It has been promoted as a showcase for the new Myanmar, a regional sporting event in December that will celebrate the country’s embrace of democracy, and the end of a hermetic and oppressive era, but the Southeast Asian Games, which will be held in Myanmar’s capital, Naypyidaw, and other sites throughout the country, is causing acrimony long before a single athlete has competed.
Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the Philippines, which all intend to participate in the Games, have sent separate letters to Myanmar protesting the way the event is being organized, said General Yuthasak Sasiprapha, the president of the National Olympic Committee of Thailand.
“These Games are supposed to bring unity, but they are causing divisions instead,” Yuthasak told Thai reporters last week.
The main complaint is that Myanmar has stacked the competition with obscure sports that Myanmar’s athletes have a good chance of winning.
Charoen Wattanasin, the vice president of the Thai National Olympic Committee, said in an interview that the Games regulations allow for eight traditional sports, but that Myanmar had put 14 on the roster.
“Nine out of the 14 are martial arts,” he said, struggling to describe them. “They are — well, I can’t even remember their names.”
One is called chinlone, a traditional Burmese game that mixes dancelike acrobatic movements with what might be described as soccer juggling skills. There is no opposing team and competitors are scored in a manner similar to those in gymnastics.
Myanmar has dropped tennis and table tennis from the Games, even though both have been played in all Games since the competition began in 1959. Gymnastics is out, as is badminton, Thai and Philippine officials said.
Singapore is lamenting the loss of water polo, in which they do well, and the Philippine Olympic Committee has threatened to send a threadbare delegation if the roster is not changed.
Malaysia and Indonesia, which have strong badminton traditions, are urging that the sport be reinstated.
Thai daily newspaper the Nation reported that Myanmar had also dropped beach volleyball because “the sport’s outfits were not suitable for Burmese culture.”
Myanmar circulated the roster of events to representatives of participating countries last week and for now is defending its selection.
“Every host country has the authority to decide which competitions should be included and excluded,” Burmese Ministry of Sports Director U Htay Aung said in an interview.
U Htay Aung said he recalled previous Games in which Myanmar’s requests “were ignored.”
“There are always complaints at these Games,” he said. “Myanmar will make the final decision.”
Myanmar heard from the 11 countries competing in the Games at meetings in Naypyidaw earlier this week to discuss preparations.
“If they continue to push through this proposal, it’s worthless to hold the Games,” Charoen said.
Myanmar’s ability to organize the Games smoothly will be closely watched by officials in the region, because in some ways it will be a test run for a much more ambitious project. Next year, Myanmar is set to hold the chairmanship of ASEAN, a responsibility that involves playing host to countless regional meetings, and dealing with thousands of visiting diplomats and journalists.
It is a challenging task for a government that is only now breaking free from its inward-looking, military past and its history of antagonistic relations with the outside world.