by Matt Levy
Matt traveled to work at an NGO in Burma and found himself in its new, very empty capital. All photographs by Matt Levy.
One November morning in 2005, the world awoke to a great surprise – Burma had built a new capital. Naypyitaw, which translates to the City of Kings, had been constructed in secret by the ruling military junta on a wide, flat expanse of land between the cities of Rangoon (the old capital) and Mandalay. The announcement had even been kept secret from most government workers who had to pick up and relocate five hours north of the old capital with little notice or preparation.
Even as the country continues to progress economically and politically, the capital remains a vestige from a different era – buildings marked by a fusion of Soviet-Chinese architectural styles line freshly paved and mostly empty eight-lane highways. It is a city that invokes a sense of awe and submission, with the added bonus that a popular revolution in such a place would be impossible.
In August of this year, I worked with an international NGO for four weeks to support the country’s parliament. There, I was quickly integrated into the team, working non-stop for 12 consecutive days and nights to help prepare for a variety of trainings on how to draft legislation or be a more effective member of parliament (MP). I also provided research directly to MPs, meeting with them to discuss what they were looking for and then sharing resources with them. Finally, I helped the organization develop a more comprehensive library of resources related to the legislative process.
I touched down in the old capital of Rangoon before traveling by bus to Naypyitaw along a newly paved highway with signs in English, despite the fact that a majority doesn’t speak the language, advising one to watch out for drunk drivers. One such sign stated: “Life is a journey – complete it.” Noted.
After passing a military checkpoint where the driver handed over what appeared to be a passenger manifest and a bottle of water, we continued along a four-lane highway with large houses dotting the mostly empty landscape. Without even realizing it, we had arrived in Naypyitaw.
For those who are unfamiliar with its history, Burma is officially known as the Republic of the Union of Myanmar. It gained this title after the military government renamed the country – as well as any cities that still retained their colonial British names – in 1989. It is one of the poorest and most isolated countries in the region due to nearly 50 years of autocratic military rule. Over the course of the last few years the military government has made an effort to end this isolation and counteract the growing Chinese influence. While the system is still far from perfect, they have ushered in a period of democratic reform that has incorporated multi-party elections, the drafting of a new constitution and unprecedented levels of freedom for the press, civil society and activists.
As the country grabs international headlines and attention amidst its exciting and rapid political and economic liberalization, such reforms are still extremely tenuous. The government is only nominally civilian with the ruling Union of Solidarity and Development Party comprised mainly of former military elites. An additional 25 percent of all seats in regional and national parliaments are reserved for uniformed military members, and the current constitution guarantees the right of the military to declare a state of emergency, suspend all democratic institutions and rule indefinitely.
Situated near the center of the country, Naypyitaw was built to mimic other planned capital cities like Brasilia and Canberra. Tourists can stay in one of two large hotel zones, and the hotel I stayed in was relatively devoid of guests. The entire city is largely utilitarian: every government ministry has been allocated its own plot of land and ornate building. Workers are shuttled from their government-provided housing (sorted by ministry) directly to and from work, which ensures maximum control and minimum interaction, rendering any potential uprisings impossible.
Thanks to some helpful co-workers I was able to explore beyond the tourist zone on a rickety, Chinese motorbike with more than 20,000 kilometers clocked. This was a stroke of luck, as walking is near impossible and public transport nonexistent. While the bike would not permit me to exceed the speed of 60 kilometers per hour, I was at least able to attract the stares and attention of everyone I passed, soliciting waves, countless smiles and even a whistle from a policeman.
I could now more fully explore the city, or one of its three golf courses – but unfortunately there was little else to see. So I ventured to two nearby malls for a foot massage and some cheap Myanmar whiskey. I took a stroll in the water fountain park, which did not actually have any running water fountains when I visited. Twenty minutes further on from the park, I was able to visit the city’s pagoda, standing several hundred feet tall and one of the only few vantage points from which it is clear how vast and empty the city really is. Rice paddies are interspersed among government buildings, huge roundabouts with large fountains or lotus flower statues and highways. There are several market areas, which, to me, were the only places that provided me with a reminder that this city has life.
The entire city invokes an unnerving sense of unease – as if the spectator is meant to feel inferior to the majesty and greatness of government. Despite such an atmosphere, there is tremendous hope for change in the country, demonstrated by the shifting mindset of the Burmese people who are writing freely, speaking their minds as well as voting in recent by-elections. The real test, though, will be the upcoming elections in 2015.
While the City of Kings was built to ensure continued military rule, it will be fascinating to observe how the city develops its own culture as the citizens establish roots and homes as democracy potentially takes hold. Only time will tell whether the city stays as anachronistic in the future as it is today.