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Teeming with symbols of power, not people
- Myanmar’s capital tells the story of a void that is waiting to be filled

The Central Bank of Myanmar in Naypyitaw. (Reuters)

Naypyitaw, May 30: As Manmohan Singh drove down the spectacular road to the Myanmar President’s palace on Monday morning, he must have wondered about the economics of it all.

What does this 16-lane concrete road, the opulent house of power or the city itself built in the middle of nowhere, he may have asked himself, say of the country, its rulers and the ruled?

This is the kind of capital city that despots and dictators of banana republics typically build. And Myanmar’s generals built this city — spread over 7,054sqkm on what once was one of the finest teak forests in all of Asia — with money, materials and security strategies supplied by another dictatorship across the border — China. To this new city, 350km north of Yangon, they shifted the capital in 2007 because, as a Myanmarese official put it, it is at the “centre” of the country.

“Everything you see here is Chinese,” chuckles Min Min Kyaw, a young man who works as a tour guide. “China is our brother, nay, father, though Myanmar is our mother.”

Four structures, grand and dazzlingly new, dominate the skyline in an otherwise flat and empty landscape. Ironically, the pride of place goes, not to the President’s palace despite its Palladian columns and its grandeur, but to the parliament building.

We had no time to get the statistics about the architectural or other details of the parliament building. Nor did we have an opportunity to get inside the gates. All we could see was the huge structure behind the ornate iron railings which alone seemed to run into at least a kilometre on all sides.

It wasn’t a tall structure like the new government offices everywhere or the old Soviet-style buildings such as Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. In fact, its architecture and horizontal spread remind you of the Parliament building in New Delhi. But there the vague comparison ends. The military obviously loves, if not democracy, its showpieces and recognisable symbols.

The irony is reinforced when you remember that it is in this building Aung San Suu Kyi took her oath as a parliamentarian last month after her party, the National League for Democracy, swept the bypolls in Myanmar. Symbolism also shrouds the third structure that strikes you. The office of the military’s party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party. As the world knows, it swept the first elections held under a strange Constitution that has 25 per cent of the parliament seats reserved for the army.

It is the most imposing office of a political party anywhere in the world, including China. In Beijing, most of the important party offices, like the leaders themselves, lie hidden behind the walls of the Zhongnanhai next to the Forbidden City.

This new capital city, however, became a forbidden place for its original farmer-residents once its construction began about ten years ago. Several hundred villages which lay scattered on this wide expanse were moved far out to the edges. Their place was taken over by the newcomers working for the army and the government ministries which moved in, and for the hotels and resorts that have sprung up in the “hotel zone”. It is mostly foreigners — on government or business delegations — who stay in the hotels.

The farmers, though, live on in their tin-roofed, bamboo-and-mud huts. All the residential buildings are for the servants of the state working for the army, the ministries and now the parliament. The city’s population of 1 million is spread over eight townships, but the centre is for the army or the government alone.

At the city centre, with the so-called lotus circle as its symbol, you rarely see commoners. The Chinese-built, super-wide avenues are a picture of desolation with only a rare car or a crowded, ramshackle apology for a bus carrying ordinary people to their work or to their humble huts on the edges.

Of course, you see them at the small marketplaces away from the gleaming city centre. At two markets, we saw them selling cheap Chinese wares and local fruits, dried fish and vegetables under makeshift sheds that protect them from the sun and the rains.

A colleague from India bought a packet of “bidis” for 900 kyats, which is a little over $1 (Rs 55.73 by the conversion rate on Tuesday). A cheap longyi, the traditional wear for Myanmarese men and women, we were told, costs anything between $4 and $40 (Rs 222 and Rs 2,229), depending on the quality of silk or the design.

The average salary of a government employee is the Myanmarese equivalent of $120 (Rs 6686) a month. For the farmers who once lived here and are now on the city’s periphery, this is a princely sum.

The fourth structure is a pagoda, a replica of Yangon’s famous Swedagon Pagoda, which was once rumoured to contain “more gold than what is there in all the vaults of the Bank of England”. Politics and religion go together, not just in India, but all over the world.

The rest is the story of a void that is waiting to be filled. How vast is the void at the moment can be appreciated from the fact that there are only two shopping malls in the city as of now and only one high school. Only one or two embassies have shifted here from Yangon so far.

But the new city teems, not with people, cars or other facets of metropolitan life, but with symbols of power, money and ways of the autocrats.