdered 100 boys between the ages of six and 16.

He claimed to have strangled and dismembered them, and used vats of hydrochloric acid to dispose of the remains. The parcel also contained evidence in the form of photographs of victims, as well as a notebook filled with page after page of details of the murders. Police raced to a three-room house indicated in the letter, only to find that Iqbal had fled – but not before leaving behind more evidence: bloodstains on the walls, more photographs, and two vats of acid containing partially dissolved human remains. Investigators filled nine plastic bags with the clothes and shoes of apparent victims.

Authorities immediately launched what turned out to be Pakistan’s biggest manhunt up to that time, but too little avail. Iqbal eventually grew tired of waiting to be arrested and turned himself in on December 30, 1999.

Despite the evidence that he himself had provided, Iqbal kept changing his story in court, sometimes claiming the whole thing had been a hoax aimed at drawing attention to the plight of street children, at other times saying he had committed the murders to avenge injustices he had faced earlier in his life.

More than 100 witnesses testified against Iqbal and an accomplice named Sajid Ahmad, both of whom were found guilty.

On March 16, 2000, the judge read out the sentence of death by hanging, but added that he wished the two defendants could get the same treatment as their victims: strangled, dismembered, and dissolved in acid.

The sentence was never carried out. On October 8, 2001, Iqbal and Ahmad were found dead in separate cells in Kot Lakhpat prison. It appeared as though they had hanged themselves using bed sheets, but autopsies revealed that they had been beaten prior to death. Justice served, Pakistan-style.

Yoo Young-chul (South Korea)

Yoo Young-Cheol already had an impressive rap sheet before he turned to murder in 2003, having been to jail on several occasions for a total of 11 years on 14 counts, including theft, forgery and the rape of a 15-year-old girl.

His jail term for child abuse ended on September 11, 2003. His first order of business as a free man was to round up some stray dogs and club them to death, possibly to practice for his new career as a psycho. On September 24, he turned his attention to bigger prey, murdering two people (aged 72 and 67), the first with a knife, the second with a special homemade hammer.

The hammer became Yoo’s tool of choice for most of the rest of his killing spree, which lasted until July 2004 and ended the lives of 21 people (22, if you count Yoo’s forthcoming execution) in and around Seoul.

The killer’s victims were mostly prostitutes and wealthy old men, and following his arrest he explained his preferences in a televised interview: “Women shouldn’t be sluts, and the rich should know what they’ve done.”

Yoo started his spree with the rich, sometimes picking expensive-looking houses near churches to break into, and at one point deliberately choosing a house near a small police station because he thought residents would perceive the area as safe and leave their guard down.

In January, following a brief arrest for theft at a sauna during which police failed to connect him with the nine murders he had already committed, Yoo turned his attention to prostitutes, apparently in revenge for having had his advances spurned by an escort girl in December.

Rather than break into houses, Yoo changed his method: He phoned escort services to lure girls to his house, smashed their heads with his trusty hammer, dismembered the bodies and disposed of the parts on a wooded hillside behind a Buddhist temple. Before dismemberment, he shaved the skin off the victims’ fingertips to make identification more difficult.

Yoo murdered his last victim on July 13. Two days later he was arrested with help from a pimp who had started connecting the disappearance of his girls with calls from
Yoo’s phone.

Once arrested, Yoo confessed to 21 murders and also told police that he had eaten the livers of some of his victims because “it made my mind and body refreshed”. The court convicted him of 20 murders (the other was dismissed on a technicality).

He was sentenced to death on June 19, 2005. “My actions cannot be justified,” he told the court. “If we live in a society where people like me can live a good life, there will not be another Yoo Young-chul.  I am thankful for the prosecutors’ request for the death penalty. I will be repenting what I have done until I die.”


This article was published in the “Crime and Punishment” edition (June5-11) of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.

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SEA Games Preview Part 2: Myanmar Cycling Federation turns to academy for future

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Despite the meager medal count of Myanmar’s cyclists at the 2013 Southeast Asian Games, the hosting of the event in Nay Pyi Taw meant what could have been an unmitigated disaster for local cyclists became an opportunity for the next generation of athletes hoping to join the peloton. The Myanmar Times sent me to join the Myanmar Cycling Federation’s training camp in Nay Pyi Taw to learn how they plan to revive their fortunes.

