Naypyitaw: Myanmar Junta’s Last Fortress Against Rising Resistance  

By David Aung 2 February 2023

Built by former military dictator General Than Shwe for then ruling military elites and their families, Myanmar’s administrative capital Naypyitaw is now a hideout for the junta leaders who succeeded him.

Covering some 70,571 square kilometers, the purpose-built capital of Southeast Asia’s second-largest country has become the safehouse for generals facing a popular revolt after their coup in 2021.

Naypyitaw is bordered to the north by central Myanmar, the resistance stronghold of the People’s Defense Force (PDF), to the south by Bago Region where the Karen National Union (KNU) is actively fighting the regime, to the west by Magwe Region, another PDF stronghold, and to the west by Kayah (Karenni) State where the Karenni National Progressive Party and PDFs are active.

The city is surrounded by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) in Kachin in northern Myanmar, powerful ethnic armies in Shan State to the east, the Arakan Army (AA) in western Myanmar, and by the KNU in the country’s south.

Current coup leaders can be grateful to ex-dictator Than Shwe for his wisdom in constructing their city fortress.

Generals who have ruled the country for the past three decades still live in Naypyitaw, the seat of regime power. The ruthless military leaders keep a close watch on Myanmar’s only Nobel laureate, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is being held in Naypyitaw Prison.

Fortress surrounded by enemies 

During Myanmar’s honeymoon period of transition to democracy, world leaders including US and Chinese presidents visited Naypyitaw.

Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi meets with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Presidential Residence in Naypyitaw on January 17, 2020. / The Irrawaddy

The ghost city, built amid farmland and bisected by vast but deserted concrete boulevards, occasionally burst into life for ASEAN Summits and SEA Games.

Naypyitaw’s crowning glory came when U Thein Sein’s quasi-civilian government handed power to the National League for Democracy (NLD) led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi on March 30, 2016.

But just five years after it was occupied by a democratically elected government, Naypyitaw became a fortress surrounded by enemies thanks to military chief Min Aung Hlaing’s takeover.

Turn right at milepost No. 200 on Yangon-Mandalay Highway and you find yourself on the road leading to Naypyitaw. The road is called Shwepyitaw-win, meaning “entrance to the golden capital.” Punctuated with military tents and sandbag bunkers, it looks more like a frontline outpost than the gateway to a city.

To enter Naypyitaw, you must show your citizenship ID card and certificate of residency issued by a ward administrator. This means walking in the blazing sun to the checkpoint under the watchful eyes of junta soldiers and armed police. Nearby, cattle rest in the shade of trees.

“They [security forces] look ragged. It seems that they don’t have any conviction; they just stand guard because they were told to do so,” said a man who recently drove to Naypyitaw from Yangon.

Travel straight along Shwepyitaw-win Road and you eventually come to Kantkawpan roundabout, the first of many landscaped traffic circles in Napyitaw. It also marks the headquarters of the military’s proxy Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP).

Keep driving and you reach Thabyaygon roundabout, commanded by an equestrian bronze statue of independence hero General Aung San, the founder of Myanmar’s modern army.

Generally considered the center of Naypyitaw, this spot was crowded with anti-coup protesters in February 2021 following the takeover. Mya Thwe Thwe Khine, the first protester to be killed in Myanmar’s Spring Revolution against the military, was fatally shot by troops near Thabyaygon roundabout.

Anti-regime protesters rally at Thabyaygon roundabout in February 2021. / The Irrawaddy

Since then, the regime has blocked off the road. It links Naypyitaw to Pyinmana and Magwe Region’s Taungnyo.

A foreigner who recently flew to Naypyitaw told me that security forces outnumbered travelers at the airport. Built with Chinese assistance, the so-called international airport does not have a single restaurant. Instead, there’s an airport lounge that charges two dollars for entry and offers sachets of instant coffee mix and cheap cakes, the foreigner said.

There are no daily flights, and there have been more chartered flights from Russia lately than domestic services, he was told by an airport employee.

