May 6, 2011

Chiang Mai (Mizzima) – Ben Hammond is a long way from home. The tall, slightly fatigued-looking teacher is in northern Thailand on a mission, a world away from his native city of London.

Hammond, 33, has reason to look tired. Last month, he became the first person to ever dance–not run–the 26-mile London Marathon.

Why would anybody in their right mind dance the London Marathon?

It’s all in a good cause. Hammond is using dancing as a symbol of his freedom–he is dancing for Burma.

The dancing activist has started a campaign called ‘Free To Dance’, which is a world record attempt. ‘I’m trying to break the world record for the longest ever dance in the world’, he says.

A supporter wears the Free To Dance T-shirt at the London Marathon. Photo: LearnBurma

A supporter wears the Free To Dance T-shirt at the London Marathon. Photo: LearnBurma

Maybe Hammond is mad. He is certainly mad about Burma. But his passion for change came at some personal cost, a story of a dream and the loss of somebody dear to him, a death that helped shape his destiny and prompted him to dance for a cause.

Right now Hammond is in training. In order to break the world record for continuous dancing, Hammond will attempt to dance non-stop for 131 hours this October. Infusing his passion for dance and his passion for Burma, Hammond began his twirling, tangoing crusade last summer.

It’s a dancing campaign for Burma, and everyone is invited. By encouraging the general public to dance themselves and donate money for the Free To Dance campaign this year, teacher Hammond is aiming to launch a new charity, LearnBurma in 2012.

What’s his goal for LearnBurma?

‘That every young person in the UK, at some point in their schooling, they get to explore in-depth Burma, the UK’s relationship with it, and what’s happening there, and get to debate it and debate forms of democracy’, he told Mizzima.

Hammond wants young people to ‘be in a position where they can decide for themselves what should happen, decide for themselves if they want to do something more about it, decide for themselves if they want to go out into the streets and dance with some weird guy who’s doing some world record’.

He wants to help people do something about what they have been discussing but do it from a position of knowledge–hence LearnBurma.

Hammond is in Chiang Mai with his dedicated cameraman to reconnect with the people who have inspired him and to make plans for setting up LearnBurma.

Hammond spent a year teaching in the Mae La Oon refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border in 2004-2005. Among the young people he taught, there were two who stood out, two young women, Twe and Oo Nie Kie, who he offered teacher training. After finishing up teaching in the camp, he then returned to London to continue his teaching in London. Twe has since relocated to America.

But what triggered his activism was hearing of the tragic death of Oo Nie Kie while in was in England in October 2009. Receiving this news, Hammond felt it was time to do something more.

Hammond found that contrary to his initial guess of how Oo Nie Kie had died–due to military conflict around her village in Karen state–he found out she had drowned when out swimming with her friends.

‘When I got that e-mail, it made me think, what am I doing really?’ says Hammond, sitting in the Mizzima office wearing his ‘Free to Dance’ T-shirt. ‘I was a teacher and, yes, we did some stuff around the Saffron Revolution, but what am I doing to support the people I’d met? And how much am I actually making a difference? And how much am I actually using my freedom to actually do something, and pull my finger out? That was the trigger for it’.

Oo Nie Kie’s death woke him up.

Back in England, Hammond teaches Citizenship education, which in his words is, ‘essentially teaching young people, equipping them with the skills, to change the world! Be that their local world, the local community, campaigning about street safety, all the way up to campaigning on global issues’.

Hammond works as the citizenship co-ordinator at Deptford Green School in Lewisham, a nationally recognised leader in the Citizenship education field.

Teaching in a central London school, about 20 percent of the kids in Hammond’s class came from Southeast Asia. It was during the 2007 Saffron Revolution on the streets of Rangoon that his students came to him and asked to learn about Burma.

At the time, Trafalgar Square was filled with 10,000 people saying there should be freedom in Burma, and ‘we’re in solidarity with the monks’.

He says his students came to him and asked, ‘What’s happening? We want to know about this’.

‘So we ripped up the curriculum’, he says. ‘We taught them about Burma for four weeks… we set them the challenge to work out what the connections were, between the UK and Burma’.

