Living in a ghost town

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Living in a ghost town

Thousands of civil servants had to move from Rangoon to Naypyidaw when General Than Shwe announced the transfer of the capital in 2005. Almost four years later, this soulless city still lacks the amenities that one would expect to find in a capital. And this is unlikely to change soon

  • Published: 18/10/2009 at 12:00 AM
  • Newspaper section: Spectrum

Rice fields and villages, where time seems frozen, are passing by through the dirty windows of the low-speed train. May Thet, 27, is trying hard not to doze off in this crowded old two-carriage train donated by Japan, which left from Naypyidaw, the new Burmese capital, a few hours ago.

TRAFFIC-FREE: Many kilometres of empty roads stretch through the empty capital.

Like almost everyone on the train, she's heading to Kyaukpadaung, in central Burma, to attend the famous Mount Popa festival. "I'm so excited to go back to my hometown. It's like breathing again. I don't have much opportunity to escape from Naypyidaw," she says, while nibbling some quail eggs she bought at the last station.

For a little more than three years, she's been working in the "City abode of kings" as a junior employee in the Ministry of National Planning and Economic Development. Before, she used to study and work in Rangoon. She didn't have much choice but to move along when suddenly the junta decided to move the government machinery to a new capital, built in secret, 320km north of Rangoon.

"I was asked to move. I had no idea what Naypyidaw looked like, nobody knew, but I didn't want to lose my job. Ten days after the announcement, I had to move all my stuff there," May Thet remembers. What she discovered was far worse than she ever expected. At the time, Naypyidaw did not have even a grocery store or a market. Since then, it hasn't really improved. Isolation seems to be what the generals were looking for; they were said to feel unsafe in Rangoon - the unofficial reason for the move. Therefore, like thousands of other civil servants, May Thet had to resign herself to living in almost self-sufficiency.

In the junta's version of city planning, order is essential, and while most Asian cities bustle, here there is silence. The government maintains that about a million people live in Naypyidaw. But aside from building workers and government workers who seem to rarely venture onto the wide roads, most of the city is deserted. Myowma market and the restaurant area with its two barbecue stands are the only lively places in the evening. Many civil servants refused to bring their families, even if the ban was lifted by the junta last year.

COLOUR CODED: Housing for civil servants is denoted by different colours.

"There's nothing to do here for them," Min Thu, an employee of the Office of the Auditor-General, says. "I also doubt the quality of the dozen schools they've just built."

The only facilities of this soulless capital are the ones the junta judged necessary - a huge zoo with a climate-controlled penguin house, a gem museum and four golf courses, the favourite sport of General Than Shwe, or "No1". Behind Naypyidaw city hall, a park with an artificial waterfall and children's playgrounds hosts a musical light show every day. A bunch of Shan workers usually like to attend it before heading back to their modest huts, well hidden from the roads by plastic barriers.

Civil servants' apartments were allotted according to rank and marital status. May Thet, the woman from the train, was placed in a special zone for single women. "I could never have afforded this kind of apartment in Rangoon," she admits.

From the window of her brand new studio apartment, where the walls cracked after an earthquake, she can see clusters of apartment blocks all around, colour-coded according to the ministry the employees belong to - blue for Health, green for Agriculture and so on. "Although they said we would not have to pay rent, we are charged heavy electricity bills since last year. Without mentioning the huge tax raise," she complains.

UNFINISHED: Shan building workers, left, put the finishing touches to the big pagoda, right.

Naypyidaw is the only place in Burma where electricity is available 24 hours a day, while in Rangoon blackouts last up to six hours. But there's no mobile phone coverage and no plans to introduce it; the generals are said to use walkie-talkies.

May Thet cares little about this as she can't afford a mobile phone on her US$20 (about 670 baht) per month salary. She cares more about the fact she's not even allowed to install a private telephone line inside her apartment. When she gets homesick, she has to use public phones in the lobby of her building. "We are stuck here," she sighs.

There's hardly any public transport to navigate between the well-demarcated neighbourhoods, separated by kilometres of empty four- to six-lanes boulevards. On the roads, one can only spot a couple of motorbikes, horse carts and the occasional, screaming convoy of the junta's tinted-window vehicles.

May Thet's ministry runs shuttle buses in the morning and evening. Given the distances, missing the bus is clearly not an option. The city also lacks shops and restaurants. Apart from Myowma market, next to the regional bus station, there's hardly any convenience stores. "You won't find a food stall at every corner like in Rangoon. If you want to eat something, you must go to the restaurant area. Don't wonder why this place is not attractive for investors," notes Aung Na, who has been "surviving" there for one year as a construction company employee.

EMPTY STREETS: Above, from left, City Hall and the Waterfountain garden; the restaurant area; and Myowma market, one of the few lively places in town.

Most of the businesses, like the city's only private taxi company, are military-owned. The others were "highly encouraged" to open an office in Naypyidaw. "There is no potential market here - most of the inhabitants are government employees, with little income. For the capital's image, the junta forced hotel owners to settle there. "This is something you can not refuse," explains a businessman from Rangoon.

In one of the nine luxurious establishments that form the "hotel zone", a well-dressed man in his forties introduces himself as a Ministry of Foreign Affairs' employee. When I ask if he likes living here, he quickly replies with an embarrassed smile: "Well, my work is here," before backing the official explanation for the capital's move: "Rangoon was getting too crowded anyway. Here, we have plenty of space." Maybe too much space.