Training on Mount Pleasant in Nay Pyi Taw.

Identifying talent

As a permanent resident at the Nay Pyi Taw Youth Training Camp, cyclist Soe Thant trains for 30-plus hours each week – mostly on the bike but also in the weight room two or three times a week for strength training. “It’s good to be at the training camp with a community of cyclists. It helps boost everyone to the next level,” he said.

Indeed, with the establishment of the camp in 2013 – using facilities built to house ASEAN athletes competing in the Myanmar SEA Games – Myanmar Cycling Federation (MCF) officials hope they will now have a foundation to build the sport from its bottom-dwelling status in the country.

The camp’s 415-acre compound includes a hospital, a library, two gyms, an Olympic-size swimming pool and 60 dormitories, each of which can house 80 athletes for a total capacity of 4000. In March there were nearly 800 residents at the camp, divided into two categories: 400 national-level elite athletes and 350 younger trainees in a development program. Since then, most of the elite athletes have departed for training camps in China, from which they will travel directly to Singapore for the SEA Games before returning to Myanmar.

U Kyaw Min Than, the deputy of the Sports and Physical Education Department under the Ministry of Sports, said that of Myanmar’s 44 sport federations, 26 are represented by athletes at the Nay Pyi Taw camp.

He said the youngest residents come to the camp from all over the country, starting from the grassroots level. Most get their first break by being selected to attend one of the country’s four state-run sports academies, located in Yangon, Mandalay, Taunggyi and Mawlamyine.

“Every May, students who have just finished 7th standard take part in sports competitions, and the academies pick the best kids based on their results,” U Kyaw Min Than said. “They’ll say, ‘You’re good for cycling, you’re good for boxing’ or whatever. The sports academy will look after their education until they finish school.”

From there, the standouts from each academy have the chance to be called up to train in Nay Pyi Taw. John Singh, the vice president of the MCF, said the federations tell coaches at each academy what they’re looking as far as potential athletes in their respective sports.

“For the MCF, we let them know what body types we are looking for in young athletes so we can develop them into good cyclists. The academies then send us a list of candidates so we can decide whether they can come and train here,” he said.

U Kyaw Min Than said most of the kids are in 8th to 10th standard when they first arrive in Nay Pyi Taw. “They have to go to school every morning. Their training happens after 2:30pm,” he said. Older elite athletes often enroll in distance learning courses from local universities, but they will soon have another option.

“In December we plan to open the Institute of Sports Physical Education in Nay Pyi Taw, where athletes at the camp can earn a bachelor’s degree in sports education,” he said. “But those who want to pursue degrees in other majors can still do distance learning through other universities. They are not restricted.”


Road coach Lu Jiang Zhong from China instructs elite cyclists at the top of Mount Pleasant.


Across all sports at the Nay Pyi Taw camp, there are more than 30 coaches paid for by the Ministry of Sport. “For foreign coaches, the federations study their CV and engage them for a three-month probation period with a three-month extension, and then extend the contract six months at a time,” U Kyaw Min Than said.

The MCF currently engages two international coaches: road coach Lu Jiang Zhong, and Amir Mahmud from Indonesia, who was hired at the beginning of the year to prepare the local riders for the BMX Asian Championships scheduled to be held in Nay Pyi Taw on October 31 and November 1.

Lu, who came to Myanmar in May 2014, was a cyclist in China for 10 years before earning a degree from a sports university in Kunming. Now 61, he’s been working as a coach for 30 years. “I’ve been in Myanmar for one year, and during that time I’ve learned quite a lot about Myanmar cycling,” he said. “I’ve found some very talented young riders here. In three or four years, the standard of Myanmar cycling will come up.”

He said the local riders “try very hard” in training, but they need expert guidance from competent locals who understand not only the physical aspects of the sport but also the psychological and cultural facets.

“The coach should understand the cyclist, not only in cycling terms but also his daily life. He should understand the character of the rider,” Lu said. “The coaches in Myanmar need to attend good coaching schools. A cyclist’s first coach is very important. If the first coach does not show him the right technique, his development will be hindered. The coach should match the caliber of the person he is training.”