Equipped with a basic knowledge of the situation in Burma, Hammond’s students were outraged when they learned what little financial aid the UK gave to Burmese NGOs and the Burmese refugees at that time. Per refugee it boiled down to peanuts.

‘So they started sending letters to the UK Department for International Development (DFID) to try to get that increased. They managed to get a meeting with the deputy director with responsibility for Burma, Rosemary Stevenson, at the time. They lobbied her, and about a month later, DFID decided to up their aid, which is a really good result’.

He says the increase in aid may not necessarily come about because of what his students did, but it did indicate that not just campaigning organizations could pull this off. Real people on the ground could do it.

Fuelled by the potential potency of activism, Hammond’s school kids took aim at Total Oil’s investment in Burma that was directly funding the military regime. And they went down to their local petrol station to do it.

Hammond’s class orchestrated the first ever, school-organised legal protest in the UK. They picketed and handed out leaflets outside the Total Oil station in their local borough, informing people of the consequences of filling up with Total petrol and publicizing the situation in Burma.

‘They managed to get the police on-side, to get the local authority on-side, to get the school on-side, their parents, everyone’, says Hammond.

Total Oil called up to try to dissuade them from doing it the week before, but they went ahead.

Three weeks after the demonstration, Total Oil called them back and invited them to their head office, to have a board meeting with their director.

It took Hammond eight hours and 50 minutes to dance the London marathon this year. He used various dance moves ranging from tradition English Morris dancing to hip-hop. Photo: LearnBurma

It took Hammond eight hours and 50 minutes to dance the London marathon this year. He used various dance moves ranging from tradition English Morris dancing to hip-hop. Photo: LearnBurma

This turned into a three-hour questioning session on the company’s investment policy in Burma. ‘It was the best learning’, says Hammond. ‘It was the proudest moment of my teaching career… and I wasn’t doing any teaching, it was the kids coming up with questions, it was absolutely brilliant. And that made me think, that this story is captivating, once they are engaged in it’.

Hammond saw a gap.

There are UK charities doing good humanitarian work for Burma, including offering scholarships for Burmese students and refugees.

But, as he points out, ‘There isn’t is an organisation that looks exclusively at trying to just raise awareness. Because very few people know about Burma in the UK’.

‘LearnBurma, the charity I’m setting up is going to try and do that, raise awareness amongst as many young people as we can’.

Grabbing young people’s attention today in a world of information and visual overload is tough.

So using Free to Dance to garner interest in LearnBurma is a strategic move. Hammond says that according to statistics, about a third of the UK population is interested in dance. With a multitude of reality dance shows proliferating across British television, Hammond has picked a hot medium, one that people are crazy about.

‘My lessons from being a bit of a campaigner and a bit of teacher are that you can’t stand in front of a class and say, ‘This is important. You should listen to this, because it’s important. Because I have decided it’s important.’ You have to think of interesting, engaging ways to do it’, he says.

‘And a bit like Comic Relief uses comedy to end up with people thinking and donating, to a cause which is poverty across the globe, we’re using dance, which 20 million people in the UK are interested in’.

So the aim is to get people thinking long term about Burma and to use dance to grab people’s attention. As any YouTube or social media user will know, amateur dance videos of even the worst of dancers can go viral, reaching on occasions an audience of millions.

Free To Dance is a novel way of inspiring activism in people.

‘It’s essentially lots of people using their freedom, symbolised by dance…to think about, symbolically think about, people who don’t have so much freedom, people in Burma’.

The Free To Dance campaign was launched this year with a ‘Freemob’ of around two hundred dancers parading central London.

‘It’s a great feeling to think that actually we can get people, and it doesn’t matter who they are…it’s also about setting free the banker, the builder, the brain surgeon, who would never in a month of Sundays think of doing it. So that’s our aim with Free to Dance is just to get it out to as many people as we can’.

Hammond has gone to around 50 schools in the UK so far to give talks about Burma. During the talks he inevitably acquiants the students and teachers with Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, one of the most iconic and enigmatic supporters of non-violent struggle in the world.

To coin Aung San Suu Kyi’s phrase, the dancing activist is using his freedom to promote freedom in Burma.

