Ghost Town:
Myanmar’s New Capital

SPECIAL ONLINE FEATURE, BY ISAAC BLACKSIN
 

Catching a bus to Naypyidaw is difficult. Sure, it’s the new capital of Myanmar, the seat of the bureaucracy, where almost all government business is now conducted. Yes, the city brims with soaring apartment complexes and grand ministerial compounds, and the neon glows straight through the night. It is true the city has glass-façade megamalls and cavernous cineplexes, a giant gem museum and five completed golf courses. Naypyidaw has a zoo with an air-conditioned penguin house in the middle of an arid scrubland, and it has a 480-acre “landmark garden” where ethnic minorities in native garb inhabit small houses on display. It would be correct to point out that Naypyidaw is the only place in the country with drinkable tap water and 24-hour electricity, and that it’s roads are the best and widest in Myanmar, bowling lane-smooth and six, eight, even 20 lanes across, in a nation where most roads, including sections of the country’s most traveled, are nothing but dirt tracks. So why is it so difficult for a tourist, or for the Burmese bus-riding public, to get to Naypyidaw? And why did this new capital city, constructed over the last decade, only appear on Google mapping software as of this year? Perhaps it’s because you don’t need a map of a place you have no business visiting.


The Minister of Information, Brigadier General Kyaw San, announced the new “administrative capital” in 2005, some years after the fait accompli of its physical existence. In 2006, General Thura Shwe Mann went a step further in explaining that Naypyidaw would become “the nation’s capital in accordance with the new Constitution.” Citizens of the nearby sugar refinery town of Pyinmana had suspected something for years before these proclamations, noticing groups of Chinese businessmen in their cafes and large utility trucks passing though their neighborhoods. Yet the site for the new capital was so guarded and remote that few seemed to understand the scale of the enterprise, and fewer still had seen its growth firsthand. Why all the secrecy? Not many people in Myanmar will comment publicly on the doings of their famously repressive government, and while secrecy is nothing new here, keeping the construction of a 7,000-square-kilometer capital city under wraps is, admittedly, pretty impressive. Those who witnessed for themselves the construction of this new megacity, a place like nowhere else in this largely rural, largely impoverished nation, fall into two groups: those in charge of financing, designing, and instituting the new capital, and those brought in to lay the bricks.
 

There is nothing particularly unusual about a capital city appearing where no city existed before. Washington DC, like Naypyidaw, was built from scratch. While not constructed in the middle of a clear-cut jungle, DC was indeed placed atop rural farms and swampy bottomland, in an area chosen for its geographic centrality to the recently united American states. Though other cities were located nearby, and the indigenous Nacotchatank people were not yet fully relocated, the relative purity of the US government’s new home likely attracted city planners as a virgin canvas on which to pay homage, through Corinthian columns and Neoclassical promenades, to the antecedents of American political and intellectual ideals. Most capitals can be considered evolutionarily organic, growing from village to town to city, rising gradually to a position of political prominence in the state. Those capitals created as such from the ground up, however, tend to project their meaning with forthrightness and certitude. Naypyidaw thus proves not so different from DC in both projection and purpose. Both cities were intended as the face of a proudly independent nation, places with something to prove and a means to prove it. Naypyidaw lies about halfway between Mandalay, Myanmar’s second largest city and a formal royal capital, and Yangon, the recent capital and the country’s largest urban center. The physicality of Naypyidaw pays homage to the military government’s ideals of grand development and maverick strength, and boasts, as Washington DC did before it, of one nation undivided, on its feet and ready to enter the global community. Naypyidaw means “Abode of the Kings” – is “District of Columbia,” a name that intimates both origin myth and spatial destiny, so very different? Visiting Washington DC in 1842, Charles Dickens could have been describing Myanmar’s new capital today: “Spacious avenues that begin in nothing and lead nowhere; streets a mile long that only want houses, roads, and inhabitants; public buildings that need only a public to be complete.” 


