Asia
1:46 pm
Fri November 18, 2011

Myanmar's Ghost Capital Rises From The Jungle

Originally published on Tue February 28, 2012 10:31 am

The government of Myanmar bars or severely restricts reporting by foreign correspondents. NPR is withholding the name of the veteran journalist who recently entered the country and filed this story, in order to protect his identity and his ability to return in the future.

The newest — and nicest — road in Myanmar is, paradoxically, one of the emptiest as well: Only a handful of cars travel along the desolate four-lane highway to nowhere, or so it seems.

But in fact, it leads to Naypiydaw, a new city in one of the world's poorest countries, carved out of the jungle and built from scratch by an aging, autocratic leader who then moved the nation's seat of government there, lock, stock and barrel.

That leader, Senior Gen. Than Shwe, stepped down this year — in theory, at least — but the city he ordered built is almost finished.

Strange Luxury In The Jungle

Naypiydaw is a place very few people go willingly. But if they did, they'd find a newer — and nicer — version of the national zoo that had been in the former capital, Yangon. On a recent day, the boisterous gibbons seem happy — though visitors are few, even on a holiday. But the zoo is still impressive, with an air-conditioned penguin house and an aquarium.

In February, the military gilded the cage a little more, opening a safari camp next door, which features lions, tigers and giraffes, kangaroos, wallabies and rhinos. It, too, has almost no visitors.

But no matter, there's plenty of cheap labor to keep things running smoothly. And more, it seems, to keep Naypiydaw's lush new gardens and the medians of its expansive eight-lane boulevards trimmed to perfection, mostly by hand.

The new capital boasts round-the-clock power — a rarity in Myanmar — two new shopping malls and several well-stocked supermarkets. There are golf courses, two new movie theaters and a full-scale replica of Yangon's famous Shwedegon pagoda. There is also a Vegas-style collection of hotels on the main boulevard into town. Almost all of them are nearly empty.

Located on a nearby hilltop, the Mount Pleasant Hotel is another nice place to stay. It affords fantastic views of the Shan mountains and the sprawling new city below. The restaurant staff says Than Shwe, head of the former ruling military government, and the country's new president, Thein Sein, go there often.

A surreptitious drive around the city gives a more detailed view about what several billion dollars — and, some say, forced labor — can build.

A Citadel From Its Own Citizens?

On the surface, the city is impressive. But it's problematic, given the country's incredible poverty, and raises questions about how much money was spent on this white elephant in the jungle.

At the time — in 2005 — the government said that the existing capital Yangon was too crowded and too far away from the rest of the country to function as the capital. Officials said they chose Naypiydaw because it is in the country's actual geographic center.

The unofficial and more bizarre explanation for the move is that Than Shwe, the head of the ruling military government, was scared because an astrologer told him that an attack was coming — possibly from the Americans — and that he should get out of Yangon as quickly as he could. He did just that, taking the entire infrastructure and simply picking it up and moving it into the jungle, 210 miles to the north of Yangon. This is the version many people in Myanmar believe.

And many also believe the military moved because they were afraid of their own people as well, and, despite their grip on power, felt safer in a place where there were no people — except the ones they chose to bring.

This cocoon for the military was constructed largely in secret, and the government abruptly relocated in 2005 — giving civil servants 48 hours to move, the story goes, or else. That's resulted in divided families, many of whom still cram the new capital's bus station on weekends for the trip to or from Yangon.

Foreign governments, however, have so far declined to move their embassies to this jungle outpost.

Now, workers are scrambling to finish construction on a new 30,000-seat stadium being built for the 2013 Southeast Asian Games. Naypiydaw is scheduled to host the event. It's a coming-out party of sorts for a city until recently off-limits to foreigners and one far away from those the military may fear the most, Myanmar's citizens.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

So there's been some change in Myanmar but its leaders still haven't abandoned one tendency of dictators: building monuments to themselves. Myanmar's aging Senior General Than Shwe has built a whole new capital city from scratch, carved out of the jungle.

We're going to hear now from a reporter who visited the city called Naypyidaw. It's a place foreigners were only recently allowed to visit, and foreign reporters are not welcome - which is why we're not giving his name.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARS)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The newest and nicest road in Myanmar is paradoxically one of the emptiest, as well, only a handful of cars on a desolate four lane highway to nowhere or so it seems. A place very few people go willingly.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIBBONS)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: If they did, they'd find a newer and nicer National Zoo moved here from the former capital, Yangon.

(SOUNDBITE OF GIBBONS)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The gibbons here seem happy, though visitors are few even on a holiday. But the zoo is still impressive. It's even got an air conditioned penguin house and an aquarium. And in February, the, military gilded the cage a little more.

The recently opened safari camp next door boasts lions, tigers and giraffes, kangaroos, wallabies and rhinos. And it, too, has almost no visitors. But no matter, there's plenty of cheap labor to keep things running smoothly. And more, it seems, to keep Naypidaw's lush new gardens and the medians of its expansive eight-lane boulevards trimmed to perfection mostly by hand - an army of laborers in long sleeve shirts and broad-brimmed hats to protect them from the scorching sun.

The new capital boasts 24 hour power - a rarity in Myanmar - two new shopping malls and several well-stocked supermarkets. There are golf courses, two new movie theatres and a full-scale replica of Yangon's famous Shwedegon Pagoda. There is also a Vegas-style collection of hotels on the main boulevard into town, almost all of them nearly empty, and a nice one on a nearby hilltop too.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Good afternoon.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: We were told your hotel is the nicest hotel in Naypidaw.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Is that right?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Of course. Of course?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Would you say that anyway?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: I'm sure that's the best.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: The Mt. Pleasant Hotel affords fantastic views of the nearby Shan Mountains and the sprawling new city below. The restaurant staff says Senior General Than Shwe and the new president, Thein Sein, come here often, presumably to gaze down with satisfaction on what they've created. Back in the car, a surreptitious drive around the city gives a more detailed view about what several billion dollars and, some say, forced labor can build.

And I have to say on the surface, I mean, it's all pretty impressive. It's done on a huge scale. It's done on a scale that they seem to have pulled off. But then you think about the incredible poverty of the people of this country - most of the people of this country - and how much money was wasted building this white elephant in the middle of the jungle. And then you start to wonder why.

Officially, the government says – or said at the time - that the existing capital, Yangon, was just too crowded and too far away from the rest of the country to really function effectively as a capital. And they chose this place, Naypyidaw, because it's actually in the geographical center of the country.

The unofficial version and the more bizarre one is that Senior General Than Shwe was scared. He was scared because he was told by an astrologer that an attack was coming from outside, possibly by the Americans, and that he should get out of Yangon - get out of Dodge - as quickly as he could and he did. And he took the entire infrastructure, the entire governmental infrastructure and he simply picked it up and moved it to this place in the jungle, 210 miles to the north. That's the version that most people believe.

And many here also believe the military moved because they were afraid of their own people as well. And despite their grip on power, felt safer in a place where there were no people except the ones that they chose to bring.

This cocoon for the military was constructed largely in secret. And when the government abruptly relocated six years ago, the story goes, civil servants were given 48 hours to move or else. Dividing many families who still cram the new capital's bus station on weekends for the trip to or from Yangon.

Foreign governments, however, have so far declined to move their embassies to this jungle outpost, even as workers scramble to finish construction on a new 30,000-seat stadium being built for the Southeast Asian games in 2013. Naypidaw's coming out party, as it were, for a city until recently off-limits to foreigners. And one far away from those the military may fear the most: It's own citizens.

BLOCK: That was our reporter in Myanmar. Foreign reporters aren't allowed there, which is why we are withholding his name. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.