Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Also-Rangoon

Last Sunday the military rulers of Myanmar, otherwise known as the Union of Burma, held a ceremony to lay a foundation for a pagoda. The pagoda will be in their controversial new capital city Naypyidaw. It was breaking ground for a Buddhist temple that will be a replica of the golden Shwedagon pagoda in Rangoon. The timing of the ceremony was determined by a mixture of astrology and numerology. The head of Burma’s military Junta General Than Shwe started the mystical ceremony by striking a gong. They finished by sprinkling scented water on a hillside overlooking the new capital Naypyidaw. When complete, the 98m high pagoda will match the size of Rangoon’s one. It is designed to be visible from all roads in the capital.

The ceremony commemorates the first anniversary of its November 2005 sudden announcement that Burma was to have a new capital city. The newborn town would be in the centre of the country; 320km north from Rangoon. It was a remote rural area near the town of Pyinmana. The new greenfields township was officially named Naypyidaw in a ceremony in March this year. The name means "seat of kings" in Burmese. State television footage of the ceremony showed only the marching troops but none the construction-site capital itself. Few outsiders have been allowed to visit the site which lacks most of Rangoon's advantages. The official government position is that the new administrative hub is more centrally located than Rangoon, and therefore better able to serve the nation. Analysts say the real reasons are more likely to be a combination of fear of foreign attack, ease of dealing with border insurgents or even the advice of fortune-tellers.

The new capital is surrounded by mountains and dense jungle. Although construction had already been going on in secret for two years before the 2005 announcement, Government staff found out about the move at the same time as the rest of the world. Civil servants disgruntled at the prospect of moving out of the city were warned that they would face treason charges if they refused to relocate. The junta moved swiftly. They began moving government ministries immediately after the announcement. And because astrology plays an important role in the Burmese politics, they appointed a committee of astrologers to help draft policies and decide on what date a festival should be held.

Military experts say Pyinmana's central location will make the government better able to monitor the rebelling border regions such as ethnic minorities of Rakhine and Chin in the north-west, Kachin and Shan in the north and the Karen people in the east. The Karen National Union (KNU) has been fighting the Rangoon government since 1948. General Sarki of the KNU said there are two reasons for moving the capital: firstly, if the US did invade, the junta could seek refuge in the mountain forests; and secondly, Naypyidaw’s geographic location makes it easier for the military to control border regions inhabited by ethnic minorities such as the Karen.

The new capital will contain military headquarters, diplomatic quarters, a parliamentary building, government buildings, mansions for officials, national headquarters for ethnic groups, an airport, a military hospital, a golf course, bunkers and secret tunnels. What the city does lack are schools, housing and other critical services. An anonymous government official who fled the country said “those who are not able to go abroad have no choice, but if the government allowed resigning most of them would have gone.”
Those civil servants who were forced to move first are living as refugees in the concrete shells of unfinished buildings, mostly without running water or electricity. The major roads remain unpaved and malaria is rampant. Military headquarters will be separated from the government ministries, and civilians will be banned from entering either compound. Vendors will be restricted to a commercial zone near the government offices. The usage of mobile phones and satellite television will be curtailed.

Political analysts say the move is designed to further isolate Burma’s democratic opposition and limit the influence of Aung San Suu Kyi. In Rangoon, roadblocks remain in place outside her lakeside house. She remains a thorn in the side of the generals and her continued arrest has been condemned by many in the West. Burma is suffering tough US sanctions on textile exports and the banning of all new investment. Ever since the change in US foreign policy since 9/11, the generals have feared a foreign invasion. And because they are military men, they have been making serious contingency plans. One of the first bits of infrastructure built was a battery of anti-aircraft artillery and missile silos.

Astrology has played a large role in the decision to relocate. The current leader General Than Shwe is known to be extremely superstitious. The move was planned for a particularly auspicious date and a soothsayer recently proclaimed that Rangoon was on the verge of collapse. Than’s predecessor, General Ne Win, was equally superstitious and he once insisted that every denomination of the country’s currency be divisible by his lucky number nine.
Burmese exiles in Thailand have also claimed the new capital will be located conveniently close to a secret spot in the western Shan Hills. Here is where Burma’s nuclear programme is being developed with help from China and the A Q Khan network. This area is frequently shrouded by mist and is difficult to monitor by satellite. Burma may also have sought to buy nuclear weapons from North Korea.

Whatever the reason for the new capital, the move is hugely expensive in lives and money. 80,000 workers have toiled in miserable malarial conditions at a total annual labour cost of $32m. Meanwhile the ordinary people of Rangoon are cursing the disruption to their lives. "The government's crazy. Everybody hates this idea," said Soe an anonymous Rangoon man to the Washington Post. His cousin is a military officer who has been transferred to the new capital. "This Pyinmana, I wish I could blow the place up."

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