In a region where kingdoms have come and gone for centuries, Myanmar’s State Peace and Development Council created yet another capital, this one with a pace and scale unprecedented. Naypyidaw is modeled like a Chinese megacity: Stalinist monumentalism with classical frill. The buildings are all right-angled concrete bulk, brutalist and standardized, but with the arched eaves and pagoda entranceways of traditional Burmese architecture. The city reminds one of Kunming or Lanzhou but without the medieval core, without the continuity of culture, without the sprawl and the pulse. The buildings in Naypyidaw are huge, the largest in the country, and are largely empty. Like Soviet urban planning in the early 20th century, Naypyidaw is divided into zones: Commercial, Hotel, Residential, Recreational, Ministerial, and Military. The Residential Zone is further divided; there are apartment blocks especially for single women, for example. Apartments are color-coded by ministry, with Health officials living in blue buildings and Agriculture officials in green. The Military Zone, located some ten kilometers away and home to the Tatmadaw (as the national military is known), has wide boulevards said to double as runways and is off-limits to civilians. Foreign embassies in Yangon have been offered space in the new and empty International Zone, though none have yet accepted. The parliamentary complex in the Ministerial Zone, constructed ahead of internationally criticized elections in 2010, comprises a 100-room presidential palace and 28 massive buildings of seemingly extraneous use. The other presidential palaces around Naypyidaw boast Romanesque pillars and grand archways as well as razor wire and round-the-clock military guard. The empty shopping complexes and expansive manicured lawns suggest an evacuated Sacramento.


Within 11 days of the announcement of the Naypyidaw’s existence in 2005, almost all civil servants were relocated to their new home in a dusty clear-cut scrubland. A nine-hour drive from Yangon, they moved without their children or spouses to a place without grocery stores or a telephone network. “We feel lonely here,” one low-level Health Ministry official told the Hong Kong Standard at the time. (The fact that it takes about nine hours to get to Yangon, which is only 320 kilometers away, should allow one to make a judgment about the state of Myanmar’s most traveled road, the Yangon-Mandalay highway.) Families were permitted about a year later, and the appearance of schools and stores followed. As Shan workers put the finishing touches on the capital’s Shwedagon Pagoda replica, foreign analysts wondered what to make of this strange turn of events. Thus the obvious question to be raised, in terms of a journalistic or simply practical inquiry into this most bizarre of cities: Why build a new capital?

 

In a world of speculation and conspiracy theory, especially with respect to a regime known for paranoia and reclusion, there are quite a few guesses as to why the short history of Naypyidaw has remained so clouded and its purpose so opaque. Some Yangon locals will tell you that civil servants became tired of scowls in the grocery store checkout line. That is, the military government officials, the same group of people responsible for killing an estimated ten thousand of their countrymen in a suppression of peaceful protests in 1988, and a few hundred more in the “Saffron Revolution” of 2007, wanted a home where they would not be bothered. That secrecy is intrinsic to Myanmar’s ruling party is beyond doubt; perhaps those in power simply required a more insulated locale from which to conduct the business of strong-arming their diverse and variously discontented populous. Naypyidaw is a place where even communication is guarded: the government did not set up a mobile telecommunications system in the new capital until last year, and private telephone lines are still not allowed for government employees. (This may be due to Myanmar’s use of the Thai Shin Satellite for their mobile network, which leaves phone conversations vulnerable to eavesdropping by Thai intelligence.) When parliament held its first session in 22 years in February, the 659 parliamentary members were kept in isolation in Naypyidaw for weeks, without access to email or telephones. Some civil servants, including soldiers from the navy and air force, were involved in the pro-democracy demonstrations of 1988, and many in the present leadership view their participation as a consequence of residency among civilians and subsequent influence by activist neighbors. Segregating all government employees in cantonments away from civilians reduces the opportunity for communication with a defiant population, and thus the possibility of internal revolt. When building a city in the middle of nowhere, isolation is the point. 


The official explanation for the new capital, issued by the Union Solidarity and Development Party, complains of the lack of space in Yangon and an inherent inability to expand. The press release speaks of a location “more centrally located and placed strategically on major transportation networks,” and references “more effective administration of nation-building activities.” Yangon is colonially charming yet largely dilapidated; besides the ability to build as much as it wants, the government has established in Naypyidaw those places suitably impressive for the business of politics and the politics of business. Naypyidaw has an Olympic-sized soccer stadium and golf courses on which to broker deals (bribes are purportedly disguised as losing bets). It has fancy, Western-style hotels for its non-Western foreign investors, notably the Chinese, who have spent over ten billion dollars in direct investment in Myanmar in exchange for access to hydropower, oil, gas, timber and minerals. (The US and the EU enforce sanctions which prohibit most investment, though loopholes, notably the “grandfather clause” that allows Chevron to profit in Myanmar, remain). To this is added the contention that ministers craved the modern conveniences, to say nothing of opulence, benefiting the powerful – think neon nightclubs and air-conditioned penguin houses. In the poorest country in Southeast Asia, Naypyidaw’s patrons have spared little expense. There may be aspects of the decolonization process at work in the move to a vacant territory in the middle of Myanmar. The British created their colonial capital in Yangon (then called Rangoon) after the last monarch was disposed from the royal capital at Mandalay. It is possible that the Tatmadaw viewed Yangon’s capital-city status as a symbol of the humiliation of colonialism, an episode that has been vindicated by the transfer of such status to Naypyidaw. The historian Michael Aung-Thwin contends that the decision to build a capital in central Myanmar was indeed based on historical and cultural considerations. “It is where the capital of the first classical state of Burma, Pagan, and where all subsequent capitals of its dynasties except one have been centered,” Aung-Thwin told the Bangkok Post. “It is the ancestral home of the Burmese people and is very much part of their psyche, unlike Rangoon which has been a reminder of the country’s colonial experience.”