It’s a one-hour drive from the airport to Min Aung Hlaing’s official workplace on the other side of the city. It is from here, the offices of the Commander-in-Chief of Defense Services at the foot of the Shan Yoma mountains, that he issues orders for lethal air raids across the country.

Generals confined to Naypyitaw  

Except for trips to regime meetings at the Presidential Residence or heavily guarded events in Naypyitaw, Min Aung Hlaing rarely ventures out of his military office.

Once a month, he checks on the Maravijaya Buddha image, a giant marble statue he is having built near the highway.

The construction site and Naypyitaw Prison are both located on the Naypyitaw ring road. But the superstitious junta chief refused to use this route and ordered construction of a new road, according to a source from the military office.

Regime leader Min Aung Hlaing at the Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyitaw in March 2022. / AFP

“He uses the new road to travel to the construction site. He doesn’t use the bypass,” said the source.

Min Aung Hlaing’s generals and their family members are also not allowed to leave this military office compound without permission.

Some 12 kilometers from the Presidential Palace, civilian leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is being kept in solitary confinement at Naypyitaw Prison. But it appears that the generals are confined to Naypyitaw too.

Former military dictator Than Shwe, who put Suu Kyi under house arrest at 54 University Avenue in Yangon’s Bahan Township, lives in an affluent Naypyitaw neighborhood dubbed “the Row of Six”. He has not been seen in public for more than a decade, barring an appearance at the funeral of his son-in-law Major-General Thein Naing in Naypyitaw in 2019.

Also rarely seen in public are Than Shwe’s neighbors including his deputy vice senior-general Maung Aye, former president general Thein Sein, ex-Lower House speaker general Thura Shwe Mann, ex-Union Election Commission chairman general Tin Aye and former vice-president Tin Aung Myint Oo.

Then junta chief Than Shwe, right, and vice-senior general Maung Aye, left, arrive at a dinner to mark the 63rd Anniversary Armed Forces Day in Naypyitaw on March 27, 2008. / AFP

Similarly, ex-general Myint Swe, who was appointed first vice-president by the military under the NLD government, is seldom seen except when attending National Defense and Security Council meetings as acting president of the regime.

“Those generals may be unaware they are effectively imprisoned. Though they have yet to be punished for crimes they have committed, they dare not go out in public. It is as if they were under house arrest in Naypyitaw,” said a politician speaking on condition of anonymity.

Both active and retired generals have retreated to Naypyitaw, bringing along their families out of safety concerns.

“They don’t even receive guests,” said a business owner who has close ties with ex-generals.

The heavy security presence at the Row of Six extends to the Raja Thingha Housing 1 and 2 complexes, home to other retired ministers and generals of the previous military regime.

“Ex-generals who I know carry guns if they need to go out,” said the businessman. Some of the guns are licensed but others have been bought illegally, he added. “They know the military can’t provide security for them,” he said.

The Iron Lady held prisoner

The junta boss visits the Maravijaya Buddha image construction site on Naypyitaw ring road at least once a month.

Less than six kilometers away lies Naypyitaw Prison, where a slender woman feared by successive generals is held.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the daughter of Gen. Aung San, was kept under house arrest for 15 years between 1989 and 2010. The current regime has handed her a total of 33 years in jail.

She begins each day with meditation, which has been part of her daily routine all her life, whether free or in detention. Suu Kyi has been cut off from the outside world since December when a junta court handed down its ruling in the final case against her.

A guard keeps watch outside Naypyitaw Prison, where Daw Aung San Suu Kyi is being held in solitary confinement. / AFP

Though the generals have put the 78-year-old in solitary confinement in Naypyitaw Prison, iron bars and brick walls can’t shackle her political influence – which is why military dictators hate and fear the Nobel laureate.

She receives food and some medicines via prison guards twice a week, and gets junta-controlled newspapers daily, according to prison sources.

Streets bustling amid civil war 

Naypyitaw is renowned for being a boring town with a hot, dry climate. Those who visit for business leave immediately once their deals are done.

