One of Myanmar’s most successful athletes is cleaning up the country – and he wants you to help him.

If you were a novice yachtsman, Phone Kyaw Moe Myint (Carl), would be the type of guy you would want driving you on. Behind the steely, confident gaze of Myanmar’s national sailing manager, a firm, impeccably adopted North American accent betrays the drive and passion of the man as he speaks.

The Vice President of the Myanmar Yachting Federation wears many hats; aside from managing and coaching all levels of Myanmar’s sailing programme, Carl Myint is a prominent businessman, a well-known local stakeholder in Yangon society, and an extreme sports competitor.. oh, and he also happens to be a multiple Southeast Asian gold-medal winning sailor… who won his first gold at the tender and record-breaking age of 16.

Most recently, however, Carl has assumed the role of Myanmar Country Coordinator for Trash Hero. You may have seen him on stage at the recent Yangon Ted Talk, vocally promoting the international volunteer organisation whose mission statement is “to create sustainable, community-based projects that remove existing waste, and reduce future waste by inspiring long-term behaviour change.” In a country unaccustomed to dealing with the very real issues of environmental pollution and post-consumer water, his talk has elevated the debate to the next level – in the week following the talk, stakeholders throughout the country have rushed to get on board with Carl’s message. 

We met him fresh from filming the latest installment of Lose2Win, Myanmar’s equivalent of The Biggest Loser. The coach had been putting the contestants through their paces on a paddle-board challenge at Yangon’s Sailing Club on Inya Lake. He is pumped after the day’s event: from the outset, it is clear that Carl is someone who is very serious about the things he gets involved with.

SPORT HERO

For a nation lacking the sporting infrastructure of its Asian cousins, Carl’s sailing success is remarkable and is, to this day, remembered by people across the country. Starting at the Yangon Sailing Club – and it’s four small Optimist boats – on the Western bank of Inya Lake, the young man was prised away from his beloved tennis to begin a new adventure on the water. “My brother had already been sailing for two years.” He confides. “My Dad said: ‘“try out the programme”’ – I was reluctant, I didn’t want to do it. I thought sailors were… well, they weren’t tennis players! But, I came to one clinic here and never left. I found my friends here and sailing soon became the way to go.” 

Carl’s effort and his family’s dedication to the sport quickly paid dividends. His first gold came in the Kuala Lumpur SEA Games of 2001, sailing alongside his brother in the International 420 class and snatching a memorable victory in the very last race of the event. This made Carl the youngest gold medalist at the time – he was just 16 years old. 

In total, the team left KL with three gold medals: the highest ever SEA Games haul in sailing. From then on, he largely switched his focus to coaching the youth of Myanmar – still working out of the old base: the Inya Lake Sailing Club.

In 2013, the SEA Games came to Myanmar. “We had to compete… we had to find a way.” Carl remembers. Once again teaming up with his brother – twelve full years since their first gold – he gave it, what he confides as probably his “one final push.” After months of Herculean preparations, the Myint brothers began getting back into competition mode for the double-handed dinghy finals. Remarkably, they stormed the event: 2013 was another golden year for Myanmar’s sailing team at the SEA Games, bringing home a total of two more golds, including one for windsurfing.

TRASH HERO

Carl’s commitment to Trash Hero flows directly from his sailing story, and from his love of Inya’s waters. “I’ve been on this lake my whole life,” he says, proudly, as we gaze across one of the finest views offered in all Yangon. “I love this lake – this is my home.” 

Yangon Sailing Club has always taken great pride in it’s role as custodian of Inya. However, as years pass, Carl has noticed ever increasing amounts of pollutants finding their way into his lake and, despite the best efforts of him and his young sailors, the flow of garbage has slowly become too great to contain.

This is an evermore familiar story within Myanmar. Rapidly rising consumption levels have begun to catch up with years of low investment in urban infrastructure and now threaten not just the aesthetic beauty of some of the nation’s areas of urban and touristic interest, but also the country’s environmental heritage.

“We needed another way.” Carl remembers. “My sailing mentor introduced me to the founder of Trash Hero, Roman Peter, and from there we kickstarted! Look, I have a lot of kids under my programme. Parents trust me with their children, therefore it’s my responsibility to – yes, train them to sail – but to make sure they are safe. I won’t allow kids to become sick from swimming in the lake – pollution is now knocking on my door, it threatens the sport and that threat is real!”

 As with an increasing number of areas across Southeast Asia, Trash Hero was the solution. After originally being formed to clear Thai beaches in 2013, Trash Hero chapters have quickly sprung-up across the world. Today, over 21,000 volunteers worldwide have participated in more than 1,000 cleanups in 8 different nations. Events – like Carl’s paddle-board and dinghy based litter pick-ups – are proving to be fun and fulfilling ways to meet new, like-minded people. “The organisation works simply because the idea works.” He points out. “It markets itself – nearby organisations come and help and everyone chips in. It’s not a for-profit event. We have strict guidelines: we cannot accept money, we can’t use company logos. It is run purely by dedicated, motivated volunteers.” 

