More cows than cars in Myanmar's capital!
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More cows than cars in Myanmar's capital!

The new capital Nay Pyi Taw boasts little more than dusty building sites, deserted highways and disgruntled civil servants.

india Updated: Sep 18, 2006 14:03 IST

It is nearly a year since Myanmar's military rulers abruptly abandoned their leafy, colonial-era capital in favour of a "command and control" centre in jungle-clad hills along the road to Mandalay.

The generals have grandly named their new capital Nay Pyi Taw, or "Royal City", but besides a few reception halls the former Burma's answer to Brasilia boasts little more than dusty building sites, deserted highways and disgruntled civil servants.

"There are more stray dogs and cows on the roads than any type of transport," one diplomat said after a recent visit to the new town around 400 km north of Yangon, near the former logging centre of Pyinmana.

"It's a bit like those photos you see of Pyongyang -- great wide roads but no cars, no people, no life."

The junta argues the site, midway between Yangon and the second city of Mandalay, will work better as a national capital, especially as it is closer to the ethnic border areas where civil war has raged almost since independence from Britain in 1948.

But exile dissident groups suggest alternative motives, ranging from paranoia about a possible U.S. invasion or popular uprising in Yangon, to astrological prognostications whispered into the ears of junta supremo Than Shwe.

Other analysts have suggested the 73-year-old Senior General is merely walking in the footsteps of Burmese kings who liked to build a new capital every time they proclaimed a new dynasty.

Whatever the reasons, Nay Pyi Taw looks set to stay.

Google Earth satellite images reveal construction sites stretching over more than 40 km, including a new airport, a string of identical government ministry buildings, barrack-style housing units and two vast parade grounds.

Word is, the junta -- the latest face of more than four decades of military rule -- is even planning a life-size replica of Yangon's gilded Shwedagon Pagoda, the country's holiest Buddhist shrine that towers 98 metres above the city.

"It shows how serious the regime is about moving the capital," a retired government officer said. "They want to take everything up there."

Dissidents joke that the only thing unlikely to decamp is opposition leader and Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has spent 11 of the last 17 years either in prison or under house arrest at her lakeside Yangon home.

Despite rumours of visiting foreign bigwigs being kept under lock and key to stop them snooping around, there appear to be few restrictions -- at least in the civilian parts of the complex -- for the simple reason there is nothing there.

"You could walk out of your hotel for miles and miles but there's nothing to see or do and nowhere to go," the diplomat said.

The estimated 10,000 government workers forced to leave friends and family in Yangon tend to agree.

"Things are absolutely terrible for those with families but it's not much better for the singles either," said Ko Khin Maung, a 24-year-old bachelor and senior clerk who is now sharing a single room with five or six others.

"There could be so many serious consequences. How are we supposed to spend our spare time in this wilderness? It's completely out of the question to look for a better job from here. I wonder how long I'll have to stick it out."

Quitting is hardly an option, as shown by the case of Khin Khin Aye, who was ordered to repay 3.5 million kyat -- $583,000 at the official exchange rate, or around $3,000 on the black market -- as compensation for having had an overseas scholarship.

"It's more than I've earned in 15 years of service, but I couldn't have moved there for the world. Both my parents are bedridden and I'm an only daughter," she said.

While the junta has rolled out the red carpet to foreign dignitaries such as Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, Nay Pyi Taw's workers routinely complain about a lack of fresh water and public transport.

At the other end of the move, dozens of government buildings in Yangon, some of which were never occupied, are sitting empty -- another example, critics say, of the incompetence that has reduced the once-prosperous nation to an economic basket-case.

First Published: Sep 18, 2006 14:03 IST