The final stretch of the road from Mandalay to Burma’s new capital has not yet been paved. The buses into town bounce past impoverished Burmese villages and through military checkpoints flying the tattered national flag. Then the dirt road widens into an empty 10-lane freeway and Burma’s enormous new parliament comes into view. The vast complex is built in the traditional style of Burmese royal palaces: high white walls and gabled roofs. It sits alone in a sprawling landscape of scrubland and forest. The entire complex is deserted save for the lone guard who tells monocle that parliamentarians are not working today.
The parliament building is just one of many mega-projects in the city. Some 10,000 workers are building a colossal new war museum on a 400-acre plot. The huge, half-built Romanesque structure surrounds a fountain which will be Southeast Asia’s largest. Around it, displays of old warplanes, tanks and even gunboats show off the country’s metal. Nearby, another legion of workers is busy constructing a stadium for the 2013 Asian Games. The event promises to be a coming-out party for Burma after decades of sanctions and self-imposed isolation. Teams of workers are busy creating buildings to impress the world.
These epic construction projects are not about fostering democracy. Naypyidaw is Burma’s new capital and the brainchild of an uneducated, paranoid and superstitious general, the country’s former supreme leader, Than Shwe. In 2005, Shwe officially moved the nation’s capital here, 320km north of its predecessor Rangoon. Convoys of civil servants migrated en masse to the capital. By 2009, official estimates stated the population was 925,000.“The city is planned like a battlefield,” says one Burmese architect who, like so many people in this secretive and closed-off country, agreed to speak to monocle only on the condition of anonymity. “The planning process reflects the mindset of the generals. The city is designed to prevent people from communicating with each other.”
One only has to glance at the map to see that the city is an experiment in social control though urban planning. Naypyidaw is a constellation of isolated districts separated by kilometres of forest and scrubland. There are hotel districts one and two, with clusters of villas and artificial lakes, set along the main highway. There are residential districts for the various ministries, where civil servants live in blocks of different sizes, according to their rank. There are suburban developments where top officials live in faux-Roman mansions behind high barbed wire fences. Beyond them lies a sprawling matrix of military developments. Many of these places are off limits for foreigners. From one hill near the parliament, an oversized replica of the White House is visible in the distance surrounded by lush green forest. It is one of the three vice-presidential palaces.
Every morning shuttle buses in the form of decked lorries collect teams of bureaucrats and carry them along desolate freeways to the ministries in the north of the city. The 11 ministerial compounds are located miles apart, in valleys and behind hillocks. At 16.30 the same shuttle buses carry them back to their residential units. Naypyidaw is built to minimise contact between officials and ordinary people. Twice a week the shuttle brings them to the grocery market.
There is no industry in Naypyidaw. Commerce is limited to the thrice-yearly gem auction when Chinese traders fill hotel districts one and two to shop for jade, rubies and emeralds. A mural in the huge, empty gem museum depicts a Chinese businessman shaking hands and exchanging gifts with an officer in full uniform. When monocle attempts to visit the Gem Trading Emporium a guard, whose teeth are stained red from chewing betel, blocks our way. “No foreigners are allowed,” he says, as Chinese traders stream in and out.
Leisure pursuits are limited in the new capital. For entertainment, there is an impressive zoo, with white lions, tigers and even penguins. In the nearby park are mini replicas of Burmese national landmarks. There is also a fountain park, where a group of Buddhist monks swim in an outdoor pool under neon-lit plastic palm trees. “Before there was nothing but teak forests and timber smugglers here,” says Pyin Nya Nanda, 26. “My village was demolished to make way for Naypyidaw. But we are happy with the compensation and development.”
Than Shwe’s blueprint is not just about splendour and social control. Naypyidaw is also the result of the general’s deeply held superstitious beliefs. Like other Burmese men of power he has constructed pagodas to gain merit and atone for sins in preparation for his next reincarnation. He has also consulted astrologers to advise on town planning issues. Outside on the temple ground a famous Burmese astrologer, Saw Yu Nwe Zin, recounts her conversations with the high ranking military officers. “They come with their families and ask what will happen to them. Will they be promoted or demoted? I use tarot cards and their horoscopes to answer them.”
Evidence of superstitious planning decisions are everywhere. In one part of the capital there is an enclosure where the regime keeps white elephants, considered auspicious in Southeast Asia. Even the move to the new capital was planned with the movements of the stars in mind. Six is considered to be Than Shwe’s lucky number and 11 is the astrologically auspicious number of Naypyidaw: Than Shwe left Rangoon on 6 November 2005. Then, at 11.00 on 11 November 2005, he opened 11 ministries in Naypyidaw.
