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In phantom capital, a city slowly takes shape

Siddharth Varadarajan

"Yangon was getting too crowded. Here, there is plenty of space for the Ministries"


  • The reason for the shift to Naypyitaw: Space. "Yangon was getting too crowded... "
  • It will always lack the urban cadences and unpredictable rhythms that characterise city life.

    — PHOTO: PTI

    FROM BUDDHA'S LAND: External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who is on a visit to Myanmar, at the Shwedagon pagoda in Yangon on Saturday.

    NAYPYITAW: Nobody quite knows what prompted the military government to relocate Myanmar's capital to this isolated, dusty place 320 km north of Yangon last year but judging by the pace and scale of construction under way here, the transfer is intended to be final and irrevocable.

    Astrologer's hand

    On November 6, 2005, at a time and date apparently chosen by an astrologer close to Senior General Than Shwe, the process of shifting Myanmar's seat of government to a vast but barren tract of land near Pyinmana village in Mandalay division officially began. The first to move were elements of the military, who built a garrison and a small dam for themselves to generate electricity. Next, the Ministries, most of which are headed by generals, began the process of shifting, though without the orderly precision of the soldiers who preceded them. As newer plots were carved out and official buildings began coming up, the tract of land was formally christened Naypyitaw — or royal palace — and declared the national capital of Myanmar. Fittingly, the declaration was made on Tatmadaw or Armed Forces Day — March 27 — at a military function here in 2006.

    Less than a year later, every single Ministry has moved but Naypyitaw is still very much a work in progress. In terms of spatial design, the emergent city is reminiscent of Islamabad, though considerably less green. A "hotel zone" with several luxury establishments has come up on the "outskirts," a district that the capital's planners say will eventually become "downtown." Further in, a number of brightly painted apartment buildings line the left side of the road, all of which are occupied by civil servants. On the right side, at some distance, were what appeared to be rather more modest huts, presumably for construction workers. And finally there is the government district. Later this year, Yangon-based embassies will be offered plots in the new capital and most will eventually make the move.

    Ask an official the reason for the shift to Naypyitaw and pat comes the answer: space. "Yangon was getting too crowded. Here, there is plenty of space for the Ministries," one civil servant said, though without apparent conviction. Given the lack of urban facilities, most bureaucrats — including those allocated three-bedroom flats — opted to move here by themselves, leaving their families behind in Yangon.

    Like any planned capital, there is indeed plenty of space, and perhaps even too much. An excellent divided road runs through the entire length of the government quarter and most ministries are situated on exits off that road at a distance from each other of several kilometres. Shuttle buses and motorcycle rickshaws allegedly ply up and down but in the half-day that his reporter spent shuttling back and forth between the Prime Minister's Office and the foreign, planning and religious affairs ministries, none was visible. Several civil servants said their respective Ministries ran shuttle buses in the morning and evening. Given the distances, missing the shuttle is clearly not an option.

    While it is likely that Naypyitaw will eventually grow to fill in the empty spaces between Ministries and also develop the usual civic amenities one associates with any capital, it will always lack the urban cadences and unpredictable rhythms that characterise city life in Yangon or Mandalay. Critics of Myanmar's military rulers insist this is the main reason why the generals decided to shift the capital to an isolated place, as if transferring the seat of power could provide insurance against an actual transfer of power of the kind restive crowds in confined urban spaces managed to achieve in the Ukraine two years ago.

    Others have speculated that the authorities felt Yangon was too vulnerable to outside attack and that Naypyitaw would be more secure. Some historians have also seen symbolic links between the recent shift of capital and an earlier tradition among the ancient Mon kings. What is certain, however, is that Myanmar has seen both transfers of capital and transfers of power before without there being any discernible relationship between the two. King Mindon moved his capital from Amarapura to Mandalay — a purpose-built city — in 1859, only to have his son, Thibaw, defeated and exiled by the British. From Mandalay, the capital shifted to Rangoon, the anglicised name for Yangon, and has now moved on to Naypyitaw. Judging by history, the new city may not remain the country's capital forever. But there is a good chance it will endure longer than the rulers who ordered it built.

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