Myanmar's SEA Games host city baffles and delights
A man from Thailand watches a sepak takraw match at the South East Asian Games in Naypyidaw, Myanmar on December 12, 2013
As the smoke cleared from a final ten-minute barrage of fireworks at the ceremony late Wednesday in Myanmar's remote capital Naypyidaw, spectators offered praise for the event and hope for their nation, which is emerging from decades of asphyxiating military rule.
"Myanmar has been a secret, but now we are open and are becoming a democracy. Everybody is welcome... we are so, so happy," said a beaming Khin Su Su Lwin, 23, who made the long drive from Yangon with her brother and cousin for the ceremony.
But the hosting of the event in the country's functional capital culled the number of fans who normally travel to the regional showpiece competition -- and baffled many of those who did.
With few mid-range hotels, and a startling lack of taxis or public transport despite the 30-minute drives between venues -- not to mention a subdued nightlife -- Naypyidaw surprised the smattering of fans who made the journey to support their athletes.
"It's a ghost town," said football-mad Akbar Hashim, of Singapore's "Die-Hard Fans" group, sitting next to a fellow supporter -- the only other one on this tour.
"We had to take a $200 taxi from Yangon, and we'll have to pay the same back. Visas are a pain, hotels are very expensive, there's nothing to do at night... I have no idea why they held it here."
Reforms have swept Myanmar since 2011 with the release of hundreds of political prisoners -- including 44 on Wednesday, ahead of the SEA Games opening -- the promise of elections, and the opening up of the nation's straightjacketed economy.
But optimism has been tempered by repeated outbreaks of deadly religious violence and the failure to secure a binding ceasefire between the state and ethnic minority rebel groups.
The SEA Games, held for the first time in Myanmar since 1969, were billed as the country's launchpad onto the international stage and a chance for the former junta-ruled nation to banish its repressive, dour reputation.
"The Games are not just a sporting event for our country," presidential spokesman Ye Htut told AFP.
"It's our chance to present Myanmar to the international community. We want to show we can hold an event like this in the new Myanmar."
But to critics, Naypyidaw remains a monument to the worst excesses of Myanmar's vicious former junta, which in 2005 uprooted government buildings from Yangon to the new capital. Yet the city they created remains sparsely populated.
A 20-lane motorway -- eerily devoid of traffic -- arcs around the vast, gated parliament complex, while a handful of empty shopping malls and gem shops cater to a presumably wealthy, but strangely absent, elite.
The surrounding countryside remains poor, in a low income nation of more than 50 million people where, according to the World Bank, a quarter of all children are malnourished and three quarters of the population has no access to electricity.
Even the flag-waving at the Games, according to Ye Htut, is being funded with the assistance of China, which offered $33 million in financing and support -- including for the opening and closing ceremonies.
China, an ally of Myanmar's brutal junta when many governments had imposed sanctions, is desperate to secure its continued influence on the impoverished, but resource-rich and strategically pivotal country.
Indeed, the opening ceremony had echoes of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, with its epic staging, precise choreography, a wall of screens, booming soundtrack and seemingly unending firework displays.
Myanmar's authorities have kept the cost of the games close to their chest.
Both the president's spokesman and a senior official in the sports ministry told AFP they did not know how much the event cost to stage.
The future of the vast purpose-built sports complexes also remains unclear, although officials say they plan a new sports academy in the city to drive sporting excellence.
Basking in the initial success of the competition, many appear content -- at least for now -- to put aside any doubts.
"It's good they are investing in these stadiums for Myanmar, for our sports," said Naypyidaw local Than Than Aye.
"But of course we are also a poor country, so they must invest to change that too."