That empty feeling: Inside Myanmar’s forbidden capital

By Simon Allison 31 July 2012

Built in secret by a paranoid military junta, and kept that way ever since, Naypyidaw remains an enigma. The city might be Myanmar’s capital, but few foreigners have ever been permitted access to its tightly-guarded, tank-friendly streets. Until recently. SIMON ALLISON reports on a surreal visit to the heart of the regime.

NAYPYIDAW, MYANMAR – It is the stuff of spy thrillers. Deep in the tropical jungle, a paranoid military dictatorship pours billions of dollars and man-hours into the construction of a secret city, a modern fortress from which to rule their long-suffering subjects. The roads, it is rumoured, were designed for tanks rather than cars. The hills are riddled with bunkers and arms caches. Everything is connected by underground tunnels, and any details about the city, even the fact of its existence, zealously guarded.

But this is no spy thriller. This is Myanmar, and the secret city is Naypyidaw – the country’s capital ever since it opened for business in 2005. Even then, the city remained shrouded in mystery. Some reports suggest that government ministries were given just one day’s notice to pack up and go, and that civil servants were abruptly relocated to housing estates (colour-coded according to which ministry they worked for). Others say that General Than Shwe – a real-life Bond villain if there ever was one – himself led the convoy of government officials from Yangon (Rangoon), insisting that it depart at 11am on the 11th day of the 11th month, an auspicious time in his beloved numerology.

The truth is difficult to ascertain, because Naypyidaw (pronounced ‘nappy-door’) remained a secret city: off-limits to most foreigners, and absolutely forbidden for journalists. Until now.

The thing is, Myanmar is not quite the military dictatorship it used to be. After nearly two decades as head of state, Than Shwe did what Bond villains never do, and stepped aside in 2011 to make way for his hand-picked successor – another general, of course. But Thein Sein, despite his strong regime credentials, has shaken things up a bit, instituting a series of reforms which has seen Myanmar slowly emerge out of the diplomatic wilderness. Most significantly, he has released Aung San Suu Kyi, and allowed her National League for Democracy (NLD) to contest and win parliamentary by-elections. He has eased (although not removed) the state’s tight grip on political expression, and scrapped the artificial exchange rate which saw a dollar buy six Kyat in a bank or 800 Kyat from the scruffy guy on the steps outside the bank.

While these reforms remain tentative, and do very little to address the decades of mismanagement and human rights abuses to which the junta has subjected the country, it’s a start. And it’s already had an observable impact. Aung San Suu Kyi T-shirts are for sale in the market, cars flutter NLD flags, and people aren’t afraid to talk politics – although they’re still guarded. “It’s 50% better than it was,” said a teacher I spoke to in Yangon. “But there’s 50% more to go.”

The words that come to mind are glasnost and perestroika – the ‘openness’ and ‘restructuring’ that Mikhail Gorbachev instituted in the dying days of the Soviet Union. Designed to protect the state by bringing it a little closer to the rest of the world, the reforms instead hastened its demise. Myanmar’s military junta looks to be heading down the same road.

I, meanwhile, was on the road to Naypyidaw. Unable to resist the lure of the forbidden, I wanted to see this artificial metropolis for myself.

I arrived late at night, turfed from my bus into the middle of the ‘hotel zone’, the only place where foreigners are permitted to stay. There must be at least a dozen industrial-size hotels dotted on either side of an wide avenue, each a lonely island on a kilometre-square plot. They’re all plush, expensive, and reek of government subsidies. It’s hard to know whether any guests are in all these rooms. Staff say they’re busy, but every hotel I went into was empty, or nearly so, my footsteps echoing in opulent lobbies.

Empty describes most of the city. The expansive, tank-friendly roads are empty, aside from the hapless policemen standing guard at traffic circles, shivering and wet from the unrelenting monsoon rains. The shops are empty. What passes for tourist attractions are empty. Many of the brand new housing estates are empty, the paint already peeling. Eventually, this emptiness takes on a surreal quality; it’s a little like being in one of those science fiction movies where I am the only person standing after some awful disaster, left alone to explore a ghost town.

There were two notable exceptions. First, the main bus terminal, which was as dirty and chaotic as any street in Yangon (perhaps because generals don’t take buses). Second, the bustling shopping centres; gleaming, shiny replicas of malls anywhere in the world. Tellingly, it was only in these fancy bastions of modern capitalism that I had any trouble taking photographs; openness is one thing, but allowing the people to glimpse the price tags on those Pierre Cardin shirts and Mont Blanc pens is something entirely more subversive.

The malls, though, are Naypyidaw in microcosm: a safe, isolated place where Myanmar’s elite can live in the style to which they aspire, free from the overwhelming poverty in Yangon and the political resistance it generates.

But the resistance is getting closer. As I wandered out of the Junction Centre, the shiniest mall, I saw a brand new Toyota Landcruiser pull into the parking lot. On the dashboard, quite openly, was an NLD flag, and the car’s occupant was more than happy for me to take a picture. This would have been unthinkable just a few months ago, but the NLD has become a legitimate political presence after their overwhelming victory in this year’s parliamentary by-elections. They don’t have a parliamentary majority yet, but that’s only because not all the seats were up for grabs. That should change in more elections in 2015, unless Thein Sein and his junta backtrack on their promises. Even Aung San Suu Kyi spends a lot of time in Naypyidaw now – as a member of parliament, she has to.

This will, however, always be the city that the military built. It is neatly organised into special zones that sprawl across the gently undulating landscape, making it difficult to get around without a car or personnel carrier. There may not be many people around, but there are four golf courses, golf being the generals’ favourite sport. It’s spotlessly clean, and immaculately manicured; verges are trimmed, flower beds are in full bloom, and the rainforest is cut back neatly. Road markings are bright. At times, Nyapyidaw is more parade ground than city.

To crown his creation, General Than Shwe made sure he left something to remember him by, in the form of an enormous, golden pagoda which monopolises the skyline. I’ll never forget my first glimpse of it. It was raining, and I was soaking wet on the back of a motorcycle. I looked towards the hills in the distance, hazy through the mist, when suddenly the mist took on a golden hue. A giant, shimmering, bulbous phallus took shape. Than Shwe’s phallus, to be precise; the former dictator is said to have paid for the 99 metre-tall monument with his own money, an act of merit-making to appease the gods and atone, perhaps, for his many sins.

It’s an impressive edifice, but, like the rest of the city, it feels forced and unnatural. In appearance, it looks much the same as Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda, which is just 30 centimetres taller. But the Shwedagon – an attraction which will rank alongside the pyramids and Angkor Wat once Myanmar opens up properly – is more than 2,000 years old, a product of centuries of devotion and refinement. Naypyidaw’s Uppatastanti Pagoda, on the other hand, is a hastily-constructed symbol of one man’s ego, and the gold leaf is already losing its lustre.

Built on hill, the base of the pagoda provides the best view over the city. Or it would, if the sun were shining and the air clear. Through the rain and mist, I couldn’t see more than a few hundred metres in front of me. I couldn’t really see the city – it looked like there was nothing there at all. Which, for this strange and unlikely place, seemed perfectly appropriate. DM

Photo: Naypyidaw by Simon Allison/Daily Maverick


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