The government of Myanmar bars or severely restricts reporting by foreign correspondents. NPR is withholding the name of the veteran journalist who recently entered the country and filed this story, in order to protect his identity and his ability to return in the future.
The newest — and nicest — road in Myanmar is, paradoxically, one of the emptiest as well: Only a handful of cars travel along the desolate four-lane highway to nowhere, or so it seems.
But in fact, it leads to Naypyitaw, a new city in one of the world’s poorest countries, carved out of the jungle and built from scratch by an aging, autocratic leader who then moved the nation’s seat of government there, lock, stock and barrel.
That leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, stepped down this year — in theory, at least — but the city he ordered built is almost finished.
Strange Luxury In The Jungle
Naypyitaw is a place very few people go willingly. But if they did, they’d find a newer — and nicer — version of the national zoo that had been in the former capital, Yangon. On a recent day, the boisterous gibbons seem happy — though visitors are few, even on a holiday. But the zoo is still impressive, with an air-conditioned penguin house and an aquarium.
In February, the military gilded the cage a little more, opening a safari camp next door, which features lions, tigers and giraffes, kangaroos, wallabies and rhinos. It, too, has almost no visitors.
But no matter, there’s plenty of cheap labor to keep things running smoothly. And more, it seems, to keep Naypyitaw’s lush new gardens and the medians of its expansive eight-lane boulevards trimmed to perfection, mostly by hand.
The new capital boasts round-the-clock power — a rarity in Myanmar — two new shopping malls and several well-stocked supermarkets. There are golf courses, two new movie theaters and a full-scale replica of Yangon’s famous Shwedegon pagoda. There is also a Vegas-style collection of hotels on the main boulevard into town. Almost all of them are nearly empty.
Located on a nearby hilltop, the Mount Pleasant Hotel is another nice place to stay. It affords fantastic views of the Shan mountains and the sprawling new city below. The restaurant staff says Than Shwe, head of the former ruling military government, and the country’s new president, Thein Sein, go there often.
A surreptitious drive around the city gives a more detailed view about what several billion dollars — and, some say, forced labor — can build.
A Citadel From Its Own Citizens?
On the surface, the city is impressive. But it’s problematic, given the country’s incredible poverty, and raises questions about how much money was spent on this white elephant in the jungle.
At the time — in 2005 — the government said that the existing capital Yangon was too crowded and too far away from the rest of the country to function as the capital. Officials said they chose Naypyitaw because it is in the country’s actual geographic center.
The unofficial and more bizarre explanation for the move is that Than Shwe, the head of the ruling military government, was scared because an astrologer told him that an attack was coming — possibly from the Americans — and that he should get out of Yangon as quickly as he could. He did just that, taking the entire infrastructure and simply picking it up and moving it into the jungle, 210 miles to the north of Yangon. This is the version many people in Myanmar believe.
And many also believe the military moved because they were afraid of their own people as well, and, despite their grip on power, felt safer in a place where there were no people — except the ones they chose to bring.
This cocoon for the military was constructed largely in secret, and the government abruptly relocated in 2005 — giving civil servants 48 hours to move, the story goes, or else. That’s resulted in divided families, many of whom still cram the new capital’s bus station on weekends for the trip to or from Yangon.
Foreign governments, however, have so far declined to move their embassies to this jungle outpost.
Now, workers are scrambling to finish construction on a new 30,000-seat stadium being built for the 2013 Southeast Asian Games. Naypyitaw is scheduled to host the event. It’s a coming-out party of sorts for a city until recently off-limits to foreigners and one far away from those the military may fear the most, Myanmar’s citizens.