The original decision to move the capital surprised everyone. Thousands of officials had to pack up and leave with only days’ notice. Those who refused faced prison sentences ranging from three to five years. Even the city’s architects had no idea what their project entailed when they arrived in 2001. “There were rumours that we were building a nuclear power plant, but that didn‘t make sense,” says an architect who was involved in the planning and surveying of the capital in 2001 and who spoke to monocle on condition of anonymity. “In the beginning we were ordered to design a settlement for 500,000 people. It was going to be a sparsely populated city with 10 to 11 large offices. ”
He denies the allegations that slave labour was used to construct the city. “There was no conscript labour,” he says, “Some child labour, yes, but no slaves. All the workers got paid and it was done by Burmese companies.” The architect also rejects the suggestion that the city is planned like a battlefield. “Security had nothing to do with it,” he says. “We thought that everything should follow an organic design. Our orders were to space out the offices so they would be surrounded by greenery.” Others disagree. “The government servants in Naypyidaw still have their hearts in Rangoon,” says another architect. “That is evident. Every weekend they take the bus back.”
Over the past few years, the Burmese junta has taken some small, faltering steps towards democracy. Than Shwe stepped down last year, even though many analysts believe he still wields considerable power. Elections have taken place and, although they were considered far from free and fair, they did result in a new civilian government. Hundreds of political prisoners have been released, including Aung San Suu Kyi.
Despite the limited progress it’s difficult to see how a democratic country can be run from a city built to isolate a paranoid ruler from his people. The city’s architecture is anti-democratic and designed to restrict communication. And it is equally hard to imagine the military ever allowing Aung San Suu Kyi to move in to their secret Royal Palace.
But the city’s vast parliament complex may soon have a function. On 1 April, Suu Kyi will contest a by-election and is expected to win. Whether her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), will be able to wield any power over the army-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party (usdp), which won around 80 per cent of the rigged vote in 2010, is another question. If Suu Kyi is successful in gaining any representation in the much-heralded new democracy, she will have to reside in the new metropolis or commute from Rangoon to Naypyidaw, like the rest of Burma’s reluctant officials. She will have to attend a parliament that is situated in a forest, cut off from the outside world by a river and two easily defendable bridges. There, she might experience a different type of isolation from the 15 years she spent under house arrest.
Some Burmese people think that if a free and fair Burma is ever to emerge, the capital should move back to Rangoon, where the old 440-seat parliament, the Pyithu Hluttaw, still stands. Others think Naypyidaw is here to stay. “In the beginning no one thought this place would become a permanent city. But now there is so much infrastructure in place,” says the architect involved in designing the city, pointing over the manicured lawns of the Thingaha Hotel, where US secretary of state Hillary Clinton stayed during her historic visit in December 2011. “A metro is planned. Strategically, it’s perfectly located in the heart of Burma.”
Any future democratic leader of Burma will have their work cut out. The country is the second poorest in Asia after Afghanistan and third most corrupt in the world after Afghanistan and Somalia. Constant war since independence in 1948 has created countless victims and refugees, not to mention the persecution of ethnic tribes. To top it all off, they will have to deal with an expensive and hungry white elephant ready to devour the resources of this emerging country: Naypyidaw, Than Shwe’s battlefield capital.
Look what we built: customised capitals
Prompted in part by the unstoppable expansion of Lagos, as well as a sensible desire to address northern concerns that too much focus was on the south, Nigeria’s leaders chose to create a new capital in the heart of the country in the 1970s. At the time it was little more than a village; now it’s a bizarre Potemkin show city that is far too expensive for most of the government workers forced to move there. The masterplan is based on – of all places – the UK city of Milton Keynes.
Côte d’Ivoire’s capital was moved from Abidjan in 1983 because it was the hometown of then president Félix Houphouët-Boigny. Its parliament is still being constructed, as is a senate building, despite the fact that Côte d’Ivoire doesn’t actually have a senate. The Basilicia of our Lady of Peace of Yamoussoukro has been completed though. The biggest church in the world, it has been full just twice – when it was opened by Pope John Paul II and for Houphouët-Boigny’s funeral.
Built on an empty plain hundreds of miles inland, Brasília was an idea that Brazil had for years – a new capital was written in the constitution. But it wasn’t until Minas Gerais-born Juscelino Kubitschek became president in 1956 that the decision to move from Rio was made. With a host of Oscar Niemeyer-designed buildings, Brasília aimed to promote a vision of a modern, thriving country when it was inaugurated in 1960 – just three years after construction on the new city had first begun.