NAYPYIDAW — Women welcoming world leaders stood in rows, colorfully clad in costumes representing Burma’s many ethnic groups, some with their hair tied in high knots or wrapped in red headdresses, others donning horizontally striped longyis and silver coin-studded capes.
But the ushers — all university students bused in for the event — did not belong to any of the minority groups they represented.
All were Burman, the ethnic majority that has dominated the government, military and economy since independence from Britain in 1948.
Burma, a predominantly Buddhist nation of 50 million, began transitioning to democracy in 2011 following a half-century of brutal military rule and self-imposed isolation. But while 40 percent of the population belongs to one of more than 130 ethnic minorities, efforts by the new, nominally civilian government to project unity often falter, or expose differences instead.
Take Naypyidaw, a city that claims to have a population of 1.3 million, where this week’s meetings were held.
Carved from the jungles and purpose-built as Burma’s new capital, it is dotted by impressive stadiums, enormous meeting halls and hundreds of villas for visiting VIPs that seem incongruous in one of the world’s poorest countries.
Gilded pagodas abound, but there is not a single church, even though 80,000 residents are Christian.
There are also 58 Christian members of Parliament, but the closest service for them to attend is in an old, rural church 30 kilometers (20 miles) away.
The government was transferred almost overnight to Naypyidaw in 2005 from the largest city, Rangoon, 320 kilometers (200 miles) away, thousands of civil servants packing up their belongings and moving with it.
Ethnic parliamentarians are given stark, barely furnished rooms in government-style barracks separate from the more luxurious residences of ruling party lawmakers, and they wear traditional attire representing their home communities, bear claws, feathers and all.
When world leaders gathered behind closed doors Thursday to talk about security threats and economics, 30 young women who had greeted them upon arrival took advantage of downtime to snack and rest in their lounge.
When asked their ethnicity, one-by-one each woman said Burmese.
A young woman who wore a long brass neck coil when in the welcoming line was suddenly without her adornment.
Asked where it was, she looked offended: “Oh, that’s fake! Did you think I was really Kayan Padaung?”