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Democracy uproar kept at safe distance in Myanmar's remote new capital

Democracy uproar kept at safe distance in Myanmar's remote new capital

EDITORs: Bangkok newsman Grant Peck was allowed a rare visit into the restricted Myanmar capital of Naypyitaw last April.
By GRANT PECK
Associated Press Writer
NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (AP) _ This may be the world's only national capital without mobile phone service or international flight connections. It certainly doesn't have traffic problems. And you won't find any food carts clogging the streets.
All of this suits Myanmar's paranoid military leaders just fine.
Welcome to Naypyitaw, the new capital of Myanmar, where the ruling junta can feel safe in a denuded area nestled among mountain jungle, aloof from the irritating demands for democracy that are popping up elsewhere in the country.
Needless to say, amid widespread pro-democracy protests over the last two months, none has been reported in the city where the military junta and its civil servants actually live and work.
The capital's move from Yangon _ formerly known as Rangoon _ to Naypyitaw began in 2005 and was hastily completed last year, as civil servants were loaded onto trucks and taken 400 kilometers (250 miles) to the north.
Foreign journalists, invited by the government for a rare visit to the "Seat of Kings" earlier this year, found a city struggling to come alive despite a claimed population of almost 1 million.
Military VIPs fly into the city's bare-bones airport. Ordinary people, however, must endure a jostling 8-to-10-hour drive from Yangon on a pitted two-lane highway also used by oxcarts. A poorly marked turnoff gives way to an eight-lane concrete highway, the likes of which are not seen elsewhere in impoverished Myanmar.
Naypyitaw's wide boulevards hold the promise of grandeur but carry so few vehicles there are hardly any traffic lights. Dusty construction sites dot the area. Notably absent are the street vendors who make up the commercial lifeblood of most Asian cities.
An architectural wonder it is not.
The City Hall is imposing yet odd, a vaguely Soviet totalitarian-style building with peaked Burmese roofs. The city has 1,200 new four-story apartment blocks, but their cookie-cutter nature and wide spacing is closer to a soulless suburban development than the bustling city life that most residents were used to in Yangon.
Many workers were unhappy when first forced to move. It's hot _ the temperature can top 40 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit). Prices of everyday goods are high. Many spouses and children were left behind because of their jobs and schools.
Yangon's vibrant culture is a dim memory. To compensate, residents here get 10 television stations, six more than in Yangon, although most are government channels.
Rent is free for civil servants' quarters in both cities, but in Naypyitaw the apartments are bigger. Water and electricity are also free here and the city enjoys a 24-hour supply of electricity, a rarity outside of military bases.
"Living conditions here are better," said a senior clerk from the state mining corporation, who asked not to be quoted by name. "I lived in a small wooden house (in Yangon), but here my apartment has three bedrooms, with electricity and water."
Some new residents have taken to the city. Myint Khin, the 40-year-old wife of a Railways Department clerk, set up a table outside her apartment block to sell noodle salad.
"I want to supplement our income, and business is good since there are very few shops in Naypyitaw," she said.
Her husband, a senior clerk, earns nearly 40,000 kyats (US$32; euro24) a month, while their son, a junior clerk, earns about 27,000 kyats (US$22; euro16).
Than Than, married to a driver for the mining corporation, was also happy, even in an apartment where the family couch is an old bench seat from a van.
"They have provided us with everything we need," she said.
Given the widespread distrust of the military rulers, theories abound as to why the junta moved the capital. Some see the answer in the section of town reserved for the military itself, close to hills rumored to be honeycombed with bunkers.
"There was a real concern that they (the soldiers) were becoming contaminated by the masses in Yangon and being made soft by the increased standard of living in Yangon: the restaurants, the consumer goods," says Larry Jagan, a Thai-based expert who specializes in Myanmar. "So this was a way, really, of isolating and insulating the military so they would remain loyal."
Others see it as an attempt by junta leader Senior Gen. Than Shwe to leave his mark on history by creating a brand-new capital just like the Burmese kings of old.
Some believe the military moved much further inland to thwart any U.S. plan to invade by sea and topple the government. Washington is a fierce critic of the junta and maintains political and economic sanctions against it.
The military says Naypyitaw was chosen for its central _ abeit entirely remote _ location.
"The capital city, which is the administrative hub, is required to be placed with easy access to each and every part of the nation," explained Information Minister Brig.-Gen. Kyaw Hsan.


Updated : 2021-10-16 06:44 GMT+08:00