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Tuesday, June 2, 2015

the deserted streets of the new Capital of Burma [Myanmar]

People used to be proud of their General Knowledge – the name(s) of Capital cities, the currencies, the Head of Govt were frequently asked Qs in interviews and in Quiz shows.  In keeping with that do you know, the name of Capital of ‘Burma’  ?

Going by the reports in and MailOnline, the roads of Naypyidaw impresses one beyond a point.   They are wide and 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.  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.

For the not so well informed, the Burmese capital is no longer ‘Yangon’ but –‘Naypidaw’ [seat of the King] from Nov. 2005.  It is administered as the Naypyidaw Union Territory, as per the 2008 Constitution.   The military regime purposely-built the city from scratch in the middle of rice paddies and sugar-cane fields. Government workers were reportedly given just 48 hours to make the 200-mile move.  Today the built-from-scratch city stands as a beacon of nationalistic excess in the largely impoverished country, with sprawling government buildings, eight-lane highways, golf-courses, Vegas-inspired hotels, elaborate gardens, malls, movie theaters, and more.  It has  24-hour power, a rarity in the region, but the nearly 3,000 square mile capital has very few traces of human life. Devoid of the rich colonial history and bustling commercial activity of the former capital, Naypyidaw is like a city without a soul—an empty, ostentatiously adorned shell, which houses only 2 percent of the country.

The military junta claimed the move was a logical one, necessary to escape the crowding of Yangon and to be closer to the center of the country. Citizens, however, have their own theories. Many believe the move was an effort to escape the people themselves in order to lessen the threat of nationwide demonstrations, which are often held in urban centres.  Another local legend has it that the migration was pure paranoia on the part of Than Shwe, the then head of the military government who was known to be deeply superstitious. An astrologer reportedly told Shwe that an attack by the Americans was imminent, and urged that he escape Yangon as quickly as possible. He took her word. Clearly, the rest of the country did not.

The road to the presentday capital from Yangon runs more than 300km north through fields and softly rolling hills. On a Sunday, it is almost entirely empty, silent apart from the occasional car or lorry carrying dozens of packed-in passengers, 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 virtually empty, and travellers say it is the best road in the country, it has been plagued by reports of fatal accidents. Some have dubbed it "Death Highway", and critics say the road to the new capital was rushed, with little funding invested in safety measures.

In Yangon, foreign aid workers laugh when asked whether they would be willing to relocate to Naypyidaw.  Instead, they make the five-hour trip by car. Others take a plane. With flights costing as much as US$350 per round trip, it's hard not to wonder whether the commute is a good use of development money. Despite the fact that the government set aside almost 5 acres of land each for foreign embassies and headquarters of UN missions, only the Bangladeshi embassy has moved to Naypyidaw so far.

In the early part of the last century occurred the transfer of capital of British India from Calcutta to Delhi in 1911. Charles Hardinge, served as Viceroy of India from 1910 to 1916. During his tenure occurred the visit of King George V; the Delhi Durbar of 1911,  and the shift of  capital from Calcutta to New Delhi.   The shifting of the capital put Delhi back on India’s political map and changed the course of its history. British India’s imperial capital today remains the political nerve centre of the country.

With regards – S. Sampathkumar
15th May 2015.

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