Vast and empty, Burma’s new capital will not fall to an urban upheaval easily... A photofeature in Himal magazine
Dictatorship by cartography
Vast and empty, Burma’s new capital will not fall to an urban upheaval easily. It has no city centre, no confined public space where even a crowd of several thousand people could make a visual – let alone political – impression.
Naypyitaw, then, is the ultimate insurance against regime change, a masterpiece of urban planning designed to defeat any putative ‘colour revolution’ – not by tanks and water cannons, but by geometry and cartography. 320 kilometres to the south, Rangoon, with five million people, is home to one-tenth the country’s population. But even if that city were brought to a standstill by public protests and demonstrations, Burma’s military government – situated happily in the middle of paddy fields in the middle of nowhere – would remain unaffected.
Of all the possible reasons why the junta chose to relocate their capital to this isolated, dusty place, this is perhaps the most plausible. And judging by the pace and scale of construction underway here, the transfer of capital is intended to be as final and irrevocable as the grip on political power of the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military.
On 6 November 2005, at a time and date apparently chosen by an astrologer close to Senior General Than Shwe, the process of shifting Burma’s seat of government to a vast but barren tract of land near Pyinmana village in Mandalay Division officially began. A little more than a year later, every single ministry has moved here. Naypyitaw is still very much a work in progress, but the amount of road-building and construction that has been completed is nothing short of impressive.
In terms of spatial design, the emergent city is reminiscent of Islamabad or Brasilia. A ‘hotel zone’ with several luxury establishments has come up on the city’s ‘outskirts’, a district that the capital’s planners say will eventually become “downtown”. Further in, a number of brightly painted apartment buildings line the left side of the road, all of which are occupied by civil servants. And finally there is the government district, with ministries separated by a distance of what seems like several kilometres. In the military zone, the four-lane road makes way for one of eight lanes, purpose-built to allow small aircraft to land and take off. Later this year, Rangoon-based embassies will be offered plots in the new capital, and eventually all will be expected to make the move.
While it is likely that Naypyitaw will ultimately grow to fill in the empty spaces between the ministries and to develop the usual civic amenities one associates with a capital, it will always lack the urban cadences and unpredictable rhythms that characterise city life in Rangoon or Mandalay. And this is precisely what makes the new capital so attractive to the generals.
Scholars such as Michael Aung-Thwin and Sunait Chutintaranond have argued that the shift from Rangoon is not irrational but part of a historical tradition. Rulers of the region, they say, have long moved their capitals in order to regenerate their kingdoms. One example from within Burma is that of King Mindon, who moved his capital from Amarapura to Mandalay – a city built for the purpose – in 1859, only to have his son, Thibaw, defeated and exiled by the British. Some thousand years earlier, Burma’s most illustrious ruler, the great Anawrhata, had begun his dynasty from Bagan.
Judging by this history, Naypyitaw may not remain the country’s capital forever. But there is no doubt that it will endure longer as a city than the regime that ordered it built.