Surrounded by Poverty, a Lifeless Capital Stands Aloof
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NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar -- The road leading to Myanmar's giant Parliament building is 20 lanes wide, well suited for military processions but eerily empty the rest of the time. A half-hour drive away, down this city's manicured avenues, is another immense edifice, still under construction: a military museum that will serve as a shrine to the country's generals and admirals. Across the way is a military training academy; farther down the road are rows of barracks and a vast parade ground.
Six years after Myanmar inaugurated Naypyidaw (pronounced nay-pee-DAW) as its new capital, the city remains austere and often lifeless, a costly monument to military rulers who no longer rule, since the junta handed over authority in March to the country's first civilian government in almost 50 years.
Attempts have been made to make the city more people-friendly. There is a theme park dedicated to uplifting "patriotic spirit" and a large fountain where civil servants can watch pulsing jets of water accompanied by Western pop songs with Burmese lyrics.
Most evenings, though, a tomblike silence descends on Naypyidaw.
"We are so bored here," said U Aung Myint, 20, a government employee who visited the fountain on a recent Saturday evening. "This is the only place to come at night."
On the outskirts of town, a warren of karaoke bars and a few nightclubs have sprouted up, but their clientele is mainly senior officers and officials.
The country, once known as Burma, has a long tradition of building new capitals, said Thant Myint-U, a Burmese historian. There is also a long history of resentment from those forced to live in them. Mandalay, the largest city in the northern reaches of the country, was built by King Mindon in the late 1850s; his ministers and courtiers fought the project "tooth and nail," Mr. Thant Myint-U said.
"Myanmar has always been a very difficult country to govern, messy and often violent, and many kings in the past have wanted to set up the capital as the antithesis of the natural and perhaps inevitable anarchy," he wrote in an e-mail. Each new capital, he said, was a "single place of order in a country where a more general order was impossible."
Building a new city amid the sugar-cane fields and rice paddies was a huge expense for Myanmar, one of Asia's poorest countries. The military junta never revealed the project's price tag, but Sean Turnell, a leading expert on the Burmese economy, estimates it at $3 billion to $4 billion. Only part of that was cash spending, Mr. Turnell said, because soldiers were used for construction labor, and various business conglomerates did much of the work in exchange for government concessions, notably logging rights to large areas of virgin forest in other parts of the country.
The grandiose boulevards of Naypyidaw, lined with flowers and shrubbery, are a jarring contrast to the subsistence living seen in the rest of the country.
In the neighboring town of Pyinmana, residents are so poor they sometimes pawn their sarongs. U Maung Maung, the owner of a pawn shop in the town, said that four or five times a month, someone would come in wanting to give him clothing as collateral for a loan; he offers them 2,000 kyat (about $2.50) for the sheet of cloth that men and women here wear around the waist, known as a longyi.
"Sometimes they bring crockery, but I don't accept it," Mr. Maung Maung said. "I don't have room for it."
Decades of isolation and economic mismanagement under military rule left Myanmar much poorer than its dynamic neighbors to the east and north. The generals and their business associates got rich, building mansions and importing fancy cars, but the rest of the population missed the economic boom that helped create a middle class in places like China, Thailand and Malaysia.
The new civilian government in Myanmar, led by President Thein Sein, wants to liberalize the economy, but change may take years to trickle down to the destitute. And meanwhile, Mr. Maung Maung said, "people are getting poorer and poorer."
The contrasts between the neighboring towns are striking. Pyinmana's sidewalks are broken, its narrow streets are dusty tracks, and its telephone and power lines are a hopeless tangle. Traffic there is barely contained chaos. Young men play guitar on street corners for passers-by.
Naypyidaw is roomy and regimented, with evenly spaced lampposts, tidy walkways and landscaped traffic islands. But the workers who keep them swept and watered are almost the only pedestrians in sight.
Naypyidaw is also prohibitively expensive by Myanmar standards. A plate of fried rice at a restaurant costs the equivalent of $3.75, a full day's wages for a bricklayer in the city.
Almost all the business that takes place in Naypyidaw is related to the government, something officials are trying to change. A manager at a hotel here said that businesses and nonprofit groups were being pressed to hold their meetings in Naypyidaw rather than Yangon, the country's principal city and former capital. The government has even set up semiannual auctions in Naypyidaw for the jade and rubies mined in northern Myanmar, in competition with Yangon.
The largest embassies in Yangon have so far resisted moving to Naypyidaw, but the city may become more attractive with time, said Mr. Thant Myint-U, the historian. After all, he said, "it took Washington decades before it became a place anyone would want to live in."
First Published December 14, 2011 12:00 am