With the theme of “Clean, Green and Friendship”, the 27th Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games), hosted in Myanmar in December, were billed as the country’s ‘coming out party’ as it continues its emergence from decades of self-imposed isolation and aims to attract international investment and visitors to a country that just four years ago was off-limits to all but the most adventurous of travelers. Myanmar last hosted the SEA Games in 1969 in former capital Yangon, when just six nations competed in an event that Vietnam was forced to handover due to the ongoing Vietnam War.
The host nation performed well at the event, topping the medal table comfortably, almost doubling the Gold medal count of second-placed Thailand.
Things have changed somewhat since then, with Myanmar finishing outside the top half of the medal table for the majority of events since last hosting it.
The host city was different too. The ruling government used the opportunity of hosting the Games to help promote the strange city of Nay Pyi Taw, located 200 miles north of Yangon.
Nay Pyi Taw, carved into the middle of the jungle, was established as a city in 2006, taking the title as the most recent incarnation of the country’s long list of capital cities and has generally been met with ire by those who have had the luxury of visiting. With large empty roads and buildings and vacant streetlife, many observers wondered, and continue to wonder, if the city has much of a function beyond a vanity project for the previous rulers (it must be said, the gardens are wonderfully kept). But the government is determined, and is adamant that it can turn the sparsely populated city into a thriving tourist destination.
While there is a long way to go, some progress is being made. Many of the animals from Yangon Zoo have been relocated in the new capital, while parks and museums have been established, as well as the magnificent
Uppatasanti Pagoda, which rivals the revered Shwedagon Pagoda for height.
The SEA Games were the most recent opportunity to help build the city’s reputation. Most notably, the government built an international-quality sports complex specifically for the Games, the likes of which have never been seen within the country before. The Thunna Weikdi Sports Complex houses, amongst other things, a boxing stadium, equestrian center, aquatic center as well as the event’s centerpiece, a 30,000-seat stadium which hosted the largest events of the Games, the Men’s Football final as well as the opening and closing ceremonies.
In most quarters, both the opening and closing ceremonies were lauded as successes with impressive and extravagant firework shows having been put on display, largely due to heavy involvement from China, who allegedly lent $33 million in financial support to the Games, as well as providing stage designers, technicians and a host of experts. Myanmar’s social media circles went crazy with patriotic pride at what the country had achieved, but criticism was not avoided altogether. U Min Thu, an MP for opposition party National League for Democracy, criticised the event for its “Beijing-cited ceremony”, referring to the extravagant opening for the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008.