YANGON, Myanmar -- The U.S. has appointed an ambassador to Myanmar and helped bring in American businessmen keen on doing business in the rapidly reforming Southeast Asian nation. Now, Washington is sending professional basketball players and coaches in a bid to boost cultural ties.
The U.S. Embassy said Sunday that four "sports envoys" will be in the country this week as part of a U.S. State Department-sponsored program "to emphasize the importance of academics, cooperation and respect for diversity."
The group will conduct several sports workshops with local youth before leaving Friday. Three of the envoys arrived this weekend and the last one is due to fly into Yangon later Sunday.
The group includes Charlotte Bobcats basketball team manager Richard Cho, a Myanmar native who migrated to the United States. Also traveling are Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach Darvin Ham, former Women's National Basketball Association player Allison Feaster and former NBA player Marty Conlon.
Buddhist-dominated Myanmar has a national basketball team and courts are a common fixture at private and missionary schools. But the sport's popularity pales in comparison to soccer.
President Thein Sein's government has embarked on a series of dramatic economic and political reforms since a long-ruling military junta ceded power last year, prompting the United States and other Western powers to lift sanctions. Rights groups, however, say corruption and human rights abuses are still rife and bloody skirmishes between the army and rebels continues in northern Kachin state.