Tuesday, 20 May 2008

The Burmese Rulers' Paranoid Home


"There aren't any," says the hotelier, with an embarrassed laugh when asked about the best tourist attractions in Burma's new capital. That's no surprise, really: Naypyidaw — the name translates as "Abode of Kings" — was built from scratch just three years ago, on 1,800 square miles of land carved out of scrubland on the orders of the ruling junta. Naypyidaw doesn't even exist in the Lonely Planet's latest Burma travel guide; there's not much tourist charm in a dusty bunker town that is little more than the wish-fulfillment of paranoid generals.

Naypyidaw is very big, and very empty. Even after cyclone Nargis devastated Rangoon, Burma's former capital, a metropolis of 5 million, still teemed with life. The authorities claim that Naypyidaw, untouched by the storm, is home to almost 1 million. But a recent visit found no more than a couple dozen people, outside of the gangs of manual laborers painting crosswalks and sweeping spotless boulevards. The 20-minute drive from the airport to the Hotel Zone finds just three other vehicles on the road, one of them a horse and buggy.

The Hotel Zone houses all six of Naypyidaw's hotels. Several more are planned — all sharing a bland rancho-chalet-villa aesthetic — although the eagerness and astonishment with which three hoteliers greet a guest doesn't portend well for their occupancy rates.

Even though tens of thousands of civil servants have been forced to abandon Rangoon for Naypyidaw, the new capital has only two markets and three formal restaurants catering to their needs. There's no sign of movie theaters, bars or karaoke dens, and no cellphone coverage — for "security reasons," the locals explain. Three years after the first wave of government employees moved here, Naypyidaw remains under construction. Workers toil in the searing heat, mostly unaided by such modern conveniences as cranes or bulldozers. So far, their efforts have produced, among other things, the country's only major highway, five police stations and three golf courses. (Burma's generals are notoriously fond of the sport.) The new capital is also home to a massive zoo, whose elephants were pillaged from its Rangoon counterpart. Government housing is provided in brightly colored blocks reminiscent of a down-market Florida retirement community. The apartments are color-coded by occupation — blue buildings are for the Ministry of Health, green for the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, and so on.

One attraction of life in Naypyidaw is its 24-hour electricity supply in a country plagued by chronic power shortages and blackouts. But that's not enough to entice civil servants to bring their families here. Asked why her family had remained in the old capital, a 12-year-old girl who'd come with her mother to visit her father here answers in impressive English, "Rangoon is better. Here is bad." Her honesty earns the child a slap on the head from her anxious mother.

Despite the considerable effort evident in the landscaping of the manicured confines of Naypyidaw's Natural Herbal Park and Water Fountain Garden, no people loll in these public green spaces. Indeed, the only place, besides the market, where people seem to be relaxing was at a Buddhist pagoda, where three canoodling couples have sought out shade. But none of the country's omnipresent Buddhist monks appear to have made it to Naypyidaw, not even to its pagoda. Presumably, these instigators of last September's peaceful democracy protests, which were violently suppressed by soldiers aren't overly welcome in a city dedicated to an almost surreal sense of order.

The city's only attempt at a tourist attraction is a replica of Rangoon's famous Shwedagon pagoda. The Naypyidaw version, though, remains unfinished. At the building site, groups of child laborers — some appearing no older than six — lug heavy rocks on woven stretchers and swing pickaxes into the hard earth. Burma's junta has long been considered one of the world's worst human-rights abusers. But the country's generals don't have to see these tiny laborers build a golden temple for their Abode of Kings. That's because the generals are bunkered in another, faraway part of the city, in a vast military zone off-limits to foreign tourists — a sector that doesn't even exist on Burmese maps. (Time)

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