NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (AP) – The Southeast Asian Games is being used by the government to showcase Myanmar’s transformation from international outcast to fledgling democracy, starting with the official opening in the remote, far-flung capital on Wednesday.
Desperate to make sure everything goes smoothly throughout the 22-day event, security has been tight, with police carrying automatic weapons lining multi-lane highways that connect sparkling venues.
Students also have been bused in to avoid the embarrassment of empty seats at new, cavernous stadiums, said Chit Win Maung, a sports commentator, as television cameras zoomed in on small numbers of fans cheering wildly at water polo, wrestling and traditional cane-ball events in the leadup to the welcoming ceremony.
The SEA Games, held every two years, is the largest sporting event in the region, attended by thousands of athletes from 11 nations.
It’s the first time in more than four decades that Myanmar – which only recently emerged from a half-century of brutal military rule and isolation – has been the host.
There’s little star power this time around, with all the premier badminton players at the Supereries Finals in Malaysia. The Philippines, which boasts one of the region’s top football squads, also decided against sending its under-23 team.
But for Myanmar, the games could not be more important.
President Thein Sein is eager to show how much has changed since his nominally civilian government was installed two years ago, even as the country grapples with ethnic insurgencies, sectarian violence and other problems.
The capital, inexplicably moved from Yangon to Naypyitaw by the country’s secretive former military rulers in late 2005, has the country’s glitziest, international airport. It is crisscrossed by barely used 12- and 16-lane highways, and row after row of towering hotels.
Four world-class stadiums and several arenas were built for the games.
Zaw Thet Htwe, a former political prisoner and the SEA Games Task Force adviser, said the government also sees this as an opportunity to help restore the country’s athletic prowess.
In the 1960s, it won many golds regionally in football, weightlifting, boxing and athletics, he said, noting poverty, lack of training and poor facilities hurt athletes.
The few who continued to compete internationally were not taken seriously.
They have a long way to go, but Sports Minister Tint Hsan insisted his country would grab at least 100 golds, a goal Zaw Thet Htwe says is “a little too ambitious.’’
But taking advantage of the host’s rights to select events, replacing tennis and gymnastics with traditional favorites like chinlone, a hacky-sack-type game that originated in the country, it’s off to a good start.
It has so far secured 18 golds, compared to runner-up Vietnam with nine and Thailand with five, though observers expect it to be overtaken in the days ahead.