A regime building a new capital in a symbolic or central location is a tradition that dates back to the beginnings of civilisation. In the past 60 years alone, massive cities such as Brasilia, Yamoussoukro, Abuja, Putrajaya and Islamabad have been constructed or reconstructed to serve as new capital cities for their countries; a way for the country to show its progress to the world and push the limits of master-planned urban design while removing governing influence from a dominant city in favour of a neutral, centralised location. Construction of these cities involved years of planning and national debate, and transitioning from one capital to another (especially one built from scratch) is an understandably involved process. Hence the shock when on 6 November 2005 at precisely 6:37 am, the Burmese (Myanmar) government gave its ministerial officials less than a day’s notice that they were to pack up and move to a new capital almost 400 km north of Rangoon under threat of arrest or imprisonment. Five days later, the 11th day of the 11th month), at 11 am, 1,100 military trucks carrying 11 battalions and 11 government ministries left for the new capital. In a surprise move that reflects the eccentric, secretive nature of the brutal military dictatorship that seized power in 1988, the Burmese government had been secretly constructing a sprawling 4,600 km2 capital (78 times the size of Manhattan, or twice the size of Rhode Island) in the heart of the scrubland near the ancient capital and World War II resistance headquarters of Pyinmana. Its name: Naypyidaw (Nay Pyi Taw), ‘abode of kings’.
The decision to build a new capital in the middle of the country far inland from the old one is rooted in a combination of politics, military strategy, and old-fashioned superstition. Built in the ostensible middle of nowhere with few indigenous inhabitants, Naypyidaw is basically a military-run company town where everyone knows their place as opposed to the densely-populated chaos of Rangoon. It also protects the government from spies and invasions, which would take time to reach that far inland. The superstitious reasons focus around dictator General Than Shwe’s supposed belief in numerology and astrology (hence the precise numbers and dates seen in the previous paragraph, all intended to bestow good luck upon the new city). Clicking on the general’s name will take you to The Irrawaddy’s surreal ‘Than Shwe Watch’, in which one can easily see the parallels between Than Shwe and Kim Jong-Il.
Perhaps the best way to get a feel for the scope of the new city is viewing it on Wikimapia; it’s rather stunning to see just how sprawled and segregated everything is. Again, this is all by design. The government states the population of Naypyidaw to be 925 000 after just five years in existence, but this is impossible to verify and unlikely given the anecdotal evidence of deserted freeways and hundreds of unopened storefronts; only the restaurants and the Myowma market seem lively, and the stores that are open are poorly-stocked beyond the basics. Streets are sterile and empty, full of empty houses and buildings waiting to be filled by government employees. The ministerial offices, identically constructed, are spaced well apart to ensure their security. Apartment housing for civil servants is colour-coded by ministry with higher-ranking officials given the larger units.T he neighbourhoods are ridiculously spread out, and commuting is a chore (‘an SUV city for people who don’t drive SUVs’). Of course, the military elite live in their own US$2 000 000 mansions 11 km from the city centre (connected by a series of bunkers and tunnels to be extra-safe). Not that people are allowed to see them; foreigners are restricted to the ‘Hotel Zone’, the ‘city centre’, and the markets and malls. Foreigners also aren’t allowed to abode overnight in neighbouring Pyinmana. It was only last year that mobile phones were even allowed in the capital; private landlines are still a no-go. There is a new modern airport ultimately planned to handle up to 10 500 000 passengers a year with service from all Burmese airlines, but most civilian entry into the city is only permitted by bus or train.The residents who live here are stuck here until the government tells them otherwise.
Junction City Shopping Centre. Note, among many things, the lack of cityscape around it and the total lack of traffic .My favourite quote about Naypyidaw is from a Time Magazine article: ‘The authorities claim that Naypyidaw, untouched by the storm, is home to nearly 1 million residents. But on a recent visit, I saw only a few dozen people apart from the gangs of manual laborers painting crosswalks and sweeping spotless boulevards. On the 20-minute drive from the airport to the hotel zone–where all six of Naypyidaw’s hotels are located–I passed just three other vehicles. One was a horse-drawn buggy’. Photo: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/7/75/Junction_Centre_Naypyitaw.jpg. Used under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 licence.
That amount of money spent on the new capital is obscene: between US$4 and 5 000 000 000; a full 5-to-7% of Burma’s GDP in a country where the per capita income was most recently reported as US$459. As the favourite sport of Than Shwe and his ruling junta is golf, the city has four golf courses. There are towering pagodas, massive water fountains (not to mention sprinkler systems to keep the roundabouts green), zoos, and museums. For whom they are built, who knows; foreign visits are minimal and even Lonely Planet doesn’t have an entry on the city yet. Outside of these massive installations, labourers forcibly imported into Naypyidaw from the rest of the country crowd together in slums, creating some powerful images of visual dissonance. Naypyidaw is the only place in Burma where electricity is available 24 hours a day (Rangoon and Mandalay usually get it for around 12-20 hours per day).
As much as the regime wants to avoid the possibility of human conflict in the new capital, it can’t avoid conflict with nature. This summer, a dual outbreak of plague and dengue fever spread through Naypyidaw and Pyinmana as hundreds of thousands of mice moved into the cities from the countryside along the very same six-lane corridors built to bring in new residents and the military. No matter how much of Burma’s GDP goes toward building and maintaining the new capital, it will not change the fact that the country remains one of the poorest and oppressed places on Earth.
(For some rare pictures of Naypyidaw, please click on the photo essays by Andrews, Reid, and van Engen below, as well as the Wikipedia article on the city.)
Agence France-Presse (2009). Myanmar allows first mobile phones in remote capital. 21 October 2009. Available at http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5jCbWktYo38v3brLWsboPsylpim3w. Accessed 6 September 2010.
Andrews, A. (2007). Naypyidaw: Abode of Kings in a Derelict Kingdom. Disposable Words, 15 June 2007. Available at http://www.sequential-one.com/blog/?p=895. Accessed 6 September 2010.
Bangkok Post (2009). Living in a ghost town. Bangkok Post, 18 October 2009. Available at http://www.bangkokpost.com/news/investigation/25872/living-in-a-ghost-town. Accessed 6 September 2010.
Kyaw Kha (2010). Naypyidaw plague and dengue outbreaks infect troops, children. Mizzima, 9 July 2010. Available at http://www.mizzima.com/news/inside-burma/4099-naypyidaw-plague-and-dengue-outbreaks-infect-troops-children.html. Accessed 6 September 2010.
New York Times (2008). Built to Order: Myanmar’s New Capital Isolates and Insulates Junta. New York Times, 24 June 2008. Available at http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/24/world/asia/24myanmar-sub.html. Accessed 6 September 2010.
Pedrosa, V. (2006). Myanmar’s ‘seat of kings’. Al Jazeera, 20 November 2006. Available at http://english.aljazeera.net/news/asia-pacific/2006/11/2008525184150766713.html. Accessed 6 September 2010.
Reid, R. (2008). A Capital Built for Kings and SUVs. Perceptive Travel, March 2008. Available at http://www.perceptivetravel.com/issues/0308/reid.html. Accessed 6 September 2010.
Steinberg, D.I. (2010). The SLORC/SLDC Era (1988-Present): Continuation of Military Power. In Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs To Know, 81-147. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
van Engen, W. (2007). Inside Naypyidaw. The Flying Dutchman, 15 June 2007. Available at http://willthedutch.blogspot.com/2007/06/inside-naypyidaw.html. Accessed 6 September 2010.