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Myanmar’s SEA Games Success a Positive Omen

by Joshua Kurlantzick
December 16, 2013

People take photos as fireworks are released during the opening ceremony of the 27th SEA Games in Naypyitaw December 11, 2013. Myanmar is hosting the games for the first time in over 40 years. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters) People take photos as fireworks are released during the opening ceremony of the 27th SEA Games in Naypyitaw December 11, 2013. Myanmar is hosting the games for the first time in over 40 years. (Soe Zeya Tun/Courtesy Reuters)

Since December 11, the Southeast Asian Games, a kind of Olympics for Southeast Asia, have been taking place in Myanmar. They go on until December 22, and there have been the kinds of minor hiccups one expects at any international sporting event—the Philippines is protesting a decision to strip one Filipina swimmer of her gold medal—but these are hardly different than the challenges that emerge regularly at the Olympics. Remember Roy Jones Jr. sitting on his chair in the boxing ring in Seoul in 1988, stunned at a clearly partisan judging decision  in the gold medal match that went against him? Other participants in the SEA Games have claimed that Myanmar, which as the host country has considerable sway over what events are included, decided to include an enormous number of obscure sports in order to boost its medal tallies and those of its closest allies, while excluding normal Olympic sports like gymnastics.

Still, in many respects the Southeast Asian Games, which are really Myanmar’s reentry to the regional/international stage, appear to be a success for the home country. (So far—one never knows when something disastrous could happen in Myanmar.) The infrastructure built and refitted for the Games has held up well, a sharp contrast from events in other countries in the region, like the recent Commonwealth Games in India during which the facilities appeared to be falling apart and the athletes’ areas were so dirty they caused a minor scandal in India. Many athletes, officials, and other foreign visitors have praised the ease of travel in Yangon, hardly a given, and also have praised the availability of assistance in English and other regional languages at the Games.

Overall, Myanmar has demonstrated that, in terms of hard infrastructure, visitor assistance, scheduling, and other components of events, it probably has the ability to host the many large Asean meetings that are coming its way next year, during its Asean chairmanship.  Whether Myanmar has the soft infrastructure to effectively run Asean meetings—enough quality diplomats and mediators, for example—remains an open question. But the SEA Games are a significant step forward in the country’s coming-out party.

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