A nurse draws blood for drug testing following a race in Mandalay in March.

Training and equipment

Road cycling coach Lu said that although the Nay Pyi Taw Youth Training Camp is a good facility contributing to the development of elite cyclists, there are still challenges to overcome.

“We have many problems like equipment and nutrition. There’s a problem with spare parts, like replacing worn-out tires, and some of the food served in the dining room is not appropriate for the sort of training they’re doing,” said Lu.

The entire budget for the camp comes through the Ministry of Sports, including the provision of equipment such as bicycles for the cycling team. During a training ride to top of Nay Pyi Taw’s Mount Pleasant, Lu also complained about the lack of heart rate monitors. “Most countries have heart rate monitors for their riders, but here in Myanmar we must take the pulse with our fingers and count using a stopwatch,” he said.

BMX coach Mahmud – who represented Indonesia in the SEA Games five times as a road cyclist, and who started coaching BMX in 2011 – was a bit more charitable in his assessment.

“The nutrition at the camp is fine. For me, if the training program is good, the riders will be good, and right now the training program in Nay Pyi Taw is okay. The main factor is the time required to develop good cyclists,” he said.

Along with the tighter training structure at the camp has also come increased scrutiny of athletes, including the institution of a drug-testing program. In February one cyclist tested positive for testosterone at a road race in Nay Pyi Taw and was promptly sent home.

“Locally, all the hospitals are trained for testosterone testing,” Singh said. “But at this point more advanced testing must be done by sending blood samples to Bangkok, which costs a lot of money.”

Despite its flaws, the Nay Pyi Taw camp has allowed many athletes, including Myanmar’s top cyclists, to focus on training in ways they never could before. On a typical day the elite riders wake at 5:30am for breakfast, and about an hour later they’re on their bikes, with morning workouts usually lasting three or four hours.

After a four-hour break for lunch and rest, in the late afternoon they head for the gym or get back on the bike for another ride. The only day off from training is Sunday.

This article was originally published in the June 2 edition of The Myanmar Times.

Written by latefornowhere

June 7, 2015 at 11:56 pm

SEA Games Preview Part 1: Myanmar’s cyclists begin their slow revolution

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Thuzar trains in Nay Pyi Taw – the only woman to represent Myanmar in the cycling events at the 2015 SEA Games in Singapore.

The cyclists residing at the Nay Pyi Taw Youth Training Camp hit the road at dawn. Even then, before the sun clears the horizon, the temperature is already climbing. Soon it will be high enough to induce perspiration with even the slightest of movements.

On this morning the athletes – nine men and one woman – ride along flat roads for 20 kilometers (12 miles) to the foot of Mount Pleasant north of the city, where the real workout begins: They blast up the relentlessly steep 9km climb, their legs churning and their lungs heaving as they leave trails of sweat on the pavement.


The road to the peak of Mount Pleasant.

One by one they struggle to the peak, where they coast to a stop so that staff from the Myanmar Cycling Federation (MCF) can record their pulse rates. Once everyone has finished the climb, road cycling coach Lu Jiang Zhong from China gathers the riders together to assess their performance, which he deems sub-par: He gives them grief for failing to achieve their maximum heart rates. As hard as they pedaled, it just wasn’t hard enough. The coach tells them to ride back down the long hill and climb it again, this time with greater effort.


Crossing the line at the top.


Road cycling coach Lu Jiang Zhong uses the manual method to count heartbeats.

When Myanmar announced its target of 50 gold medals for the 2015 Southeast Asian Games in Singapore, gymnastics, fencing, sailing and petanque were all called upon to contribute. There was no such expectation for cycling.

Following investment across the sporting landscape, at the 2013 SEA Games Myanmar climbed to long-forgotten heights in the games’ medal table. Overall, the nation finished second in the gold medal tally with 86 to Thailand’s 107, and came fourth in the overall medal count after Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam.

But in 13 cycling events with 39 medals on offer, Myanmar earned only a single bronze. Otherwise, the local riders were well off the pace, if they managed to finish at all.

