27th Southeast Asian Games
Preparations are well-underway in Burma for the 27th Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, set for December 11th-22nd. Burma formerly hosted the SEA Games twice, first in 1961 and again in 1969. The upcoming SEA Games marks the return of the country and its athletes to the international sports scene. One million visitors are expected during the games, and even more tourists after, as a result of exposure from media coverage.
The government has spent billions of Kyats to ensure success. New sports facilities and hotels have been built, and the opening ceremonies alone will cost seven billion Kyat in both government spending and sponsorships. Free tickets have been offered to Burmese citizens, and the country has set high goals for itself, setting a target of 100 gold medals.
But the event has drawn scrutiny due to the country’s tenuous economic and political situation. A local from Kyaukpadaung remarks, “I don’t think most of the people are interested in the SEA Games because majority of them are working people. Unless their livelihoods are in good state, they can’t take part in it. In my opinion, only some will take interest.” In addition, security remains a concern especially after the bomb blasts in Yangon. The country’s national power supply system is also unreliable, making it necessary to use generators for the opening and closing ceremonies. Meanwhile, the 100 medal target is regarded as unrealistic due to Burma’s long years of political isolation which has damaged sports in the country.
More importantly, the games have been mired by claims of land grabbing in the Irrawaddy division. Local residents in the the beach towns of Chaung Tha and Ngwe Saung claim that military officials forcibly took their land in 1997, while some assert they did not receive proper compensation. Ngwe Saung is now a site for a Yacht Club which will host sailing events during the games.
Credit Cards for Locals Facilitate International Travel
Since the end of last year, international tourists have been able to use prepaid credit cards in the local market. This convenience has been extended to Burmese citizens, and since October 1st, Cooperative Bank became the first domestic lender to issue internationally accepted MasterCards to its local clients. Negotiations are also underway between Visa and other local banks, so ‘easy travel’ debit cards can be made available before the SEA Games. This initiative will facilitate financial transactions by Burmese travelers and migrant workers abroad.
Due to conflict with the military in the 1990s, some members of the Padaung ethnic group from Burma’s eastern Kayah State fled to Thailand. For years, the Padaung women in Mae Hong Son have attracted tourists wanting a glimpse of their long necks surrounded by metal coils. Children as young as five years old start wearing neck rings, which can number around 20 by the time they become teenagers. Due to modernization and the increasing rejection to being treated as tourist attractions, only a handful of girls are willing to continue the tradition. Women who have formerly worn neck rings have also discarded them since they hinder their chances of studying abroad. Resettlement to Canada, New Zealand and Finland were also impeded by the Thai government.
On the other hand, some Padaung women on the Burmese side of the border lament the slow disappearance of their traditions. They take pride in the custom of wearing neck rings, deeply rooted in their legends and history as a people. They hope that exiled members can return and help revive their culture.
No matter how they feel about neck rings, there is a general consensus that they want to be respected, and are saddened that the tourism industry has turned their villages into human zoos.
Fans of Burmese food or those wanting to sample the country’s varied and complex cuisine might be interested in the cookbook Burma: Rivers of Flavor, written by Naomi Duguid. Along with its own distinct qualities, Burmese food is infused with Thai, Chinese and Indian flavors – resulting in a rich culinary heritage. The book includes 125 recipes for salads, chutneys, relishes, and mohinga – a blend of rice noodles and fish broth. Not just a recipe book, Duguid includes photos and tales from her many travels to Burma, introducing her readers to a country that is slowly opening itself up to the world.