Myanmar laid on a spare-no-expenses opening ceremony for the Southeast Asian Games yesterday, part of efforts by the government to convince the world it is open for business following a half-century of brutal military rule and isolation. The country also released more than three dozen political prisoners to coincide with the opening of the Games.
The four-hour extravaganza, complete with parades, fireworks, singers, dancers and a sound-and-light show was held to loud cheers and bursts of applause in a packed 30,000-Southeast Asian stadium.
It is one of nearly a dozen arenas built for the Games in the surreal, remote capital of Naypyidaw, which was carved from the jungle by former leaders of the junta just a few years ago.
Some people traveled for days in hopes of getting tickets to the opening ceremony — held a full 11 days after the Games got underway — but not everyone felt comfortable with the money and energy that has been invested, especially on the infrastructure.
The nation of 60 million remains one of the world’s poorest, with only a tiny portion of the budget going to education or health.
“I’m proud we can hold these Games, but it’s hard to understand such a grand event,” said Moe Zaw, a 33-year-old who lives hand-to-mouth in a dusty village a few kilometers from the stadium, as he prepared to drop a fishing line into a little creek.
Myanmar last hosted the Southeast Asian Games, the largest sporting event in the region, in 1969.
China, which capped its own international re-emergence with the Beijing Olympics in 2008, has offered nearly US$33 million in technical assistance, including for the opening and closing ceremonies, presidential spokesman Ye Htut said.
China provided lighting, the sound system and technical advice for the ceremony.
“The Chinese also trained 200 of our athletes on their soil and they have sent two dozen sports coaches to help us improve our level,” at the regional showpiece event, Ye Htut added.
“For 44 years we have not had the Southeast Asian Games,” said Onh Myint Oo, a former army officer who is now deputy director-general of the sports ministry. “Now we are open for business. It’s the right time to have the Games.”
Myanmar’s president yesterday pardoned more than three dozen political prisoners to coincide with the ceremony.
Major Zaw Htay, the director of the president’s office, said on his Facebook page that 41 people whose names were submitted by the official Political Prisoner Scrutiny Committee were among 44 prisoners released. The other three were child soldiers, he said.
Early reports had described all 44 as political prisoners.
The majority of the political prisoners freed were activists charged under a peaceful assembly law that sets a maximum one-year prison term to people who protest without official permission.
Bo Kyi, a member of the Political Prisoner Scrutiny Committee, said about 50 political prisoners remained detained, while about 200 other people were still facing charges.
More than 1,000 political prisoners had been previously freed under Burmese President Thein Sein’s reformist government, which came to power in 2011 after almost five decades of military rule.