With medals driving investment, the immediate task to revive Myanmar’s cycling fortunes falls to just three of the 10 pedalers. Among the three cyclists chosen to attend the Games in Singapore is Soe Thant, 21, from Pyinmana. He will wear one of the two Myanmar jerseys that will appear in the 165km men’s mass-start road race scheduled for June 14.

Born into a family of farmers, Soe Thant quit school in 9th standard, at the age of 15, to attend the government-run sports academy in Mandalay. “I would be a farmer too if I wasn’t an athlete,” he said. “But my parents are proud that I’m a cyclist. They’re proud that I can represent Myanmar in the SEA Games.”

Soe Thant started his athletic career as a runner, but after his arrival in Mandalay he was chosen by the MCF for development as a cyclist. His competed in his first bike races in Nay Pyi Taw in 2011, where he finished fourth in both the 1km and 4km individual time trial events.

In 2013 he rode in the downhill mountain bike race at the 27th SEA Games in Myanmar, where he finished a dismal 10th out of 11 competitors. The MCF blamed the poor result on mechanical problems with his bicycle. But once word came that there would be no downhill mountain biking in Singapore, Soe Thant switched to road racing.

Also on the scorching peak of Mount Pleasant, Thuzar, 24, is recovering from her second leg-breaking ascent of the climb. She is the only woman in the elite training group, and she’s been picked as Myanmar’s sole entry in the Singapore SEA Games 114km women’s mass-start road race on June 13.

A native of Monywa, Sagaing Region, where her parents are farmers, she joined the Yangon sports academy after matriculation to train for middle-distance running, but the MCF nabbed her for cycling based on her height and weight.

Like Soe Thant, her first races were 1km and 4km time trials in Nay Pyi Taw in 2011, where she finished first and second respectively. And like Soe Thant, she started as a downhill mountain biker but has now switched to road racing. She said the transition from runner to mountain biker to road racer has not been easy.

“Cycling is very strenuous mentally and physically. It’s much harder than running,” she said. “When I was just starting, my inexperience also had a psychological effect. I was afraid of punctures, crashes and riding in a group of cyclists. Those were the most worrisome things for me, but now I’m okay with it.”

She said her mother is not particularly happy about her athletic pursuits. “She thinks cycling is something only boys should do, and she’s afraid because it’s a dangerous sport. She worries I’ll crash my bicycle,” Thuzar said, adding that she has compromised with her family by joining a three-year distance learning program in economics while living at the training center.

Her mother’s consternation aside, Thuzar said she was happy in Nay Pyi Taw.

“We have all the facilities we need and people to guide us the right way,” she said. “Since switching from mountain biking, I’ve only had about 10 months of training as a road racer, so the time is very short to aim for gold at the Singapore SEA Games. But in another four years I think I can do it. I just have to be patient.”

In the meantime, she said she will try her best in Singapore. “Even though I’ll be competing without any teammates, I have confidence in my training,” Thuzar said. “I will fight to my last breath.”

This article was originally published in the June 2 edition of The Myanmar Times.

Three films that rock the narrative boat

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Captain Phillips (2013)

His work on a couple of Jason Bourne films aside, British director Paul Greengrass is noted for creating harrowingly realistic films based on true stories, including Bloody Sunday (2002) and United 93 (2006). These movies are characterized by a distinctive “documentary” style – complete with queasy camerawork and unscripted dialogue – that induces the feeling that we’re witnessing actual events unfold.

Greengrass takes this approach in Captain Phillips, which tells the tale of the 2009 hijacking by Somali pirates of the Maersk Alabama cargo freighter as it sailed through the Indian Ocean under the command of American seaman Richard Phillips.

The film offers no shortage of drama, which in typical Greengrass style is steadily ramped up as the minutes tick by until the tension is almost unbearable. But the story is no mere thriller; it also delves into questions about American hegemony and the effects of exclusion from an increasingly integrated global economy.

Like many films “based on a true story”, Captain Phillips was criticized for failing to adhere to “the facts”. Among the detractors were several Maersk Alabama crewmembers who contended that Phillips, contrary to his onscreen portrayal, was less hero and more irresponsible egomaniac when it came to dealing with piracy.

