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August 9, 2008

Beijing Olympics 2008:
China takes centre stage 

Activists call on China to push Myanmar junta towards reforms China took the centre stage Friday, celebrating its first-time role as Olympic host with a stunning display of pageantry and pyrotechnics to open a Summer Games unrivaled for its mix of problems and promise, reported Associated Press.

Meanwhile, in Manila, Philippines, dozens of Filipino activists in Manila protested Friday against Myanmar's military rulers and urged China to put more pressure on the junta to implement democratic reforms and engage in dialogue with the political opposition, reported Kyodo news agency.

China welcomed scores of world leaders to an opening ceremony watched by 91,000 people at the eye-catching National Stadium and a potential audience of 4 billion worldwide. It was depicted as the largest, costliest extravaganza in Olympic history, bookended by barrages of some 30,000 fireworks.

President Bush and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin were among the glittering roster of notables who watched China make this bold declaration that it had arrived. Bush, rebuked by China after he raised human-rights concerns this week, is the first U.S. president to attend an Olympics on foreign soil.

Already an economic juggernaut, China is given a good chance of overtaking the US atop the gold-medal standings with its legions of athletes trained intensely since childhood. One dramatic showdown will be in women's gymnastics, where the US and Chinese teams are co-favorites; in the pool, Chinese divers and US swimmers are expected to dominate.

The run-up to the games had epic story lines - China investing $40 billion to build the needed infrastructure, reeling from a catastrophic earthquake in Sichuan province in May, struggling right up to Friday to diminish Beijing's stubborn smog. China's detentions of political activists, its crackdown on uprisings in Tibet and its economic ties to Sudan - home of the war-torn Darfur region - fueled relentless criticisms from human rights groups and calls for an Olympic boycott.

A record 204 delegations were set to parade their athletes through the stadium - superstars such as basketball idols Kobe Bryant and Yao Ming, as well as plucky underdogs from Iraq, Afghanistan and other embattled lands.

The nations were marching not in the traditional alphabetical order but in a sequence based on the number of strokes it takes to write their names in Chinese. The exceptions were Greece, birthplace of the Olympics, which was given its traditional place at the start, and the 639-member Chinese team, which lined up last.

In Manila, the activists picketed in front of diplomatic missions of Myanmar, Thailand and China. They called on China, a key diplomatic ally of Myanmar, to stop using its veto power in the U.N. Security Council to prevent it from passing a resolution condemning the junta.

Egoy Bans, a spokesman for the group Free Burma Coalition-Philippines, said China should stop "coddling" the military rulers of Myanmar.

"Now that China is hosting the Olympics, it has a prime obligation to live up to the vision of the Olympics," he said.

"For the junta's victims of rape, torture, arbitrary killings and detention, forced labor and political persecution, nothing is more precious than seeing a democratic and free Burma," he said, referring to Myanmar by its alternative name.

The demonstration was held on the 20th anniversary of the Aug. 8, 1988, popular uprising in Yangon that ended in the death of as many as 3,000 people after it was suppressed by the military.

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