RANGOON — Opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi cheered on athletes at the Southeast Asian Games (SEA Games) in Naypyidaw on Friday, awarding medals at an equestrian competition and watching her own stallion perform.
The leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD) party met with athletes from Burma’s aquatic and sepak takraw teams at Wunna Theikdi stadium, two days after the grand opening ceremony. Sepak takraw, or kick volleyball, is a popular sport in Southeast Asia that involves players using their feet, knees, chests and heads to hit a rattan ball over a net.
Suu Kyi also went to the second day of the equestrian competition, where she watched her own horse—named Myanma A-Hla, or “the beauty of Myanmar”—perform. The horse was reportedly given as a gift to the Nobel Peace Prize laureate from a riding club linked to a leading Burmese business group, YKKO, which is part of the Myanmar Equestrian Federation.
Suu Kyi watched the competition from the stands beside Khin Shwe, a member of Parliament and chairman of Zaykabar Construction, one of the country’s biggest construction companies.
In a random draw, Cambodian jockey Puthminea Sor won the honor of riding Suu Kyi’s stallion in the team dressage competition on Friday. Instead of selecting their own horses, all athletes at the Games drew lots to receive an assigned horse. The random assignments were a sore subject for some, with critics saying the practice would benefit Burmese jockeys.
“[Burma] arranged the horses for the Asean nations, so they will have an advantage in using their own horses,” Fuangvich Aniruth-Deva, secretary general of the Thailand Equestrian Federation, was quoted as saying in the Bangkok Post newspaper. “The other Asean nations will get to use the horses for three days, and the horses that the hosts have arranged are below the standard.”
He added, “We cannot do anything about this, as the hosts did not allow any nations to bring their own horses to Myanmar.”
The Thai King’s granddaughter, Princess Sirivannavari Nariratana, was among the equestrian competitors at this year’s Games.
An official from the Thai equestrian federation later told The Irrawaddy that he approved of Burma’s horse selection. “We were arguing because we could not bring our own horses, but now we like the horses from Myanmar and have found nothing to complain about,” he said.
In dressage, occasionally referred to as “horse ballet,” riders direct their horses to perform a series of predetermined movements from memory. At the team dressage competition Friday, Cambodia and Thailand did not place. The gold medal went to Indonesia, while Burma scored second and Singapore came in third.
According to the Myanmar Equestrian Federation, about 80 horses will participate in the weeklong equestrian competition, with a mix of horses from Burma and other countries. Thirty horses from Australia were reserved for the dressage competition as well as show jumping, which begins on Monday. Local horses were reserved for long-distance racing.
The chairman of the Myanmar Equestrian Federation, Pyone Maung Maung, said he was glad to welcome the NLD leader. “We were very honored that Suu Kyi came to the competition,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Students in Naypyidaw were reportedly encouraged to fill seats in the stadium for the opening of the equestrian competition on Thursday, as authorities feared that few people would show up to cheer on the athletes.