Security In, Spitting Out for SEA Games

By Simon Roughneen 11 November 2013

NAYPYIDAW — At the entrance to the new Wunna Theikdi sports complex in Naypyidaw, an array of soldiers and police peer into the taxi, taking turns to fire off questions.

“Excuse me sir, where are you going?”

“Do you have business here?”

“The Games do not start for more than a month.”

A 10-minute huddle of conversations and phone calls later, entry to the complex is granted, but only after The Irrawaddy can confirm that interviews have been lined up inside.

The Wunna Theikdi venue is a gleaming new complex of indoor and outdoor stadia—all purpose-built for the Southeast Asian Games, a biennial regional athletics and sports competition. A 15-minute drive from Naypyidaw’s main hotel area, the complex is a half-mile uphill and accessed by a six-lane roadway, the entrance to which is gated like a government compound.

“It was much easier to get in a few weeks ago,” said Khin Maung Kywe, construction director at Max Myanmar, the conglomerate given the job of building the Wunna Theikdi complex.

“Now the guards are very careful before someone comes in,” he told The Irrawaddy, speaking in the front lobby of the main stands at the new Chinese-designed, 30,000-seat Wunna Theikdi track and field stadium, where the SEA Games opening ceremony will be held.

In October, several small bombs went off around Burma, killing three people. The explosions were blamed on a disgruntled splinter element within the Karen National Union (KNU), an ethnic militia that signed a ceasefire with the Burma government in early 2012 after more than six decades of war.

Since then, Khin Maung Kywe said, security around the Games venues has been tightened—precautions against repeat attacks before or during the Dec. 11-22 SEA Games, which come right in the middle of the peak tourism season.

The 2013 SEA Games will be the competition’s 27th iteration, but will be the first time Burma has hosted the tournament since 1969. The Games will wind-up just days before the start of Burma’s 2014 chairing of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean), a 10-country regional bloc. The one-year leadership post culminates in a major summit involving leaders from China, Japan, India and the United States, meaning any security breach at the SEA Games will be taken seriously at the international level.

Competing countries such as Malaysia and the Philippines have voiced concerns about possible security threats during the Games, but have stopped short of saying they will not participate. Following the blasts, Malaysia’s Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin told Malaysian media in October that “we will evaluate the security situation there before we send out athletes. For now, we are sticking to our original plan to send a contingent to the Games.”

The SEA Games organizing committee has a security section overseen by Burma’s Home Affairs Ministry, and Myat Thura Soe, international relations secretary at the Myanmar National Olympic Committee, told The Irrawaddy that he was confident that the Games would pass without any security breach or worse—and without overly zealous checks slowing up the tens of thousands of spectators expected to attend the events over the course of the Games.

“Even without the recent bombs, security was a key focus for us,” he said. “Security is always a major issue for sporting competitions, ever since Black September at the Munich Olympics,” he added, referring to the murder of 11 Israeli athletes by Palestinian terrorists at the 1972 Summer Olympics in the former West Germany.

As well as “suspicious packages” and similar verbiage lifted from the security wonk lexicon, officials will be on the lookout for other, less-deadly public order transgressions at the upcoming SEA Games.

Millions of Burmese chew betel nut, a mild stimulant said to increase alertness. In Rangoon and elsewhere across Burma, it is common to see betel nut-chewing taxi drivers and street vendors—their teeth stained red like a hapless boxers’—expelling reddened gobs of phlegm and saliva across the city’s fractured pavements.

But those Burmese fond of a chew and spit will have to kick the habit, temporarily at least, when inside the pristine new Wunna Theikdi compound.

“In other countries they put up notices about no smoking, no drinking. In Myanmar we have to add one more: no spitting,” Myat Thura Soe chuckled, pointing to a stadium sign reminding visitors that spitting is proscribed.