SEA Games: Myanmar 'open for business' with lavish ceremony

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar - Myanmar staged a lavish spectacle of lights and pyrotechnics at the opening ceremony for the Southeast Asian Games Wednesday, as the impoverished and formerly reclusive state displayed a dazzling face to the world.

Fireworks exploded above the 30,000-seat, purpose-built Wunna Theikdi stadium and a series of screens beamed a dramatic lights show during the Chinese-backed extravaganza in the country's capital Naypyidaw.

The 22-day SEA Games, featuring Olympic staples like athletics alongside traditional sports like chinlone, is seen as a coming-out party for Myanmar two years after the end of military rule.

Domestic pop stars and massed ranks of dancers entertained the crowd, which burst into chants of "Myanmar, Myanmar!" when President Thein Sein entered the stadium under a flurry of fireworks.

Athletes paraded around the venue, and the Games were set to be formally opened when a blazing arrow lights a symbolic flame in a large cauldron set high in the stadium.

China, which marked its own international re-emergence with the Beijing Olympics in 2008, has offered nearly $33 million in technical assistance including for the opening and closing ceremonies.

"China has helped a lot," presidential spokesman Ye Htut told AFP, listing the lighting, sound system and technical advice for Wednesday's ceremony, which features thousands of local performers.

"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," added Ye Htut.

China is keen to secure its economic and political interests in Myanmar, one of Southeast Asia's poorest countries which sits at a crossroads between the world's second biggest economy and regional rival India.

The United States has also courted Myanmar since it began political reforms in 2011. It also is eyeing the potential of a new market of 60 million people and a country flush with natural resources.

Myanmar is hosting the Games for the first time in more than four decades, marking another landmark in its gradual emergence from rule by a hardline military junta.

"For 44 years we have not had the SEA 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."

Despite huge demand for tickets by ordinary fans, hundreds of seats were left unfilled apparently as the staff of various government ministries did not turn up.

Competition has already started and finished in some events, including the Myanmar cane-ball game of chinlone which was played in front of enthusiastic crowds of local fans.

Myanmar won six categories in that event, propelling it to an early lead in the medals table with 18 golds.

But the bulk of the disciplines begin on Thursday and run until the closing ceremony on December 22.