Huge changes have recently taken place in Burma. A glittering new capital now rises from the plains, elections have been held and the military junta formally dissolved. At least, that’s what the army generals would like the international community to believe.
Inside the white halls of the new Burmese parliament, hundreds of recently elected lawmakers are getting to grips with the protocols of their new political system. They have much to learn: this is Burma’s first parliamentary session in over two decades. The gathering is the latest in a string of developments that have occurred here in Naypyidaw, the newly built administrative capital of Burma.
Elections in November paved the way for parliament to open on 31 January; February saw ex-general and ex-prime minister Thein Sein installed as president; and in late March, Burma’s military junta formally dissolved, vesting all official authority in the new parliamentary regime.
But it’s hard to believe that what’s happening behind those white walls is anything like democracy. The military and its proxy party hold 84 per cent of all parliamentary seats and the opposition, a ragbag of ethnic and democratic groupings, complains that they’re being frozen out of the body’s rubberstamp sessions. Aung San Suu Kyi’s party, the National League for Democracy, has no MPs at all.
But does the new parliament represent progress? The optimists argue that these are necessary first steps on a long road to genuine democracy. “It’s a slow transition that’ll take place, but it would be a mistake to say that nothing is changing,” says International Crisis Group’s Jim Della-Giacoma. “What we have now is an opportunity to remove some of the obstacles and start to engage with the regime.”
Others remain unconvinced, pointing out that Senior General Than Shwe, the long-time head of the junta, remains all-powerful behind the scenes. “Nothing happens in Naypyidaw without Than Shwe thinking it’s the best way for him to stay in power,” says Benjamin Zawacki, Amnesty International’s Burma researcher. “Ordinary people can see through it. The elections were so horribly rigged that any enthusiasm [for the system] has pretty well disappeared.” Whatever the political reality, the most remarkable development of all is arguably Naypyidaw itself, a city built from scratch out of central Burma’s empty scrubland as terra nova for the country’s new politics. Even now, no one knows why the generals decided to desert Naypyidaw’s predecessor, Rangoon, for a new administrative home. One theory is that the regime wanted an isolated spot that was impervious to popular uprising. Whatever the rationale, the junta has created an extraordinary place that must be Asia’s strangest capital city. Naypyidaw is huge – wantonly big. A smallish town in people terms, the government says it is 7 sq km, but it feels like more. Highways up to 20 lanes wide carve up the once empty plain, yet there is hardly a vehicle in sight. Naypyidaw is hours away from the next city and has no airport – its deliberate remoteness betraying the leaders’ urge to withdraw from the unruly and unhappy country that extends beyond it.
This is the city of Burmese generals’ dreams: it boasts golf courses and plush hotels, clear roads, modern housing and lights that stay on. Even the ordinary people who make the city function admit to being impressed. “I really like it,” says Win Win Za, a motorbike driver who works for one of the five-star hotels. “I come from a village that is quite near here but is nothing like this.” Air-conditioned houses, running water, decent roads – these are things the Burmese have aspired to for years, although for the vast majority the best of what Naypyidaw has to offer is on the other side of the fence, in special zones reserved for the military leadership. Naypyidaw still has much to prove. The generals may have changed the system – and they may even have changed the city – but the faces at the top look very much the same.
Burma in numbers:
Population: 54 million
Per capita GDP: $1,100 (€750)
Population below the poverty line: 32.7 per cent
Mobile phones: 502,000
Paved roads: 3,200km