RANGOON — The historic return of the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) to Burma, 44 years after the country last hosted a regional games, was officially marked in Naypyidaw on Wednesday evening with captivating performances featuring hundreds of traditional, and some more modern, songs and dances.
The opening ceremony’s set design, lighting and sound system, as well as an attention-grabbing fireworks display—put together with a little help from Chinese technicians and cash—have become the talk of the town. But the grand event at the purpose-built Wunna Theikdi stadium has stimulated the both pride and wariness among spectators.
One spectator told The Irrawaddy that he was proud that his country could put on such an extraordinary ceremony.
“Our country’s image has been so poor among the international community. But this time, we can show off that we can do such brilliant work by showcasing our abilities through the SEA Games opening ceremony,” said Kyaw Min, who traveled from Rangoon to Naypyidaw for the ceremony.
Despite some inconvenience getting to their seats in the stadium amid heightened security, spectators found themselves involved in the performances and singing along to Burma’s national anthem together as the country’s flag was hoisted up.
“I even had goose bumps, and my eyes were filled with tears when everyone sung along with the national anthem,” said another Rangoon resident who made the trip, Myat Myat Htun.
“I never thought the ceremony would be that great. I wonder why some people are seeing negatives in the fascinating ceremony.”
She referred to criticism the high level of government spending on the showcase event given that only 10 percent of the national budget is spent on health and education, and over the influence of China on the landmark games.
Many Burmese resent what they see as the overbearing influence of China in the country, particularly as Burma’s giant neighbor helped to prop up the unpopular military government even as the West severed ties with the country’s ruling generals.
Chinese Ambassador Tang Houlan reportedly told local media at a press event in Rangoon on Dec. 3 that China gave more than US$33 million to support Burma’s SEA Games.
And according to an announcement posted on the official website of Chinese Embassy in Rangoon, 700 Chinese experts, including coaches, managers, stage designers and technicians were sent to Burma to help prepare for the games.
The announcement said that the support from China for technical cooperation was in response to a request from the Burmese government, which wanted help to create spectacular opening and closing ceremonies for the regional sports event.
Comments in the official Chinese announcement from an official sparked arguments among the local spectators on Facebook.
Wang Shengwen, Director General of Department of Aid to Foreign Countries of Chinese Ministry of Commerce was quoted saying, “Assisting Myanmar to organize the 27th SEA Games is a very important project for Chinese government. It shows the pauk phaw friendship between the two countries.”
Perhaps making things worse, President Thein Sein, during his speech opening the games, praised China’s support. “This is a sign of the strong relationship between China and Burma,” he said in the address broadcast nationwide.
Some people suggested in comments that China—which has significant business interests in Burma, including controversial mining and hydropower projects—would be getting something in return for its generosity.
“Why do the Chinese say the SEA Games ceremony is an important project for Burma? Is there some hidden agenda?” remarked Burmese Facebook user Moe. “China has never been sincere with our country and it is not something to be proud of.”
Some dismissed the criticism, favoring pride that Burma is now in the limelight. “Let’s just let our country shine in the region. We are proud, whatever,” said one comment.
Zarni Soe Htut, a local political columnist, said the opening ceremony was an example of the newer “soft power” approach China has taken to Burma since the government began a rapprochement with Western powers.
“The image of China in the heart of Burmese people is so bad that some people recently torched a Chinese flag in front of their embassy in Rangoon,” he said, referring to a protest over the highly controversial Chinese-backed Letpadaung copper mine in Sagaing Division.
“Instead of using hard power and economically colonizing, China has changed its strategy by giving us social support.”
Min Thu, an opposition National League for Democracy parliamentarian from Uttara Thiri constituency in Naypyidaw dubbed the event a “Bejing-ized ceremony” as it bore some resemblance to the 2008 Olympic opener held in the Chinese capital.
“The Chinese operated the opening ceremony like it was the Beijing Olympics,” he said.
“The closing ceremony will be the same with the support from China. The Chinese technicians have been here since two months ago. These points show Burma is still under the influences of China.”
Additional reporting by Sanay Linn and Htet Naing Zaw.