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Story Publication logo April 7, 2015

Burma's Bizarre Capital: A Super-Sized Slice of Post-Apocalypse Suburbia

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Aid agencies and NGOs are increasingly partnering with large corporations. Is this the answer to...

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The Uppatasanti pagoda is a replica of the famous Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon. Unlike the original, this one is hollow. Image by Nic Dunlop/Panos Pictures. Burma, 2014.

Driving through Naypyidaw, the purpose-built capital of Burma, it could be easy to forget that you're in the middle of one of south-east Asia's poorest countries. On either side of the street, a seemingly endless series of giant detached buildings, villa-style hotels and shopping malls look like they have fallen from the sky, all painted in soft pastel colours: light pink, baby blue, beige. The roads are newly paved and lined with flowers and carefully pruned shrubbery. Meticulously landscaped roundabouts boast large sculptures of flowers.

The scale of this surreal city is difficult to describe: it extends an estimated 4,800 square kilometres, six times the size of New York City. Everything looks super-sized. The streets – clearly designed for cars and motorcades, not pedestrians nor leisurely strolls – have up to 20 lanes and stretch as far as the eye can see (the rumour is these grandiose boulevards were built to enable aircraft to land on them in the event of anti-government protests or other "disturbances"). There is a safari park, a zoo complete with air-conditioned penguin habitat, and at least four golf courses. Unlike in much of the country, there is reliable electricity here. Many of the restaurants have free, fast Wi-Fi.

The only thing Naypyidaw doesn't have, it seems, is people. The vast highways are completely empty and there is a stillness to the air. Nothing moves. Officially, the city's population is 1 million, but many doubt this is anywhere close to the true figure. On a bright Sunday afternoon, the streets are silent, restaurants and hotel lobbies empty. It looks like an eerie picture of post-apocalypse suburban America; like a David Lynch film on location in North Korea.

Welcome to one of the world's most peculiar capital cities. Built from scratch in the middle of rice paddies and sugar-cane fields, Naypyidaw (often translated as "Seat of the King") was unveiled as Burma's new capital in November 2005, by the then military regime. It is rumoured to have cost up to $4bn to construct, in a country that spends just 0.4% of its GDP on healthcare for its people – by far the lowest in the world.

In recent years, the city's bizarre urban plan and strange emptiness has become something of an international curiousity. The BBC's Top Gear team marvelled at the city's desolate boulevards when they visited last year as part of a special episode filmed in the country, kicking a football around, staging a drag-race down the vast, empty roads, and joking about the difficulties of navigating the capital's non-existent morning rush hour.

But to focus on Naypyidaw's wide, empty streets is to risk missing the ubiquitous street cleaners which are their only pedestrians, walking in pairs in their neon-green vests, sweeping the already pristine streets for hours each day. Or the small army of labourers, piling bricks with their bare hands as the city's construction continues.

Although a nominally civilian government has ruled Burma since 2011, local residents are wary of speaking to us. Those who do plead for their real names not to be used. "It's not safe," says one man who moved to Naypyidaw two years ago. "The government has changed, but it's still the same."

Naypyidaw is a study in contrasts; two worlds living side-by-side – a bizarre suburban city plunked in the middle of a desperately poor country. "This city is mainly for government staff, government buildings," laments the man, sitting in the shopping mall where he works. "It's not very interesting here. Most people are not that happy; they are just living here because they can earn money, because they can work here."

The strength of executive power feels so ever-present that you'd have to be a very brave man or woman to break the law in this Beverly Hills-style panopticon. According to Reporters Without Borders, a local photojournalist and a writer for a religious magazine were sentenced in 2006 to three years in prison, merely for taking photos of Naypyidaw.

The city's origins are clouded in rumour and speculation. Some describe it as a vanity project of Than Shwe, the former military leader of the country. Many believe the "audacious" name given to the city might reflect "illusions of grandeur or ... perhaps another sign of [Than Shwe's] possible dementia", according to one 2006 US government diplomatic cable, released in the trove of documents published by Wikileaks.

