Zaw Win looked up at the sky. In the blazing April afternoon heat, he glanced at his watch and whispered to his assistant: “Today is a good day to fly”.
An announcer then beckoned the 57-year-old to walk onto the field. U Zaw Win took his place, opened a bag and pulled out a single paper kite. The assistant produced all sorts of wooden kite reels. It’s showtime at the 13th Myanmar Kite Flying and Fighting Championships.
U Zaw Win – who resides in Kyi Myin Daing – is one of Yangon’s better-known kite fighters.
It’s a sport that many may be unfamiliar with. Participants send their kites into the air then attempt to bring down their competitor’s kites. How? The strings are coated with ground glass – making them razor-sharp.
Winners manage to cut their opponents kites to tatters while staying aloft.
The sport of kite fighting can be found in many regions of the world but it is particularly popular in Pakistan and other areas in the Indian subcontinent.
“I have loved kite flying since I was 10,” U Zaw Win told Weekend.
“But when I was 19, I suffered an injury while flying my kite,” he said – proving that the sport is not for the faint-hearted.
He gradually started up again some years later and is now established in the kite fighting scene.
“Most people say that kite flying is for those who don’t have proper jobs. You can easily teach kite flying but not kite fighting. It’s detailed work that can only be done with training and experience.”
U Zaw Win has competed since the first Kite Flying and Fighting Championships back in 1998 and has never missed a year.
He has won several prizes along the way including runner-up and first place prizes.
At the 2017 event, more than 150 kite aficionados from around the country are gathering at the Old Kyaikkasan Racecourse grounds until tomorrow.
Ko Kyaw Lin Aung, a farmer from Mandalay is one of the many kite fighters. This is his second appearance at the competition.
“I came here for the experience and to improve my techniques for cutting kites,” 32-year-old Kyaw Lin Aung said.
“I really enjoy this competition. It makes everyone united; even different religions come together here.”
Fellow fighter U Kyaw, who organises private competitions in Mandalay said there are nearly 1,000 people who partake in the sport just in his home city.
“I like to watch the competition,” he said. “For me, it is always exciting to watch how a fighter wins or loses a match.”
At the Yangon event, every fighter needs to compete three times against an opponent and if he or she cannot accumulate enough wins, they are dismissed from the competition.
There’s two types of fights: tag-team and group fighting. And the sport has over 20 rules and regulations to follow.
Some are more technical and some are more practical (such as dismissal for engaging in non-kite related fights).
The flyer must stay inside a hula hoop-encased safety zone. If the hoop falls to the ground, the team is disqualified from the match.
But Ko Ye Moe Zaw (also known as Mone Taing), an expert on kite fighting, said a skillful kite flyer never makes the hoop fall.
“It is a costly sport, but I’ve never missed a major competition,” Ko Ye Moe Zaw said.
But he too said his community does not take his passion seriously: “Everybody, including my family and neighbours say that we are wasting our time here. Even I feel self-conscious about it sometimes.”
Ko Ye Moe Zaw was formerly a government staffer who had worked at the Department of Medical Research for seven years. But when he heard that he had to move to Nay Pyi Taw, he decided to quit his job.
He then began a kite business, making sharp kite strings and wooden kite reels.
Every year, the Myanmar Traditional Sports Federation sends kite performers to compete in games across the region, but not kite fighters. This has lead to a sort of rivalry between the two kite groups.
“Kite fighting still needs support from the government,” said Ko Barbuu, a volunteer referee at the competition.
“Kite fighters need to invest nearly K100,000 for a fight, including the kite and accessories. However, the highest prize has been only K250,000,” he said.
Ko Ye Moe Zaw agreed. He said kite fighters should have the same prestige and recognition as kite performers.
“If we’re sent overseas, I’m sure we will win!” he said.
U Thein Tun, the Myanmar Traditional Sport Federation’s (MTSF) expert adviser on kites, told Weekend that kite performers will continue to be given preference.
“There are so few people who do kite performances these days. If MTSF cannot support them, kite performing will disappear. This is not the case with kite fighting,” said U Thein Tun, who has been working on kite-related matters since 1981.
But for now, the fighters have bigger things on their minds – depending on scheduling, the final round of the competition will be held either today or tomorrow.
It remains to be seen who will be king (or queen) of the skies.