Myanmar’s Quixotic Capital City

  • Farmers tend to rice paddy on a so-called model farm close to the house of President U Thein Sein. The President is a financial investor in the project.

    Farmers tend to rice paddy on a so-called model farm close to the house of President U Thein Sein. The President is a financial investor in the project.

  • A sole motorbike travels along the 20-lane road that leads to the country's parliament complex in Naypyidaw.

    A sole motorbike travels along the 20-lane road that leads to the country's parliament complex in Naypyidaw.

  • A gardener at the City Golf course in Naypyidtaw is photographed beside the netting of the driving range.

    A gardener at the City Golf course in Naypyidtaw is photographed beside the netting of the driving range.

  • A group of women pay homage inside the Uppasanti Pagoda in Naypyidaw.

    A group of women pay homage inside the Uppasanti Pagoda in Naypyidaw.

  • Uppatasanti Pagoda is a 99-meter-high replica of Yangon's historic Shwedagon.

    Uppatasanti Pagoda is a 99-meter-high replica of Yangon's historic Shwedagon.

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Myanmar’s new capital, Naypyidaw, is no longer the secretive redoubt that its military planners envisioned. But now that it’s built (more or less), will anyone come?

By Thomas Kean
Photographs by Christopher Davy

On a recent visit to Myanmar’s eight-year-old capital, Naypyidaw, I turned off the highway from Yangon and followed an empty stretch of concrete through a roundabout and along what my map indicated was a major avenue. After a few hundred meters, the four-lane road ended at a dirt track, raised above rich green rice fields and stretching into the distance. It was evening, so the track was lined with bicycles and bullock carts carrying farmers home to nearby villages. After asking one of them for directions, I pulled an uncharacteristically wild U-turn, across all four lanes. It was only then that it occurred to me that I had not seen another car in the 15 minutes since I left the highway.

Once shrouded in secrecy, Naypyidaw (also spelled Nay Pyi Taw) is still far from complete. Most of its main roads are lined with construction sites for hotels and housing estates. Cars and motorbikes idle at traffic lights, though hardly any other vehicles cross their path. An embassy zone is still largely empty. Even the city’s “official” population of one million has yet to be filled out. Of those who already live in Naypyidaw, many are civil servants who moved here reluctantly in 2005 when the capital was shifted from Yangon, 320 kilometers to the south.

Naypyidaw is the world’s latest example of a planned city, built from scratch in a hitherto remote and arid hinterland of central Myanmar. Unlike other made-to-order seats of government (Brasília, say, or Putrajaya in Malaysia), Naypyidaw is above all else a city designed by the military, for the military. Its monumental state buildings are grand but austere. The pyathat-roofed parliament complex is surrounded by a moat. Even the name (Nay-pyidaw means “place of kings”) serves as a link with the empire-building monarchs of Myanmar’s past, three of whom—Alaungpaya, Anawrahta, and Bayinnaung—tower over a vast parade ground in statue form. Visitors wanting a further glimpse into the mindset of the country’s generals can head to the Defence Services Museum, so large it would take several days to study all the exhibits.

Naypyidaw has been described as the desperate and profligate creation of a paranoid regime seeking to isolate itself from the world, or at least from the threat of foreign invasion. But since the military handed over power to President Thein Sein in March 2011, whatever siege mentality once infused the place has dissipated. Almost overnight, Naypyidaw has gone from being the bastion of a pariah state to the showpiece of a nation that is now the darling of the international community. One of Thein Sein’s first decisions was to suspend work on nonessential government construction projects in the capital. A ban on tourists, which was only occasionally enforced, was also lifted. And in the by-elections of April 2012, all four of Naypyidaw’s constituencies—previously represented by senior military officials—went to members of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy. Suu Kyi herself won a seat farther south, near Yangon, and in 18 months she went from home detention to house-hunting in Naypyidaw, where she now lives during parliamentary sessions.

The World Economic Forum on East Asia, held here in June, can perhaps be considered the city’s coming-out party. Senior executives from some of the world’s largest firms—GE, Coca-Cola, Walmart—filled the hotels and booked out the rental cars. Standard Chartered threw a party with a circus theme, including acrobats and stilt walkers. And then, after the final handshakes and exchanging of business cards, the delegations rolled out of town and Naypyidaw was quiet again.

Next up will be the 27th Southeast Asian Games, which open on December 11. They’re expected to bring more foreign visitors to the city (which is cohosting them with Yangon and Mandalay) than any single event to date. Private firms have been enlisted to ensure there are enough hotel rooms for athletes and other visitors. Modern stadia and arenas—for football, swimming, and cycling—have been built on what just a few years ago was scrubland. It is estimated that the government has spent as much as US$400 million preparing for the event, a staggering sum in a country as poor as Myanmar. Some see it as a test run for some of the larger ASEAN meetings that Myanmar will host in 2014, when it takes up the association’s rotational chair position.

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