Other theories have pointed to an increasingly paranoid junta wanting to move the capital away from the sea, fearing an amphibious US invasion. Instead, the seat of military and political power now sits closer to the restive regions where separatist movements and ethnic groups are pushing for greater rights for bitterly oppressed minorities, including the Karen and Rohingya.

The regime, and Than Shwe, pitched the move to Naypyidaw as akin to building a new Canberra or Brasilia, an administrative capital away from the traffic jams and over-population of Rangoon. Not many believe this story. "By withdrawing from the major city, Rangoon, Than Shwe and the leadership ... sheltered themselves from any popular uprising," suggest activists Benedict Rogers and Jeremy Woodrum in their book Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma's Tyrant.

Naypyidaw's monumental parliament buildings' complex has a moat running round it. The closest you can get before you are stopped by imposing metal gates and soldiers still makes it difficult to make out the buildings properly. There are also rumours of a vast network of tunnels under the city – with photos apparently emerging of North Korean technicians advising the government on how to build them.

The road to Naypyidaw from Rangoon runs more than 300km north through fields and softly rolling hills. On Sunday it is almost entirely empty, silent apart from the occasional car or lorry carrying dozens of passengers packed in the back like a makeshift minibus. Along the side of the road, signs remind drivers to stay alert and abide by speed limits: "Life is a Journey. Complete it," urges one.

Although the highway is empty, and travellers say it is the best road in the country, it has been plagued by reports of fatal accidents. Some have gone so far as to dub it "Death Highway", with critics saying the road to the new capital was rushed, with little funding invested in safety measures.

In Rangoon, foreign aid workers laugh when asked whether they would be willing to relocate to Naypyidaw. Instead they make the five-hour trip by car or, more recently, plane. With flights costing as much as $350 per round trip, it's hard not to wonder whether the commute is a good use of development money.

"It's a challenge," admits one British NGO worker in Rangoon; she and two other colleagues had flown up to Naypyidaw the previous morning for a meeting, flying back again in the evening. "It's quite bizarre and it's quite empty. It's a strange place, yes, but the capital's there so you have to go."

"I came back just last night. I'm going tomorrow again," adds a top foreign aid official in Rangoon. "I go once a week and spend two nights there – ask my wife and my kids what they think."

Another says she'll fly to Naypyidaw in the morning and come back around noon on a tiny commercial plane of 66 seats, all of which are usually full. "I think we are getting quite used to the pattern," she says. "Sometimes we jokingly say that spending a few days in Naypyidaw is quite a refreshing thing. At least there are no traffic jams."

Sitting under cafe umbrellas, outside one of Naypyidaw's giant shopping malls, a pair of UN consultants are chatting with their laptops out on the table. It's their first time in Burma and they're cursing their luck at having been sent here, instead of Rangoon.

"The hotels are really funny, they feel cheap – kind of beautiful on the outside and not so good on the inside, with everything falling apart and no hot water, mouldy, smelly," says one of the consultants, who also asks to remain anonymous because of her work with the government.

"We didn't really know what to expect when we came here; we thought Burma is still quite underdeveloped so we didn't really expect these huge roads," she adds. "It's super-deserted, like a ghost town … I just feel so awkward here."

Naypyidaw is not the only "politically-motivated" city-built-from-scratch. In its creation by authoritarian master-planners, it contains echoes of other settlements such as Astana in Kazakhstan, Oyala in Equatorial Guinea, or the bizarre Gbadolite development of Mobutu Sese Seko, former dictator of what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. Burma itself has a long history of moving the capital around the country: Mandalay, its last royal capital, on the east bank of the Irrawaddy river, was built by King Mindon in the late 19th century.

Naypyidaw is laid out in large unwieldy "zones" – hotels; government buildings; officials' residences; the military compound (ringed by imposing metal fences and soldiers) – making it very hard to work out where the centre of the city actually lies. This, too, was perhaps intentional: there is no natural Tahrir Square-style public place in which to congregate. One Indian journalist who visited the city described it as "dictatorship by cartography".

