YANGON, Myanmar (AP) — Myanmar will ring in 2013 with its first public New Year's Eve countdown and a grand fireworks display in a celebration unprecedented in the former military-ruled country.
Monday night's outdoor party marks the latest, and perhaps most exuberant, example of the country's emergence from decades of isolation.
Thousands were expected to attend the celebration at a large field in Yangon against the backdrop of the city's famed Shwedagon Pagoda, where the Myanmar public will get its chance to do what much of the world does every Dec. 31.
A large digital screen will show a live stream of New Year's Eve countdowns in Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand leading up to a 60-second countdown to 2013 in Myanmar.
Singers, celebrities, light shows and other festivities were planned for the public party, which would have been unthinkable under the former military regime that banned public gatherings.
Until this year, New Year's Eve was celebrated privately or inside hotels, but there was no open celebration. Under the military regime the only grand fireworks display was traditionally in honor 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 they 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 are planning this public new year's event because we want residents of Yangon to enjoy the public countdown like in other countries," said Win Thura Hlaing, a spokesman for Forever Media group.
Ahead of the countdown, revelers said they had seen parties like this only on TV.
"I've seen the ball drop at Times Square in New York but I never expected that we would celebrate like this," said Sai Toe Makha, a 31-year-old singer, who planned to attend the celebration with 10 friends.
Male model Ye Min Thu, 21, called it "an unforgettable moment, where people can feel the first experience of celebrating the new year in public."
Associated Press writer Yadana Htun contributed to this story.