Exploring Naypyidaw, a Capital Built From Scratch

Steve Tickner The Irrawaddy

NAYPYIDAW—A first time visit to Naypyidaw is a curious experience. After a slow and bumpy four-hour drive north from Rangoon in late November, the road suddenly smoothens and Burma’s new capital comes into a view.

On a flat expanse, a sprawling terrain filled with urban infrastructure stretches into the distance.

Naypyidaw, meaning “Royal Capital,” is unlike the rest of country: it’s a place of well-kept parks, massive six-lane highways lit 24 hours per day, a gleaming new airport, air-conditioned shopping malls, huge palace-like government buildings and off-limits military neighborhoods and complexes.

The entire administrative and governmental structure of the city is spread out over a vast semi-urban landscape, each city function neatly packed into its own precinct. Central squares or other public spaces where large crowds can gather are conspicuously absent in the meticulously planned urban lay-out. The plan includes a full-size replica of the Shwedagon Pagoda.

Construction of Naypyidaw began in 2002 and through the use of forced labor and at enormous cost, Burma’s junta created a new capital to house the president’s office, military headquarters, government ministries and newly reinstated parliament. It was officially declared the country’s capital in November 2005.

The reasons for the military’s baffling decision to build a capital city from scratch remains shrouded in mystery. Some say it was done on the advice of the astrologer of Than Shwe, Burma’s former military supremo. Others think the generals preferred to locate the capital at a site that was easy to defend from foreign military invasions.

Naypyidaw only opened up to the public in 2010, when the junta began the planned transition to the current quasi-civilian government. The pace of construction has slowed down in recent years, but still major structures are going up, such as the stadium that is being built for the Southeast Asian Games, which Burma will host this year.

All civil servants and the military, along with their families, moved to the capital shortly after completion and the city’s population is now said to be growing fast. The government claims that 900,000 people live in Naypyidaw, which would make it the country’s third biggest city after Rangoon and Mandalay (which both served as Burma’s capital in different periods of history).

Yet the city is strangely empty. A few families saunter through the shopping malls, several dozen laborers toil at construction sites, roads are devoid of traffic, while farmers plow their fields only a stone’s throw away from the huge government buildings that constitute Burma’s center of power.

Surreal in its emptiness, yet with a neat and grand appearance, Naypyidaw at times feels like an enormous film set or an abandoned Disneyland without attractions.

Although few people are around, government personnel still keep up some of the old regime’s habit of secrecy, as they zealously try to prevent visitors from taking photos, even inside the brand-new, quiet shopping malls.