Astrology is widely cited as central to the decision to move. Myanmar’s de facto ruling general, Than Shwe, is notoriously superstitious, and his soothsayer apparently predicted bloodshed in Yangon. (A former mailman who became head of the military’s psychological warfare division, Than Shwe officially retired in spring 2011 and installed his loyal deputy, General Thein Sein, as president.) The exact moment of the initial government exodus – 6:37 a.m. on November 6, 2005 – was astrologically reckoned, as was the precise location for the new capital. Astrological consultation is employed for major decisions very frequently in Myanmar: the date of the August 8 protests in 1988 was considered auspicious at the time, and Than Shwe’s ruling predecessor, Ne Win, consulted an astrologer before famously reversing the direction of traffic. Though many car accidents were reported on the day of the switch, Ne Win continued to call the shots in Myanmar for 35 years. Weddings, funerals, the building of homes and the purchasing of motorbikes all generally entail a consultation with an astrologer. As for the construction of capital cities, King Thihathu built his at Pinya in the 14th Century, instead of at the planned location in Myinsaing, after hearing the prophesy of an astrologer. Some decades later, King Thado Minpya moved his capital to Innwa after a prophecy discouraging its former location in Sagaing. Jump ahead to the 19th Century, when King Mindon chose Mandalay as his royal capital on the advice of yet another soothsayer. 


Many people think General Than Shwe simply wanted to build a capital in his own honor, like so many Burmese kings before him. Because “naypyidaw” was the suffix used to signify royal capitals in pre-colonial times, it quickly became clear to the country’s citizenry what the general had in mind. It is said that underlings must speak a form of royal Burmese when addressing Than Shwe or his wife, and when Irrawaddy Magazine produced a picture of Than Shwe dressed in royal regalia, it only echoed the suspicions of monarch-envy circulating around the top general. 


 

The why-the-heck-would-they-move-the-capital theory carrying the most weight among foreign analysts concerns military strategy. Maung Aung Myoe, writing for the Asia Research Institute in 2006, explains that Naypyidaw is “very close to the intersection of major highways linking India to Thailand and China to Bangladesh… [it] commands the major road links between Upper and Lower Myanmar, on both sides of the Bago mountain range, and it controls both the Ayerwaddy and Sitaung rivers; therefore, it is at the tip of the chokepoint.” Naypyidaw’s location can thus be seen as a strategic command center and a fundamental security advantage. Even if the city is overrun, the military has quick access to the heavily forested and mountainous areas bordering China and India – good locations from which to wage a protracted guerrilla war. In addition, Myanmar’s army is thought to be superior to its navy, making a landlocked capital more easily defended than the port-city of Yangon. The “rat hole” theory contends that Naypyidaw was built atop a honeycomb of underground tunnels, fortifying Myanmar’s rulers against the most likely form of foreign attack, an airborne offensive. North Korean advisors likely supplied the technology for tunnel building, as they did with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and a burgeoning partnership between the Tatmadaw and Pyongyang is increasingly well known. Analysts of Asian geopolitics consider the likelihood of a foreign strike on Myanmar, or Western intervention in the country, low to nonexistent. Shari Villarosa, the highest-ranking American diplomat in Myanmar from 2005 to 2008, told the New York Times she knew of the assumptions, widely held among the country’s leadership, of an impending American offensive, but called the prospect of such an attack “nuts.” The Tatmadaw has surely not forgotten, however, the US Navy violation of Myanmar territorial waters in September of 1988, when four American warships and an aircraft carrier appeared offshore during the political chaos of that period. After Cyclone Nargis, which killed about 140,000 people and left nearly a million homeless in 2008, the US ships amassing off the coast to deliver humanitarian assistance were considered a hostile force. The government rebuffed offers of foreign aid, and instead of sending their own food, water and shelter to the stricken area, sent in soldiers and armaments to defend against a supposed attack. 


