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Perspectives

November 30, 2009
Outsiders wonder why Myanmar built brand new capital

A village on the road to Naypyidaw. Photos: Michael Lwin

Michael Lwin, a research fellow at Georgetown University, recently traveled to Myanmar to research Burmese law, culture and religion. He writes about his experiences in the new capital.

Roughly five years ago the Burmese military junta decided to move Myanmar’s capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw, meaning “city of kings.”

At the time of the move, Naypyidaw was a rural backwater, a small township comprised of thatched huts inhabited by subsistence farmers.

In contrast to Yangon’s preexisting infrastructure, the lack of modernity in Naypyidaw five years ago meant that the junta had to commit substantial resources to transform the bucolic setting into a governmental metropolis.

According to economist Sean Turnell in a 2008 New York Times article, a “consensus estimate” by Myanmar experts totaled the construction expenditures at $4 billion to $5 billion.

Western observers have speculated that Senior-General Than Shwe, the Commander-in-Chief of the Burmese military (Tatmadaw), chairman of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC), and the de facto ruler of Myanmar, may have moved the capital out of fear of a naval invasion by the United States and a fear of surveillance by satellites and Western spies.

The Burmese government line is not so paranoid. Myanmar has had a long history of issues with insurgents along its geographic periphery, and movement to the center of the country allows the military to strategically deploy armed forces to deal with conflicts anywhere. The central location is also economically advantageous in facilitating communication and trade with the troubled northern region.

Peasant workers on the side of the highway.

The drive to Naypyidaw from Yangon takes about 4 to 5 hours. The smooth highway, which is nearly complete, has few cars. Residents of nearby villages walk on the roadside, wearing khamauk and longyis while digging shallow ditches to fill with the  alternating red-and-white lane blocks. Many of these workers are children.

Occasionally we passed donkey carts. Hunched women were sitting among toddy palm trees and rice paddies. We snaked up the well-paved, modern highway that cuts through agricultural fields still harvested by yoked buffalo and farmers wielding rusted scythes.

There are several checkpoints along the way, resembling the average E-Z Pass tollbooth on the way to New York City (except for the near-total lack of cars).

A military official or young lady sitting in front of a LCD screen collected 2,500 Burmese kyats (roughly $2.50). The other checkpoints are for monitoring suspicious activity and charging Naypyitaw-bound voyagers who originate from other villages along the way.

A house in the secret new capital. Photo: Flickr user ISNSecurityWatch/Anuj Chopra

Signs saying “Welcome to Nay Pyi Taw” in English and Burmese greet travelers. The fruits of the construction have resulted in broad, multiple-lane avenues, potted-plant roundabouts, color-coded apartments for government personnel relocated from other towns, and tourist attractions like the Water Park and Zoological Gardens.

However, the lack of conspicuous signage flustered our tour guide, who has a degree in nuclear physics and has lived in the city since its inception five years ago. He got lost several times and had to reorient himself via landmarks.

As with the highways on the trip up to Naypyidaw, there were precious few people in the city, which does not seem to square with official statistics that place the new capital’s population at around one million. But this may be a matter more of density than quantity, as Naypyidaw is a sprawling, immense city.

– Michael Lwin

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Comments

7 comments

#7

[…] 8, 2009 Myanmar looks towards elections in 2010 Outsiders wonder why Myanmar built brand new capitalOpposition leader arrested in Myanmar over U.S. intruderBurmese orphans fend for themselves after […]

#6

Trace back all the way as far back as humanly possible. One might find that ‘history’ repeats itself. It has something to do with the planet’s electro magnetic forces, among others, that’s what happened, happened there. Alter the force(s) and the situations change, if that’s humanly possible. In the mean time it’s another job security for the news media, dictators and whatnot.

#5

re Nagani’s comment:Naypyidaw was what the Capital city was called in old Burma.It also translates as “the city where the King lives.”So both definitions are correct.

#4

Correction:
Naypyitaw =/= city of kings
Naypyitaw = Capital

Facts: When we were young, our capital city police were called “Naypyitaw Ye” or “Capital Police”. Yadanapon Naypyitaw = Yadanapon Capital City

So, don’t waste your time with these petty things. Just focus on real issues. There are so many issues that you can raise, our country need that.

#3

Outsiders shouldn’t wonder why,for this country is the devil’s triangle of drug trade with opium,and heroine high on the export(weapons anyone?) list. They also have a thriving labor-export enterprise uses their (human resource capital/cattle?) migrant workers as human slave labor throughout Maylasia,Europe,and the United States,etc. It’s all done through Myanmar/Burma’s (name change has no meaning for the indigenous) Gov’t comprised of nefarious illegitimate contractors outsourcing tens of thousands (all to soon the reality sets in that life elsewhere is actually worse than what they left behind)to work 80hour weeks at far below real fair wages,where contractor subs-out these poor individuals with no oversite of the injustice,… for only death is immanent if a slave laborer goes public (and that goes for his/hers entire family/village in Burma/Myanmar)! Unfortunantly,alot of this labor is/are required to be drug-runners (mule-trains) to lessen (conduit) their decade long subserviant agreement with these (UN Santioned Certified) labor contractors that sub them out. They work in your local deli’s,field laborers, restaurants,etc,etc,.do various jobs as sub-contractors falling right through the greased palms of Feredral Customs Oversite here, and abroad. Just equate,and think about the Chinese laborers here in the states,and Europe today,in the past,…but still very present ,very,very real. PS How can you miss when your on the water,and have a natural habitant (jungle) as your hide-out inland.

#2

Are peasant workers being forced to work? What do you take from what you had seen along the highway. According to ILO, Burma’s regime is still using forced labors in road construction, dams, and others to fulfill the lack of modern construction machines. Thanks.

#1

After reading this article, we are still wondering why, since we didn’t learn anything new from this brief story.

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