Protesters flashing three-fingered salutes while rallying against tyranny in a dystopian capital controlled by menacing generals—these aren’t scenes from the Hunger Games franchise but modern-day Myanmar, which is now seeing its biggest demonstrations in more than a decade following a coup on Feb. 1.
The power grab started with the detention of civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi, sparking outrage in Myanmar where she and her political party remain hugely popular despite losing favor in the West over the Rohingya crisis.
A growing civil disobedience movement has now reached Naypyitaw, Myanmar’s purpose-built capital—also regularly described as one of the world’s weirdest cities thanks to its vast, empty stretches of never-ending highways and grandiloquent, Pyongyang-like architecture.
Riot police on guard in the capital of Naypyitaw as anti-coup protests grow. PHOTO: AFP
Riot police on guard in the capital of Naypyitaw to counter anti-coup protests. PHOTO: AFP
Lonely Planet has called the city “soulless, sprawling and shoddily constructed”.
“Canberra meets Brasilia with a peculiar Orwellian twist,” it wrote in one of its travel guides.
A policeman crosses huge, empty stretches of highway outside a pagoda in Myanmar's capital Naypyitaw. PHOTO: AFP
And in a surreal twist, the coup’s beginning near Myanmar’s parliament in Naypyitaw was captured in a bizarre exercise video by a local aerobics instructor which has since gone viral.
Naypyitaw, which roughly translates to “abode of kings,” officially replaced Yangon as Myanmar’s administrative capital in 2006.
As the seat of the government, the city houses Myanmar’s vast parliament compound as well as its supreme court, presidential palace and various residences.
Myanmar's parliament building in the capital Naypyitaw. PHOTO: AFP
Naypyitaw is notable for its unusually large size, low population density, and lack of people, many of whom were forcibly removed to build the city, according to rights groups.
The capital has hosted several high profile events in the past, including ASEAN diplomatic summits as well as the 2013 Southeast Asian games, but many embassies in Myanmar remain in Yangon.
This file photo taken in 2006 shows construction of a skybridge underway in Naypyidaw. PHOTO: AFP
Youth-led democracy movements in Bangkok, Hong Kong and Taipei have drawn inspiration from the Hunger Games movies and books, particularly with the adoption of the three-finger salute known as the Mockingjay, a sign of resistance first popularized by fictional teenage protagonist Katniss Everdeen in her fight against an oppressive regime.
In remarkably similar scenes to the fictional story, protesters crowding the roadside in the heart of Myanmar’s military power nexus this week raised three fingers in the air to defy their own oppressors.
Authorities fired rubber bullets, live ammunition and water cannon on Tuesday, critically injuring one woman in the demonstrations, according to reports that could not be independently verified.
A recent rally in Naypyitaw against the coup. PHOTO: AFP
Protesters hold up the three finger salute and red ribbons from their cars at an anti-coup rally in Naypyitaw. PHOTO: AFP
Unlike protests in other parts of Asia, the Naypyitaw demonstrators may be in for a tougher set of challenges, dealing with little to no shade from the scorching midday sun, government buildings which are spaced miles apart and 20-lane highways that stand in their way of escaping from riot police.
A water cannon is fired at protesters in Naypyitaw on Feb. 9, 2021 PHOTO: AFP
A protester in Naypyitaw holds up the three finger salute. PHOTO: AFP
The irony is that Naypyitaw was built by the previous military regime around two decades ago as a way of secluding itself from protest and even possible invasion, but is now at the center of an uprising that the generals seem totally unprepared for.
Protesters gather before being blocked by police. PHOTO: AFP
The narrative wasn’t lost on observers, who also noted that because of Naypyitaw’s layout it remains one of “the worst places” to stage meaningful protests.
One American journalist called it a “dictatorship by cartography.”
The Parliament building in Naypyitaw. PHOTO: AFP
“Naypyitaw is the ultimate insurance against regime change, a masterpiece of urban planning designed to defeat any putative ‘colour revolution’—not by tanks and water cannons, but by geometry and cartography,” Siddharth Varadarajan wrote on his blog.