These concerns are of questionable relevance. As Chariots of Fire (1981) and The Killing Fields (1984) producer David Putnam once said, “What’s important is ‘the truth’ [the filmmakers] are trying to get to with the movie – the big truth, not the little truth. And sometimes in order to enhance the big truth, you may have to change things.”

Captain Phillips is, after all, a dramatic film and not a documentary. Exceptional directors like Greengrass understand that they are obligated to plunge into the authentic heart of the story, even if it does mean straying from reality.

Life of Pi (2012)

While Captain Phillips uses cinematic interpretation to portray real-world events, Ang Lee’s visually lush Life of Pi makes questions of fact versus fiction integral to the story itself. Protagonist Pi Patel, an Indian living in Canada, has a tale to tell that is so extraordinary it can make those who hear it “believe in God”. He is the sole human survivor of a mid-Pacific ship sinking, and he winds up on a lifeboat with a menagerie of animals that die off one by one until only he and a tiger named Rickard Parker are left alive.

Their journey of survival has a hallucinatory quality, including nights drifting though luminous waters and an encounter with a carnivorous island. During the ordeal Pi writes in his journal, “Everything is mixed up and fragmented. Can’t tell daydreams, night dreams from reality anymore.” At the same time he comments that “words are all I have left to hang on to”, hinting that narrating the fragmented dreams has become more important than reality itself.

After making landfall, Pi is questioned about the ship’s sinking by Japanese insurance investigators. They are unsatisfied with his account and demand “a simple story for our report … a story we can all believe” – in other words, journalism.

Pi obliges with “a story without things you’ve never seen before, without surprises” in which the lifeboat is occupied not by animals but by a cannibal cook who kills a sailor and then stabs Pi’s mother to death. In retaliation, Pi murders the cook. Neither tale explains what caused the ship to sink, and no one can prove which one is true. While the straightforward account with the cook seems more “real”, the one with the tiger makes for a better, deeper, more thought-provoking narrative.

And what about “God”? Simple reportage might be useful for showing what’s “out there” in the real world, but it is trumped by intricate literary storytelling in teaching about what dwells in the heart, which is home to faith in the unseen and to those peculiar dreams that infuse the world with a sense of enchantment.

Noah (2014)

If Life of Pi is concerned with storytelling, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is about interpretation. Background: Adam and Eve get the boot from the Garden of Eden, their son Cain kills brother Abel, and their third son, Seth, headlines a branch of the family tree that eventually leads to Noah, by which time most of mankind, in its depravity, has been blacklisted by The Creator, who decides to drown everyone except Noah and his family. They are tasked with building a boat on which they and a bunch of animals will survive the flood.

Skip ahead seven millennia, and along comes Aronofsky, who decides to make a film that delves into the question of how mere mortals might understand, or misunderstand, the miraculous. It begins when Noah dreams of an ocean filled with the corpses of men. He thinks The Creator has revealed plans to destroy the world, and a subsequent vision of animals swimming up to a huge ark provides Noah with an action plan.

Thus the ark-building begins. Everything goes swimmingly until Noah ventures into a nearby camp to find wives for his sons. There he witnesses the wickedness of the descendants of Cain and meets his own doppelganger, who reveals the sin dwelling deep within Noah. He reads this apparition as a message from The Creator that “mankind must end … Creation will be left alone, safe and beautiful”. This prompts him to plot the murder of human twins born on the ark, a step into madness he is reluctant to take.

“Tell me I don’t need to do this,” Noah beseeches the sky. The silent clouds merely reflect his own propensity for obedience back at him: The Creator’s lack of response means the children must die. Even so, he can’t bring himself to plunge the knife, and the twins live.

Have the ark-builders failed to carry out The Creator’s edict? At first Noah believes so, but Ila, the mother of the twins, thinks the choice about whether to save humanity was put into Noah’s hands “because [The Creator] put it there”. Noah’s “test”, according to her interpretation, was learning to how to balance justice with mercy. Thus saved, humanity has been gifted a second chance to redeem itself – or to fail The Creator all over again.

This article was originally published in the May 29-June 4 edition of The Myanmar Times Weekend magazine.

Blog.3 films

Written by latefornowhere

June 5, 2015 at 1:13 am

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