This authoritarian feel seems hard-wired into the city's very design. Stories of people being forced to move to Naypyidaw – or forced to move away – have tarnished the carefully calculated triumph of this purpose-built capital since its earliest days.

"The new capital city," said another 2006 US diplomatic cable, also published by Wikileaks, "lacks essential infrastructure; relocated government offices cannot function normally; and thousands of civil servants who have been ordered to move face considerable personal hardships." The Burmese regime, it added, "threatened to impose harsh prison sentences on, or deny pensions to, civil servants who refused to relocate; there have been reports of several arrests."

No one knows exactly when work started on the city, as it was all done in secret. But looking at the sheer scale of the venture, it would be hard to imagine being able to design and construct it in less than a decade.

"The area around Naypyidaw was depopulated in order to seal the huge compound off from the outside world," said a local Thai newspaper at the time. "Entire villages disappeared from the map, their inhabitants driven off land their families had farmed for centuries. Hundreds – perhaps thousands – joined Burma's abused army of 'internally displaced persons'. Able-bodied villagers, however, were 'enlisted' to help build the new capital."

The city's planners included a number of leisure activities in their designs to "soften up" the capital. In addition to the city zoo, and its many golf courses, there's a gargantuan, 165-acre meticulously manicured park, and an eco-resort with water slides, spa and beach on the shores of a man-made lake just outside the city. But few of Naypyidaw's low-income residents can afford to enjoy these attractions.

On Sunday afternoon, half a dozen people stand in the middle of a golf course dressed in matching blue polo shirts, practising their putts on perfectly manicured grass. Behind them, a golden pagoda glints in the sunshine. Walking down the verdant lawn, sprinklers humming faintly in the distance, you would be forgiven for forgetting that you're in the middle of one of the world's poorest countries, where two out of five children below the age of five are under-nourished.

Take a wrong turn at the foot of the Yepyar Golf Course, however, and you will find yourself on a muddy, unpaved road with refuse scattered left and right. A small child walks barefoot by a tiny stall that serves as the street's only shop, stocking every variety of chewy candy but no food or water.

Look closely, too, at the golden Uppatasanti Pagoda, shining in the sunlight, and you'll see it's a replica, a synthetic copy of the ancient Shwedagon Pagoda in Rangoon. Everything in Naypyidaw is like this – very little here is more than a decade old.

Down one street stands a mammoth gems and jewellery showroom, where an expansive hall is packed with 40 gleaming high-end jewellery stalls. The women behind the stalls seem to wear forced smiles, as if they've been painted on, and their eyes follow you around the room. There are dozens of people working here, but no customers. It's completely silent.

In the nearby "hotel zone", you can eat lunch or drink a martini at Cafe Flight, a restaurant built inside a salvaged airplane that was apparently wrecked and brought here as an attraction for visitors hungry for local cuisine. It is empty apart from a solitary couple enjoying a quiet Valentine's day lunch. Lunch costs $5 – more than twice what many low-income workers in the country will earn in a day.

In the city's residential zones, rooftops are colour-coded according to where people work in the "ministry zone". Many rank-and-file government workers live in dormitories and military-style barracks while the top officials have opulent mansions. It is rumoured that opposition politicians have smaller lodgings than the ruling party honchos – a petty touch, perhaps, but entirely in keeping with this monument to hierarchy.

In recent years, Naypyidaw has joined the global summit circuit, hosting events and meetings with world leaders and specialist experts. Barack Obama was in town last year; David Cameron came in 2012. That same year, after winning her historic seat in parliament, Aung San Suu Kyi, the thorn in the side of the regime, also made her way to Naypyidaw to live. Officials of her NLD party say she rented a house in the suburbs – a far cry from the iconic lakeside villa on Inya Lake where she was kept under house arrest on and off for 15 years.

Naypyidaw, too, is a long way from the shining emblem of the "new Burma" that the government has been trying to push. With its sparkling new international airport, the city feels like an extreme test of the "if you build it, they will come" theory. But so far, with the government already having moved at least one of its investment agencies back to Rangoon, it's looking like a spectacular failure.


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