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.
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.
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.
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