ALL ABOARD: The two-carriage train leaving Naypyidaw.

The capital's labour force is still busy constructing the capital's future - an impressive parliament complex and a presidential house are emerging in anticipation of the 2010 general elections. The total cost of building Naypyidaw remains a mystery, although a local businessman points out that about $2 million has been spent for each high-ranking official's house, and there are at least 50 of them.

In one of the poorest countries in Asia, opposition groups say the money could have been better spent.

Kneeling down on the burning marble floor, some workers are putting the final touch on a replica of Rangoon's famous Shwedagon pagoda, overlooking Naypyidaw. Yet there's not a single monk in the city.

From there, one can catch sight of the area where the Burmese military leaders live, 11km away from the regular government employees. Visitors are barred from seeing this complex, which is said to consist of a network of tunnels and bunkers. "I cannot go there. I don't want to die," my taxi driver whispers, making the gesture to have his throat slit. Secure in a remote 100-room palace, Than Shwe seems to be protecting himself not only from the foreign invaders, but from his own people. Will his capital eventually grow to fill all the empty spaces? Also will it develop the usual facilities you find in any other capital? My taxi driver has doubts: "Naypyidaw will never be a real city. It will always remain a military city, a military base. But I need to send money to my family and from now on, money is here."

About the author

columnist
Writer: Nina Martin
Position: Reporter

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Report objectionable comments click here. Include: discussion #, commenter name, comment date / time as it looks on the page. Example: discussion 15: 09/01/2009 at 10:00 AM.

  • Mike Barringtor

    Discussion 9 : 19/10/2009 at 02:54 AM9

    The fact is the masses will happily live in areas that are prone to flooding, monsoons, typhoons, tsunamis, earthquakes, etc., they'll even live next to a volcano if other people are living there as well, and when the authorities try to move them to save their lives -- they'll turn violent and attack the people trying to save them. And when disaster strikes, afterwards they'll blame those same authorities for not doing enough.

    For better or worse, Asian people (especially) love to live together in large masses without any regard to whether or not their surroundings can adequately sustain a large population.

    The Burmese junta are horrific monsters, however, on the bright side, this city seems like about the best city planning job possible in the region (since the British constructed the new city in Yangon/Rangoon based on a grid plan) and will probably end up being a desirable city in the future once it hits a tipping point and enough people move there.

  • Hmmm...

    Discussion 8 : 18/10/2009 at 07:53 PM8

    "we are charged heavy electricity bills since last year".....hmmm....sounds a little like Bangkok today!!!

  • The New Yorker

    Discussion 7 : 18/10/2009 at 07:50 PM7

    Wow this sounds like a weird over the top 70's science fiction movie, the sad thing is that it's real.

    I remember my ex-wife (who is Ukrainian/Russian)showing me these elaborately staged black & white photographs of her home city where she grew up in the late 50's/early 60's in one of those planned Soviet Union communities, very similar to what you see here.

    It would be fascinating if it weren't so bloody sad!!!

  • David Brown

    Discussion 6 : 18/10/2009 at 05:59 PM6

    all Thai people should recognise that the money for natural gas used in Thailand goes to the Burmese junta in their personal bank accounts in Singapore.

    the money doesnt appear in the Burmese national accounts because of some accounting fiddles but is used by the junta for their own purposes such as building their city....

  • dawgyi

    Discussion 5 : 18/10/2009 at 03:26 PM5

    Yes, the new city will be destroy by Earth Quake on coming 2010. Junta also worried and will go to Irrawaddy Delta, pray for the ghosts (200000 ghosts) who died at Nargis. All the Burmese gossip about this.

  • gobi de garuda

    Discussion 4 : 18/10/2009 at 01:00 PM4

    Nice to know about Burmese Forbidden City.
    Thanks BP.

  • Charlie

    Discussion 3 : 18/10/2009 at 12:05 PM3

    The people of Burma will be there long after this twisted fresk show the Junta likes to call a government .When they are able to govern themselves Burma will shine and the Junta will be forgotten except for the trials held against them for crimes against their own people .

  • David Blake

    Discussion 2 : 18/10/2009 at 11:08 AM2

    Bangkok 18th October,2009

    George Orwell (Eric Blair) spent his early twenty's as an employee of the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, an experience that inspired his first novel,"Burmese Days" (1934). It is short, around 300 pages.

    I recommend it as essential reading for those who
    may tried to understand the evil, twisted logic of these Burman Overlords that rule this sad, depleted country.

    Orwell showed remarkable prescience at that time to open a window into the feudal, primitive thought processes primarily based around the
    concept of brutally applied control through maintenance of a climate of fear and silence.

    The human twerps that currently manipulate this climate will all eventually rot down into the primeval slime from which they emerged and slithered to a position to bring untold misery
    and unhappiness to millions of others.

  • quaf

    Discussion 1 : 18/10/2009 at 04:57 AM1

    This is horrible.... to think that an entire country has to tolerate and comply with this...i'm lost to explaining a better 'phrase' for this....again lost.

    It scares me how the situation resembles that of "1984" by George Orwell. If only there's something we could do...

    My deepest sympathies to the people of this nation, may they find the peace that they long deserve.

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