Ten years ago this week, construction began on Naypidaw’s Peace Pagoda, providing a spiritual heart to the sterile capital city that was unveiled a few months earlier. A decade on, what is this city for? Why does it exist at all?
When the work began, speculation was rife that the new capital, whose name means 'Capital of Kings', was born of delusions of grandeur or Than Shwe’s dementia; either way, it was an absurd vanity project, pointless and surreal. And it is a strange place, located some 360 kilometers north of Yangon, the former capital and still the business centre. Naypidaw’s impossibly wide boulevards, tidy roundabouts, organised layout, reliable electricity supply, and fast internet put the city in stark contrast with anywhere else in the country. Even UK pundit Jeremy Clarkson took time to laugh at it before returning to his more traditional racist comments.
More thoughtful pundits have speculated that the vast, from-scratch capital was moved in order to insulate the government from restive citizens in Yangon. There have also been suggestions that it was moved to be away from the coast: away from where an amphibious US invasion might be able to attack. Rumors were rife that it was moved due to superstitious omens. These may all be partly true, but ignore the nation-building role, both strategic and metaphoric, that the new location can potentially play. Indeed, its strategic and military advantages may well have contributed to the transition process.
You can’t help but feel the authority and power of the government when you visit. This is the manicured articulation of a distinct vision of how a 21st century capital of Myanmar should look and function and there are reasons to believe it will ultimately fulfil this role.
Firstly, it should be noted that, in the Burmese context, shifting the capital city is not an infrequent occurrence. As Nicholas Farrelly has pointed out, the capital has been moved 38 times, with a tenure of only 52 years on average. Every move of the capital has taken place for a mix of strategic, economic and cultural reasons, including when the British Empire decided to relocate from Mandalay to Rangoon in 1885.
There is clearly a symbolic element to having the capital in Naypidaw. Rangoon was a city founded by the British. By the end of the colonial period, the majority of the population of the city was from outside Burma. Rangoon was also a foreign city, designed to efficiently extract wealth from a colony. Moving the capital away from Rangoon/Yangon closed the door on a period of national embarrassment for the Bamar people, as imagined by the military. It was an expression of independence and marked a new era (again, see comments by Nicholas Farrelly). The indigenous nature of the new capital in Naypidaw is reinforced by the installation of massive statues of Burmese conquerors of yore.
Second, the city reimagines where the heartland of the country is located. In the long term, as noted by Dulyapak Preecharushh in Naypidaw: The New Capital of Burma, this will have an effect on population distribution, encouraging settlement in and around the capital. This will increase the industrial and agricultural output of the region. It creates a core area that is much closer to the ethnic states and regions, binding them together through its political functions. The beating political heart of the country is now located closer to the peripheries of the state and is less isolated from these potentially restive regions.
Naypidaw may someday become an alternative economic centre to Yangon, not only linking Yangon and Mandalay in an industrial belt but also sitting at an intersection between the existing (and likely to expand) transportation network that links Thailand and India. It may also provide some measure of economic efficiency by providing an alternative location for rural to urban migration, relieving pressure from Yangon in the medium term.
It is not only the political centre, however, but also now the military centre of the country. This allows for greater power projection, and, according to Preecharushh, 'is an attempt to control and stabilize chronically turbulent regions, particularly in Kayin, Kayah and Shan states.' Indeed, earlier this month it appears as if Myitkyina was significantly and rapidly reinforced for an offensive against the Kachin Independence Army as at least some of the main armored brigades have been brought up from the Naypidaw area.
The new location acts a strategic springboard from which both conventional and asymmetric forces can operate in the surrounding regions, helping impose the hegemony of the state over its own territory. Some would argue the hegemony of the Bamar majority over minority groups is part of that package as well.
It is also a secure city. North Koreans, having become master tunnelers following the Korean War, helped build a vast network of tunnels under Naypidaw, connecting key pieces of infrastructure. This helps with the military’s defensive strategy for the city, again contributing to a sense of stability, security and preparedness for the regime. As Dulyapak Preecharushh notes in Myanmar's New Capital City of Naypyidaw, the military facilities of the capital also form something of a ring around the civilian buildings, which are closer to the center, effectively reducing the power and strength of popular uprisings in the capital, should such instability come to pass. As noted already, the location also insulates the government from the biggest population center, allowing the business of politicking to take place away from the crowds.
Overall, Naypidaw has increased the sense of security for the military, both in terms of how politicking takes place and in terms of how it controls the regions surrounding the capital. A myriad of factors played into the transition process, but the new city certainly lent a degree of confidence that a transition process to a more democratic system was going to be manageable.
Ten years on, the city is still sterile and the transition is far from complete. But there is a quite lovely pagoda you can visit.
Photo by Scott Wallace/Getty Images