Al Jazeera’s Veronica Pedrosa on reporting from Myanmar – a country normally closed to foreign journalists
|Situated 400km inland from the old capital,
Naypidaw is emerging from the Myanmar jungle
As our small plane descended over the jungle of central Myanmar, we strained to get a good view of the country’s mysterious new capital, Naypidaw.
Our crew was the first foreign reporters to be taken there by Myanmar officials. Until then only glimpses of Naypidaw had emerged.
Two local journalists were reportedly jailed for photographing government buildings without permission this year.
In March Myanmar’s state television had shown a brief glimpse of the city during a report on Senior General Than Shwe, the country’s ruler, inspecting troops on Armed Forces day.
Other than that, little has been seen of the city by the outside world.
But Naypidaw has been a mystery, not just because of the government’s limits on media coverage.
One Friday in November last year, hundreds of civil servants were ordered to move to homes and offices to the new city – and to be there by the following Monday.
With just a weekend to pack up and leave, many had to leave families behind because adequate housing, schools and hospitals had yet to be built.
Unaware of the move, diplomats who turned up at the former ministries in Yangon the following week found empty offices where stray dogs roamed.
It was clear Myanmar’s generals were absolutely serious about moving the machinery of government more than 400km north into the heartland of the country.
Media reports spoke of a “jungle capital”, a refuge far removed from the bustle of Yangon where the ruling military could fortify itself from attack by foreign and domestic enemies.
There was speculation that a mixture of superstition, megalomania and paranoia was behind the decision.
Room to expand
To put it into context, Yangon, the former capital, once known as Rangoon, is a city of more than 5 million people. Residents complain there is not enough public transport to cope with their needs, and that there are regular power outages during the dry season.
Human rights groups say forced labour has
But the military government said it needed to expand, and wanted a state-of-the-art base in the centre of the country.
So they moved north to a sparsely populated area near the town of Pyinmana, a place of historic significance because hundreds of years ago it was the imperial capital.
Out of the bush, Myanmar’s current military rulers carved the new city, and it is still taking shape.
We saw identical glass-clad government ministries, housing for civil servants, restaurants, hotels, a shopping centre and central bus station.
There is also, inevitably, a military complex too – but we were barred from seeing it for security reasons.
Brand new apartment blocks are sprouting up to house the thousands of government workers and their families being transplanted to the new capital.
In the Myanmar military’s version of city planning, order is paramount.
Apartments are allotted according to rank and marital status. In the middle of rural Myanmar, the blocks look like suburban housing estates seen across Asia.
|The government says there was no room
to expand in Yangon
Our government escorts were keen to show us the hospital and several schools – signs of normal urban life beginning to take root.
At another site we saw an almost completed replica of Yangon’s famous Shwedagon pagoda.
But there was something surreal about the place, built from scratch by order of the generals.
The city has little in common with the colonial-era shophouses and timeless religious monuments in Yangon, or the simple rural shacks just down the road.
It is certainly being built with grand expectations: The name Naypidaw means “seat of kings”.
The entire city covers more than 4,600 square kilometres, 78 times the size of Manhattan.
It engulfs three already existing townships and what we found was only the result of phase one of construction.
|Critics says the money could have been better
spent improving existing infrastructure
Some reports allege forced labour is being used to build the city.
We did not see or hear any evidence of it, but as ordinary life develops and grows here, it was the ordinary people that we were unable to talk to.
Our visit was closely chaperoned. We were accompanied by government minders at all times, and we were only shown the most innocuous places Naypidaw has to offer.
We were, however, given a rare audience with Brigadier-General Kyaw Hsan, Myanmar’s information minister, at his polished new offices.
When we asked him why the government had uprooted its entire bureaucracy hundreds of kilometres, he replied it was simply a matter of space.
The government needed to expand and there simply was not room or a good environment in congested Yangon.
The government, he explained, wanted a “garden evergreen city” where everything is neat, tidy and organised.
He said that the project was not suddenly and urgently built but a well-planned and systematic choice with construction starting back in 2002.
But critics say the move is unnecessary and expensive in one of the world’s poorest countries, isolated as it is by sanctions by the US and EU, sharply critical of Myanmar’s human rights record.
The millions of dollars spent on the new buildings could have been spent fighting endemic disease and poverty in Myanmar.
They argue that with the move to Naypidaw the military has retreated even further from the people, just as the country has become isolated from the international community.
The birth of Naypidaw has again raised questions about the military’s vision for Myanmar.
They have been promising democracy to the Myanmar people for years now but it remains an unfinished project – maybe, at least, they will finish this one.