Myanmar welcomes 2013 with first public countdown as it emerges from decades of isolation
YANGON, Myanmar - Myanmar rang in 2013 with its first public New Year's Eve countdown and a grand fireworks display, a celebration unprecedented in the former military-ruled country.
The party is the latest, and perhaps most exuberant, example of the country's emergence from decades of isolation.
Organizers announced that about 90,000 people gathered at the countdown venue, a large field in Yangon, for a chance to do what much of the world does every Dec. 31.
Hundreds of people danced and swayed to musical performances on a huge colorfully lit stage, while other revelers — both young and old — sat on mats they brought with them or perused food stalls as fireworks burst above.
"This is very exciting and also our first experience in celebrating the New Year at a big countdown gathering. We feel like we are in a different world," said Yu Thawda, a university student who came with three of her friends.
Against a backdrop of the city's famed Shwedagon Pagoda, a large screen showed live New Year's Eve countdowns in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand, followed by a 60-second countdown to 2013 in Myanmar.
Singers, celebrities, light shows and other festivities were part of the public party — something unthinkable under the former military regime, which banned public gatherings, with the recent exception of the traditional Myanmar New Year in April.
Until this year, New Year's Eve was celebrated privately or inside hotels, but there were no open celebrations. Under the military regime the only grand fireworks displays were in honour of Armed Forces Day, an annual celebration of military might.
The reformist government that took office last year urged the public to go out and have fun.
"This event is a very good outlet, particularly for young people," said presidential adviser Ko Ko Hlaing, adding that celebrations like this can "help build mutual understanding between the people and the government."
President Thein Sein has freed hundreds of political prisoners, abolished direct media censorship and allowed public protests as part of a democratic transition that has surprised the outside world.
Many in Myanmar, however, remain skeptical. While people in big cities say they live more freely, they also say the reforms have not improved their livelihoods. People in rural areas of grinding poverty cite continuing human rights issues, abuse of power and abysmal health care.
"People are feeling insecure psychologically, but a public celebration will make people feel light and happy and ease the tension," Ko Ko Hlaing said.
Organizers billed the event as "the first time Myanmar celebrates with the world."
The celebration was arranged by local Forever Media group and Index Creative Village, a Thai event organizer.
"We want residents of Yangon to enjoy the public countdown like in other countries," said Win Thura Hlaing, a spokesman for Forever Media group.
Associated Press writer Yadana Htun contributed to this report.