The 25th Southeast Asian Games wrapped up last Friday night with an impressive closing ceremony, which, in contrast to the historical flavour of the opening, stuck to popular and light-hearted aspects of Lao culture: the story of Pu Nyoe and Nya Nyoe (grandfather and grandmother Nyoe), the Lao New Year festival, the rocket festival and the boat-racing festival. As well as an ‘ancient cultural tradition’, the last of these was described as the ‘first national sport of Laos’, thus projecting Laos’ new found sporting success – on and off the field – into a timeless past. All of this came after the flags of Laos, the 2009 SEA Games and the SEA Games Federation were lowered and the latter ritually passed to the hosts of the 2011 games in Indonesia (see photographs below).
But here I want to turn to how this year’s SEA Games have been received throughout the region. As I’ve mentioned, the games were hailed as a great success in Laos itself, and it’s not at all surprising that the state controlled press has echoed and hyped up this sentiment. More surprising is coverage elsewhere. The Nation in Thailand ran an editorial under the headline ‘First-time SEA Games host gives us a lesson or two’. The newspaper was especially impressed with this year’s ‘break from the SEA Games’ vicious circle, in which visiting countries are cheated or feel they have been cheated’.
But I doubt this positive response has been universal. Before the games concluded, I was told that sections of the Thai press had suggested the widespread popular support of the Lao athletes and teams had only resulted from mass mobilisation, and perhaps even payment, by the Lao government. I haven’t had a chance to follow up these assertions, which for most at the games would seem ridiculous. But assuming they were made, the comments indicate a superior and condescending attitude to the Lao hosts and Laos in general – for they suggest Lao people could never have patriotic pride unless it was somehow manufactured – and a strong counterpoint to the Nation’s line.
I’d be very interested to hear of coverage elsewhere in the region, both good and bad.
Photographs of the closing ceremony (hover over picture for captions).