‘That message just keeps ringing true… in that one simple sentence, she is one of the biggest motivations I have’, he says.

What is his biggest obstacle so far?

‘I think a big step was actually getting used to that mindset of doing things in public’.

Hammond has danced in front of Buckingham Palace and other well-known places around the UK from Land’s End to John O’Groats. He says he’s been inspired by American Matt Harding’s ‘Where the hell is Matt?’ YouTube video, which shows him dancing in 42 different countries. It became a world-wide phenomenon in 2008 and has since gained over 35 million views on YouTube.

‘Actually it took quite a lot of guts because you don’t normally see people dancing in the street, particularly people that can’t really dance!’ he says of his efforts. “But I think it’s a wonderful way of doing it. I wear this big sign that says ‘For Freedom, For Burma’ and people really go for it. They don’t normally see it. Van drivers love it! They’re tooting their horns, bit of that!’

The tangoing doesn’t come easy. Hammond learns many different styles of dance to contribute to his medley of strange manoeuvres. But it’s not all about wild high-kicks and side-step shimmies. ‘That’s been amazing fun, learning what drives people, why they are passionate about it, and they kind of meet my passion, both for dance, which is just the perfect symbol of freedom isn’t it?’

LearnBurma will hopefully create an educational network for people who care about Burma. Hammond hopes that schools in the UK will be able to link up with schools on the Thai-Burmese border, universities and possibly even schools within Burma. He wants to bring the situation in Burma to the foreground of people’s minds, not allow it to be confined to the backwaters of current affairs.

‘Burma, if they’ve heard of it, it’s more by chance, than by design, so we’re trying to change that. And there’s lots of space within education to do it, but I just think it needs a bit of expertise that hopefully LearnBurma can bring to open up those spaces within education’.

But in the long term, he wants everybody to be guaranteed to learn about Burma. There is a network of teachers, Burmese migrants, human rights supporters and students themselves who can help.

Being a charity, LearnBurma needs to remain apolitical and non-partisan. ‘We want to let kids decide what they think, rather than us doing it’.

Encouraging UK citizens to learn about the power of using their freedom to advocate and effect positive change has in turn set them free, he claims.

‘By freedom for Burma, we’re talking about freedom in the sense of individual freedom…we’re finding it’s almost like setting people free in the UK, to use their freedom, to think about Burma’.

Hammond and his cameraman have spent the last week in Mae Sot on the Thai-Burmese border to revisit his old school and to tell them about his plans. He plans to earn another string to his dancing bow by learning some traditional Burmese or Karenni dances. He has also come to forge links for the future LearnBurma project.

When he gets home, the road to the world record is yet young. He will embark on the physical ordeal of preparing his body to dance for more than five consecutive days.

‘Guinness World Records say that you have five minutes off an hour for health and safety reasons which you can add up to twenty minutes every four hours’, he explains.

‘You have an equivalent of two hours sleep a night… I’m going to train myself to do that. And so I will hopefully be doing that for five and a half months, up to the record, have two hours sleep a night’.

This lack of sleep is running alongside Free To Dance’s ‘Funkathon’, a campaign in which is ‘essentially me trying to dance with 131,000 people in 131 days, in the run up to the record’.

Anyone, even in their right mind, would need a very strong support network to attempt such a feat. Hammond says his parents are very supportive. They met volunteering with Voluntary Service Overseas in the UK and Hammond describes them as having a ‘development orientation’. He attributes his activism to their encouragement.

‘When I was 12, I was helping to run a rainforest appeal. We watched a TV programme in primary school about the rainforest being destroyed…and so a group of us got together and we did a big campaign to raise 1,000 pounds to, what we thought was to buy some Bolivian rainforest! And I led this campaign, and we did sponsored runs, and I sold all my possessions, but that was the start. And I think my parents totally encouraged that, my mum, I remember her making badges with us’.

As Hammond says, from that early age it was embedded in him that you should use your freedom to support those causes that need support.

Ben Hammond symbolizes his freedom just by using his body to dance. He calls it a ‘perfect expression of freedom’–a freedom he uses to educate people about Burma.


The original article published in Mizzima here.

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