NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar: Empty seats and security concerns top the list of worries as Myanmar gears up for the Southeast Asian Games, the biggest sports event ever held in the former pariah state.
Thousands of athletes, officials, fans and media will converge for the Games, which are slowly getting under way ahead of the opening ceremony on December 11.
Two years after the end of military rule and the lifting of Western sanctions, Myanmar is hoping to shine in the international spotlight during the 22-day event.
But officials are also keen to avoid the spectacle of empty venues in the new national capital, Naypyidaw, and any security threat from Myanmar’s various rebel groups.
Logistical hurdles also loom including an expected lack of hotel rooms to accommodate the expected 6,000 athletes and 3,000 media, plus officials and fans.
While not quite on the scale of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China’s bold statement of arrival, the Games mark an important moment for Myanmar’s image and prestige.
Myanmar, a founding member of the competition, has not played host since 1969, since when its deteriorating economy has forced it to take a back seat.
The country is now desperate to put on a good show for its neighbours at the tournament, which is held every two years and is one of the region’s sporting highlights.
As final preparations continued around Naypyidaw, the capital built under military rule, Vice President Nyan Tun called on athletes to “strive for a golden age of Myanmar sports”.
He said the onus was on “improving the reputation of the country and making history to be regarded as sporting heroes”, according to an official release.
Myanmar is one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries, with about a third of the population of in poverty, meaning expectations are set reasonably low.
But Myanmar will hope to improve on the last edition in Indonesia in 2011, which was plagued by corruption and delays and finished with a deadly stampede among fans at the men’s football final.
Chief among organisers’ concerns will be flare-ups in ethnic unrest after bomb blasts and clashes in parts of the country in recent weeks.
“Thousands of athletes and officials and also thousands of fans will come,” a senior police official told AFP. “Although we tried our best for security with enough numbers, I’m a little bit nervous.”
Organisers have tried to fill seats at the brand-new venues in Naypyidaw (“Royal City of the Sun”) by offering free tickets for all events apart from football.
However, with residents in short supply at the sprawling and far-flung capital, whose huge boulevards are often devoid of traffic, swathes of empty seats are likely.
And although officials insist preparations are complete, worries persist over how Myanmar will accommodate all the visitors.
“Hotel rooms cannot be enough because many foreigners and many visitors will come,” a government official, who did not want to be named, told AFP.
“Tens of thousands of people will join the events. Hopefully everything can be done smoothly. Cooperation between ministries is very weak,” he said.