The most likely threat of regime change comes from within Myanmar’s borders. A number of armed insurgencies are currently battling government forces in what historian Thant Myint-U calls the world’s longest civil war. Various ethnic minorities, who together make up about a third of Myanmar’s 60 million people and occupy more than half its territory, are engaged in conflicts over everything from resource extraction to displacement to a push for sovereign statehood. Naypyidaw’s central location puts it within quick striking distance – and closer psychological proximity – to those border areas engaged in armed resistance, such as within the Shan, Kayah, Kachin, and Kayin states. The threats from these various guerrilla contingents, as well as from a simmering communist insurrection, drug cartel violence, and the urban-based democracy movement, have directly impacted government policy, urban planning, and the move to Naypyidaw. The defeat of the Tamil separatist movement in Sri Lanka and the recent uprisings across the Middle East and North Africa have also influenced counterinsurgency strategy in the country. The right angles, wide thoroughfares, and flat open spaces of Naypyidaw are designed to contain crowds and monitor enemy infiltration. 24-hour electricity is crucial for the maintenance of an automated security apparatus, and segmented zoning allows for the isolation and lockdown of particular city sections. Add to this the all-pervading military presence in the city, and Naypyidaw starts to seem more like a sprawling army compound than a functioning metropolis. Siddharth Varadarajan, blogging about Naypyidaw in 2005, described the capital as “the ultimate insurance against regime change, a masterpiece of urban planning designed to defeat any putative ‘color revolution’ – not by tanks and water cannons, but by geometry and cartography.” As a chain of segregated zones dispersed over thousands of kilometers, there is no city center in Naypyidaw and thus no obvious place to gather for demonstrations. Even if Yangon, home to a fifth of Myanmar’s population, were again immobilized by protests, the government’s base in Naypyidaw would continue to function. It is interesting to consider, as the theories and speculations pile up, that George Orwell made his name in colonial Burma so many years ago.

Walking between the city zones, or among the buildings within the zones, is tough. Sidewalks are inconsistent and the buildings have been laid out very far apart. There are few shade trees along the wide roads, any jungle remnants having been cleared ahead of construction, and without the bustle of fellow pedestrians, walks taken through Naypyidaw tend to feel desolate. With all the paranoia, and the signs warning visitors not to trespass on ministerial lawns, and the recent restrictions on tourism and journalists and photography, walking around even seems of questionable legality. There is little public transportation (mostly just shuttle buses used to ferry civil servants between their homes and offices) and the only taxi company is military-owned. It is a city built to discourage public assembly. The situation is especially strange when compared with the rest of the country, where life is lived outside. Myanmar is a place of longyi-clad men and stray dogs sleeping soundly in the shade of the midday sun, and hawkers everywhere pushing paperbacks and pastries and electronic goods. There are groups of gussied women, strolling arm-in-arm among their errands; monks in serpentine processions begging their daily rice; the ubiquitous outdoor teahouses, brimming with chatting teenagers and the chess-absorbed elderly. The strong sense of community and the sociable nature of most Myanmar citizens likely account for this abundance of street culture, though the lack of reliable electricity and the simplicity of many homes play some role. In every town a tourist is allowed to visit, people are meeting and playing and relaxing outside. Naypyidaw, in contrast, is silent and interior. There are very few people napping in the shade or bargaining on the streets; there are no stray dogs or begging monks or roving bands of dusty youth. In Naypyidaw, there is little noise at all, save the occasional grunt of a worker digging a pit, the screech of a magpie. The streets, even the 20-lane boulevard, see only occasional utility trucks, ox-drawn carts, and military SUVs; one can drive around the city and see few civilian cars or motorbikes. Many of the 1,200 four-story apartment blocks in Naypyidaw, despite their bargain rates when compared to Yangon, remain vacant. The Miami-esque villas, surrounded by high cement walls topped with concertina wire, are largely uninhabited. To experience Myanmar street culture in Naypyidaw is nearly impossible, with the exception of a single market in the Commercial Zone. 


Past the cumbersomely-titled Ministry of Progress of Border Areas and National Races and Development Affairs, past the National Herbal Park and the Ngalaik Water Park (which hosts a musical light show every night), past about two-dozen ornamental fountains in artificial ponds, one comes across something like the rest of the country. Where the empty thoroughfares begin to taper, one finds the woven bamboo huts and corner stores and teahouses of Myanmar. Those who built the city live here, in small dirt-padded areas cordoned off by plastic fencing. The residents of these little hamlets were brought to a scrubland to create a capital; some, it is rumored, were brought by force. “I’ve spoken to people who have fled Pyinmana, and have now come over the border into Thailand,” U Maung Maung, the general secretary of the Federation of Trade Unions in Burma, told the BBC in 2006. “They say they were forcibly made to work on the roads, and clear areas of bush.” I heard people in nearby villages speak of daylong road-building projects in which neither food nor compensation was given, and no modern tools used. Walking in Naypyidaw, I saw women moving bricks by stacking them atop their heads and young boys digging huge foundation pits with rusty shovels. Men make less than a dollar a day weeding golf courses where their grandfathers once farmed. It is estimated that 80,000 migrants were once at work on this Kingly Abode.