 After countless emails to the group’s founder, the Yangon chapter held its first meet. “One hundred and thirty-five people showed up.” Carl remembers, gleefully. “I mean, with these numbers we could make major changes: on our first clean up we picked up over 400 kilos of trash. We’ve since held five events at this lake and we’ve picked up anywhere from 1,500 to 2,000 kilos of waste. It’s making an impact now.”

With a new-found army of such volunteers, Carl has valiantly seen to it that Trash Hero has taken root across the nation. “After eleven months of operations, we now function in four different cities – 5,000 heroes have picked up over 20,000 kilos of trash.” Following the enthusiasm drummed-up at Inya, there are now active chapters for Mandalay, Ngwe Saung beach and Pyin Oo Lwin. Events are monthly, but the national coordinator believes they will soon operate on a weekly basis. 

However, as Carl points out, this huge achievement is but a small drop in a large lake. The most recent reliable report on the subject – a 2012 World Bank investigation – showed that Yangon produces over 2,000 tonnes of waste per day, with Mandalay and Naypyidaw relatively far behind, but between them producing over 55 percent of all Myanmar’s waste. The real amount discarded in 2017 is, no doubt, significantly higher. 

Despite this, what Carl has found is an attractive, low-cost approach to tackling the issue, one which has a proven pedigree and is scalable across the country. With it’s slick branding and the magnetic social aspect that events offer, Trash Hero is largely about raising awareness – perhaps the most vital issue in a country experiencing significant social changes and becoming more receptive to new concepts with every passing day. 

Furthermore, when it comes to big challenges, Carl is not one to shy away. “We will work with anyone [to solve the root problems of waste]! In fact, after my Ted Talk, City Mart approached me. That’s a huge move. A big problem is plastic bags and plastic bottles, and City Mart might want to get away from plastic bags. They could start charging, but then people would be upset – and that would be fair – but with perseverance, why not?” Knowing that changes begin at home, Carl will soon start removing plastics from the bar at the Sailing Club and also at Vantage Tower (the office from where he operates) – but he would love to work with the Alpines and Coca-Cola’s of the world to start addressing the problem.

However, it is always difficult – and usually foolish – to blame one group for the failings of a whole system. Carl understands this, choosing not to blame individuals, politicians, or business for the increasing amount of detritus finding it’s way into Yangon’s streets and waterways. “The waste is coming from people – pedestrians, people at roadside cafes. But, in Myanmar, consumers are still sensitive to costs, and companies still need to make profits. We can’t point the finger or blame anyone, we have to work together and raise awareness and understanding – I consider Trash Hero to be more of a movement than an organisation: it’s all volunteers with their spare time who are making this happen. We need to try and make everyone feel this way about our environment.”

So where now for Carl? Trash Hero will continue to grow, that is certain. “I just got a call from Lashio, from an adventure club, asking to start a chapter. And that’s what we want: if someone wants to start a Trash Hero volunteer group, that’s good for me! I am Myanmar’s country coordinator and my main goal now is to find regional leaders who are motivated and committed to monthly or bi-monthly clean-ups in their community, their town, or wherever. Guidelines are strict, and I will never let anyone take over Trash Hero to use it as a CSR [a corporate social responsibility venture] – we don’t want to work with people who will use it to ‘greenwash’ a business.” 

And what about his sailing career? “I am still very much a part of it: from a coach, to a manager, and now I am the vice-president. I still train the kids, they’re still my minions, you know?” This year will see the squad return to the site of his 2001 glory, Malaysia. Just don’t expect to see him battling the waves this time.

Can Myanmar revisit the golden days? Carl is realistic: “Sailing’s changed. The nations like Thailand and Singapore now command huge budgets; they now have better boats, better coaches… Singapore makes the Olympics! The last time Myanmar reached the Olympics was at Rome in the 1960s! But we are working on it. One way or another we will work on it! I would give up my two SEA Games gold medals to be at the Olympics – to walk the march of nations, as a coach or a team leader, that would be the greatest honour of my sporting life… Be sure, we will continue to fight!” 

And, as he heads off (for a bit of competitive jet-surfing in China), fight on Carl undoubtedly will, to win both further medals and a cleaner future for Myanmar – all from the beautiful, serene, and spotlessly clean banks of Yangon’s Inya Lake.

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To join Carl for his Trash Hero events (or to become a new Trash Hero chapter leader!), visit the website: www.trashhero.org and the Facebook page, Trash Hero Myanmar

 

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