Before the coup, Naypyitaw had a population of more than one million people including government employees, according to immigration department data.

The city had over 5,000 buildings but only one in five were occupied while the rest were empty, according to Naypyitaw Council, the city’s administrative body.

Under the now ousted NLD government, Naypyitaw vice mayor U Ye Min Oo tried to liven up the city. He had land reclaimed for housing and built apartments for rental. But his scheme failed to attract many people.

But over the past two years since the coup, Naypyitaw has seen an influx of new residents as if a magic wand was waved over the city. Empty houses have been occupied, and new houses have sprung up on vacant land.

The price of land has shot up as people displaced by the fighting across the country, including members of the USDP, take shelter in the city, according to property agents.

“Naypyitaw Council had to build new apartments for rental [to accommodate the influx],” said a real estate agent.

Motorcyclists ride down a road in Naypyitaw. / AFP

Most of those relocating to Naypyitaw are military veterans, their families and sympathizers who dare not stay in their hometowns because of growing resistance.

Targeting of ex-military officers and military supporters by anti-regime forces was highlighted by the assassinations of the chief financial officer of military-owned Mytel Telecommunications Co in November 2021, and retired Brigadier-General Ohn Thwin in September last year. Those in military circles now see Naypyitaw as their last sanctuary.

The result is that the once quiet city now teems with people even after dark, though a curfew is still in effect from midnight to 4 a.m. Restaurants and bars on Ayeyarwady Street are packed with pleasure seekers and it is difficult to find a parking space at night.

Many of these city-center bars and restaurants are owned by families of generals, including Lieutenant-General Soe Htut, the Home Affairs Minister. Soe Htut is said to be a close confidant of coup leader Min Aung Hlaing and is a member of the regime’s governing body, the State Administrative Council (SAC). He is one of five deputy ministers and ranks fourth in the SAC, which was preserved on Wednesday when emergency rule was extended for six more months.

The street is the favorite hangout for generals’ children and their friends, including pro-military artists.

“Every restaurant is full. But generals do not go to that street. It is a meeting place for their children and friends,” said a businessman who recently visited Naypyitaw.

But the roads back to the hotel zone from Ayeyarwady Street are empty, he added.

The generals’ command centre

Diplomats who have visited Naypyitaw are amazed to find such a splendid city in the poorest country in Southeast Asia.

Naypyitaw is characterized by blocks of identical government offices, empty grandiose boulevards of up to 20 lanes stretching as far as the eye can see, and desolate luxury hotels.

Its majestic Presidential Residence and Parliament buildings reflect the generals’ mania for monarchy-style rule.

Former dictator Than Shwe built Naypyitaw while overseeing production of the 2008 Constitution to ensure that the military dominated Myanmar’s politics for at least five decades after he retired.

A bullock cart crosses a grand boulevard in the administrative capital. / The Irrawaddy

However, his 50-year master plan was annulled by Myanmar’s people five years after his retirement, when they voted the NLD led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi into office in Naypyitaw.

After Min Aung Hlaing realized that elections don’t work for the military even under a constitution that guarantees 25 percent of parliamentary seats for the army, Than Shwe’s successor staged a coup and annulled the results of the 2020 general election.

He now wants to move from his compound at the foot of Shan Yoma mountains to the presidential residence in the center of Naypyitaw. He is also working to hold a sham election, but it is unlikely to happen until at least year-end. Meanwhile, the military is brutally attacking resistance forces and civilians alike at his order.

The junta boss is trying to wash away his sins by building pagodas, but in the eyes of Myanmar people and the international community, he is merely a failed tyrant.

The regime recently enacted a Political Parties Registration Law to favor the military-backed USDP. The ultimate goal is to maintain the generals’ grip on power.

Naypyitaw was a golden opportunity to write a new chapter for Myanmar focused on the military’s retreat from politics. But the generals passed up that opportunity.

Instead, Myanmar’s generals and their cohorts will continue to use Napyitaw as a fortress to protect their ill-gotten gains.