Now that the city has been mostly built, and is mostly functioning, and now that there are schools and grocery stores and a market, many people are expected to move to Naypyidaw. Its scheduled completion date is 2012, and while the current official population of 925,000 is hyperbolic, it will reach that number eventually. “Naypyidaw has electricity all the time, even in the middle of the night. I want to go there,” a Karen teenager hunched over a computer in Taungoo, about 100 kilometers south of the new capital, told me. He echoes the sentiment of many in the country who have become frustrated with the unwillingness of their government to deliver even basic necessities. Many feel that Naypyidaw will be a more comfortable place to live, and a welcomed opportunity for those business owners who rely on dependable electricity. Scheduled blackouts can last half a day or more in the rest of Myanmar, while a Chinese hydroelectric dam, built exclusively for the new capital, powers Naypyidaw’s bright streetlights through the night. The government neglects shortages in gasoline, waste management and other basic necessities around the country, including those exasperated by Cyclone Nargis, as money continues to pour into the establishment of Naypyidaw. Foreign estimates range between four and five billion dollars spent on the new capital thus far. In one of the poorest countries in the world, where the per capita income is $280 – less than 80 cents day – the government has created a very expensive playground.


 

While not exactly busy, the dining hall of the Hotel Royal Kumudra, located at #9 Hotel Zone, retains the frequent murmur of hushed Mandarin. To call the new capital a ghost town is slowly becoming exaggeration: Chinese businessmen can be seen slicing golf balls on the double-tiered driving range, the bullet-proof motorcades of top generals is not an infrequent site, and Myowma market is actually lively these days. Florescent-lighted grocery stores need to restock some goods once in a while, and “Beer Hill,” a Commercial Zone destination consisting of few bars on a hill guarded by sweaty soldiers, tends to see patrons. The foundational residents of the city have arrived: the families of the civil servants, the guides to the tourist attractions, the business owners who will support a fully functioning urban center. Though I saw no other tourists at the attractions I visited, the restriction on tourism was officially lifted earlier this year. I spoke with ex-pats, employees of the few NGOs allowed to operate in the country, who do their grocery shopping in Naypyidaw on the way to their homes in the north of the country from a flight into Yangon. It is speculated that international entry will be diverted entirely to the new capital from the current entry port in Yangon, thus forcing tourists into at least a perfunctory visit. A train line to Beijing is being planned for 2016. Naypyidaw is set to become Myanmar’s showcase city, like Doha or Brasilia, and is scheduled to host the Southeast Asian Games in 2013. 


As the civil service of Myanmar’s one-party system continues to expand after their recent election theatre, as Thai and Indian and Chinese investors continue to pour in, and as Naypyidaw assumes – through imposition, if necessary – its central presence in business and politics, this ghost town may well become a global capital. Yet because the Tatmadaw has its hands in virtually every aspect of the city, from its shiny shopping malls to its isolationist zoning to the precise design of every security-filmed lawn, this Abode of the Kings will always remain a military installation, devoid of the chaotic rhythms and social cacophony of normal city life. As Nicholas Lemann points out in a recent article on urbanization, building a metropolis and creating a functioning urban society should be considered two distinct ventures.

 

I did, finally, catch that bus. A Yangon-bound bus driver, though not planning to stop in Naypyidaw, agreed to drop me in the new capital. I was left on the side of an empty road somewhere in the Commercial Zone, the only passenger to disembark, a giant neon lotus flower shedding emerald light in a nearby traffic circle. A shopping mall called “Junction Centre” towered in the distance; it was the biggest building I’d seen in Myanmar and its parking lot was empty. As I gathered my belongings, preparing to pick a direction and walk until I found someone who could tell me something about anything – where to stay, what to do, what this place was – a police car drove by. I stood still, deeply questioning what I’d been told about the lifted restrictions on Naypyidaw tourism, as the car made a quick u-turn and pulled up beside me. A wiry policeman stepped out and approached, removing his cap and sweating in the late-day heat. “What is your business here, my friend?” the man asked, smiling. “Can I give you ride to somewhere?”


 

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