SEA Games: Myanmar welcomes its friends

Htan Zaw Zaw stood at the entrance of the Wunna Theikdi Stadium two hours before the opening ceremony of the 27th South-east Asia (SEA) Games on Wednesday evening.

The 56-year-old security officer surveyed the thousands of faces that had already flooded into the stadium's compound, and smiled to himself.

Zaw Zaw was only 12 when Myanmar - then known as Burma - last hosted the SEA Games in 1969.

But he fondly remembers it.

"There are many more people this time," he told The New Paper, in halting English.

"I am very happy to see so many of our friends from Thailand, Laos, Singapore, everywhere, come to my country."

Indeed, Myanmar has pulled out all the stops to dazzle the estimated 12,000 visitors to Naypyidaw for the Games.

Drive down one of the city's new "hotel zones" and you will see vast, sprawling, hotel compounds which have been built just for the biennial.

IMPRESSIVE

The compounds are so big that most require a short ride on a buggy to get from the lobby to one's room.

Perhaps nothing shows more how much the country wants to impress its neighbours, than last night's dazzling ceremony.

A breathtaking light show and fireworks display enthralled everyone in the 30,000-seater stadium, which was so packed that many had to sit on steps to take in the showcase.

The locals were out in full force, and nationalistic pride was evident when the crowd spontaneously erupted into chants of "Myanmar! Myanmar!" in between performances.

But some, like local newspaper Myanma Freedom, have questioned the impact the Games will have on the country's people.

While it noted that the government's considerable investment could benefit Naypyidaw's infrastructure and provide jobs for thousands, there is a question mark over how long these will linger.

The reality of Myanmar's economic situation can be seen daily.

On the one-hour journey from the Main Press Centre to the Zayar Thiri Sports Complex, visitors pass by several small rural villages.

Dozens of ramshackle, run-down huts suggest the people living there have not yet felt the benefit of the Games, and will likely see it pass them by.

Singaporean Faris Razak, who made journey to Naypyidaw with veteran tour operator Akbar Hashim to support the Under-23 football team, was taken aback.

He said: "We got a culture shock seeing poverty and spanking new buildings side by side."

OPPORTUNITIES

There is no denying, however, that the people of Myanmar have benefited from the employment opportunities.

There are always hotel staff on hand to help guests, and hundreds of drivers have descended upon Naypyidaw from Yangon to work for car and van rental companies.

Thousands of the country's youths have also been mobilised at event venues.

Singapore water polo player Toh Zhi Hong remarked: "There are so many of the volunteers that some of them seem to just be there to open doors for the athletes."

Zaw Zaw is certain hosting the SEA Games can only benefit his country.

"I have never seen fireworks like tonight," he said, smiling when TNP saw him again later in the evening.

"Having the SEA Games here makes our people very proud, and I hope people outside can see what Myanmar is capable of."

msazali@sph.com.sg


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