Welcome to Naypyidaw, the capital of Burma. This newly built self-aggrandizing tribute to the glory of the military Junta (that has ruled Burma since WWII) boasts all the hallmarks of a 21st-century capital city: rows of towering hotels, grandiose museums, and pristine sixteen-lane highways. There is just one thing about this capital city that sets it apart from all the others: no one seems to live in it.
"Why would you want to go there? There's nothing there," asked the owner of our hostel when we discussed the possibility of visiting Naypyidaw. Strolling around the miles and miles of deserted motorway that circle the sprawling ghost town a few hours later, the blank and confused expression on his face seemed completely justified. On November 6th, 2005, at exactly 6:37 AM, Burma's capital was moved from the cultural, historical, and economic heart of the country, Yangon, (or Rangoon as its often spelled) to a barren site 320 miles further north. Than Shwe, a senior general and de facto head of state, had been advised by his team of highly prominent astrologers that this was the most auspicious time for the transfer.
The initial rationale for the move was strategic: Yangon, you see, is situated close to the southern coast, so Than Shwe, who became increasingly paranoid during his reign from 1992 to 2011, feared an amphibious invasion. Naypyidaw, on the other hand, sits right in the center of the country. Than Shwe believed that he was the reincarnation of an old Burmese monarch (King Kyansittha, who ruled from 1084 to 1112, to be exact), which explains a lot about his rule over the country. It also explains why the capital is named Naypyidaw, which can be translated into "Abode of Kings".
Sitting in the lobby of one of the city's soulless luxury hotels, we were treated more like foreign diplomats than backpackers. There were at least two hotel workers tending to every guest with the kind of exhausting enthusiasm that makes you think they probably don't experience too much human interaction on a day-to-day basis.
Than Shwe’s plan was to turn Naypyidaw into a global tourist hotspot, but unfortunately that hasn't quite come to fruition yet. No one (apart from the thousands of civil servants who were forced to migrate) has settled in this town. All you get is a series of poorly designed tourist sites.
The handful of museums here are either half built or empty, and the only redeeming feature is the grand parliament building. But it's closed off, and you can barely get close enough to take a picture. Most of the buildings have a kind of neoclassical-meets-southeast-Asian design, which sort of reminded me of Hitler’s ambitions for a futuristic Berlin. As we lumbered around Naypyidaw, the abject failure of this city—which is now almost eight years old—came into clear focus. Surrounded by luxurious hotels, perfect motorway, and a complete lack of humanity, I almost forgot I was in Burma, becuase there were no Burmese people there. And then a badly paid worker slaving over a flower bed asked me for a drink of water, and I realized I wasn't in Burma at all—I was walking around the fantasy of an irrational megalomaniac.
The real tragedy of this situation is the cost to the Burmese people. A rough estimate by Burmese publication The Irrawaddy puts the construction costs at roughly $42 billion, but of course the longer development continues, the more this figure will increase.
The country is plagued by poverty and remains one of the poorest countries in South East Asia. Yet, instead of tackling this problem, the government continues to pour money into their new capital. And what's perhaps even more tragic is the fact that, to finance the project, the government has borrowed billions of dollars, mainly from the Central Bank, meaning future generations of Burmese people are going to be burdened with the debt.
But it's no real surprise, considering the way the military government's affinity for ignoring the Burmese people. In 2008, for instance, when Cyclone Nagris killed 130,000 people and left two to three million homeless, the government prevented most international humanitarian aid by declining to issue visas. Still, things are changing in the country. Than Shwe surprisingly stepped down in 2011, but the military still dominates as power has now been passed to another general, Thein Sein. Whether Thein Sein will deliver on his promise of democratic change remains to be seen. But one thing remains clear, building work will continue in earnest in Naypyidaw.
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