On the march to a better future

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 04 January, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 04 January, 2007, 12:00am

The new administrative capital of Naypyidaw is taking shape and will be 'evergreen and crime-free'

NAYPYIDAW, AN entirely new city, became the world's youngest capital when Myanmar's government ministries were officially moved - lock, stock, and filing cabinet - on November 6, 2005, from the existing capital and port city Yangon (previously known as Rangoon) to an upcountry site near the town of Pyinmana in Mandalay State.

Moving a capital city to a purpose-built new site is by no means unprecedented - Nigeria undertook such a move in 1991 with Abuja, and Australia did the same in 1927 with Canberra, as have many other nations across the globe and over the centuries.

Nevertheless, the symbolism and costs involved in such an initiative means Myanmar's capital relocation represents an extraordinary development. On March 27 last year, more than 12,000 soldiers marched in Naypyidaw, marking the new capital's first public event: a military pageant to mark Myanmar's Armed Forces Day.

Over the parade ground loomed three enormous statues, depicting the kings Anawrahta, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya, considered to be the most important monarchs in the nation's history.

Two of them, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya, left military legacies in wars against, and conquest over, Siam (present-day Thailand). But the third, Anawrahta, left the most significant legacy of all.

In this land of monks and soldiers and a society characterised by an endless duality - religious devotion and faith in the power of armies - it was Anawrahta, the first Burman ruler of a united nation, who brought Theravada Buddhism to Myanmar.

The choice of locating the new capital near Pyinmana has enormous significance. It was from bases around here that the anti-colonial Burma Independence Army waged its war of national liberation against the British and the Japanese.

One feature of the new capital, and one that makes it different from teeming, chaotic Yangon, is that Naypyidaw is judiciously zoned into three distinct segments: administrative, military and residential. For security reasons, mobile phone usage is curtailed in Naypyidaw.

'Naypyidaw is the administrative capital and Yangon is, in effect, the commercial and economic capital,' Myanmar Consul-General Ye Myint Aung said. 'Yangon is getting overcrowded. So in this respect the relocation makes sense.'

Certainly a decentralisation has been an issue for many years, with Myanmar's centre of gravity being in the far south of the nation.

Others see a more complex picture. Yoichi Shimatsu, a Bangkok-based Myanmar-watcher, regional political commentator for the mainland's CCTV channel and former editor of The Japan Times Weekly, identifies three rationales for the relocation. His first concurs with Mr Aung's reasoning.

'There's an increasing need to separate the government and military functions from the commercial and economic, due to the burgeoning activities of the business community'.

Secondly, Shimatsu cited 'concern within the government that the nation might find itself squeezed between its traditional historical adversary Thailand and an India emboldened by explosive economic growth. The government is the military - it naturally thinks and operates in a defensive-strategic paradigm'.

Thirdly, 'in what is one of Asia's most superstitious societies, astrologers close to government circles have apparently predicted 'a looming cataclysm'. With Iraq and the Middle East ablaze, Asean blindsided by an unexpected Thai military coup, and new wars igniting across the Indian Ocean in the Horn of Africa, perhaps Myanmar's rulers are paying more heed than ever to the stargazers'.

Naypyidaw also enjoys greater access and proximity to Myanmar's most restive states, Shan, Karen and Chin, and commentators in Thailand and the west have speculated that a closer military and governmental presence will enable the government to more easily bring stability and economic development to these regions.

Two new hotels have just opened to accommodate the businessmen and diplomats who arrive there in greater numbers every day to get better acquainted with the relocated officialdom.

Construction is even under way, reportedly, of a replica of Yangon's Shwedagon pagoda - the nation's most identifiable icon, landmark and heritage site.

Given the advantages of starting from scratch, expectations and standards are high for the new capital. 'Our leadership laid down three requirements for Naypyidaw: to be evergreen, crime-free, and pollution-free,' national police chief Brigadier-General Khin Yee told visiting reporters last month.

The government has offered embassies and UN agencies in Yangon space in Naypyidaw, and they are being encouraged to consider relocating as the relocation process gathers pace.

While new buildings rise boldly out of the jungle foliage to allow the city to take its place among the pantheon of national capitals, Yangon's destiny now seems to point to a return to its traditional identity, that of a dreamy backwater.

Yangon's development took on a brisker pace after Myanmar joined Asean in 1997, but today's Yangon still has a tropical languor about it. And unlike Hong Kong, its landmarks can be counted on to remain where they are. The Sule Paya pagoda, a dazzlingly golden structure, lies at the centre of Yangon's downtown grid, and is the best place to orientate oneself and, amid the swirling human traffic, observe Yangon's many faces. The most eye-catching of these have gold dust on their cheeks - actually ground thanakha tree bark, a natural sunscreen used by beauty-conscious women throughout Myanmar.

Around the corner from Sule Paya, live sparrows are sold from tiny bamboo cages. You buy their freedom and they flutter into the jungle foliage that is never far away.

This freedom is illusive. The birds are trained to return after their liberator has wandered on.

Yangon's street life is colourful. Crimson-robed monks and merchants in longyis sit side by side sipping tea outside shophouses while asthmatic old buses pass by. Outside temples, vendors sell holy texts printed in the distinctive curlicue script of Myanmar.

Theravada Buddhism dominates life in Myanmar to an enormous extent. The country even has a Ministry of Religious Affairs whose role is to promote and protect the national faith, and to extend learning opportunities to visitors. And this ministry, like the others, has a new home in Naypyidaw.