Stumbling through Burma's new capital

Hacked out of malarial jungle, Burma's new capital is a medley of mammoth buildings and quiet zones, built by an army of poor laborers.

When the deeply-rutted village tracks morphed into wide, paved, six-lane roads, I knew I was nearing Burma's new jungle capital.

A long and bumpy overnight bus ride, traversing 250 miles from Rangoon, has brought me to Naypyidaw – the country's administrative capital since 2005, and a secluded, secretive sanctuary for Burma's military generals. In Rangoon, two private bus services refused to sell me a ticket, fearing retribution from the military junta for ferrying a foreigner to the generals' nerve center. One owner of a rickety bus agreed to take me after I offered to pay double – with the caveat that he'd offload me the minute he sensed trouble with military authorities.

Fortunately, it was a smooth ride (but for the rutted roads) and I was dropped at the hotel zone. I asked for a room at the Myat Taw Win hotel, one of many plush hotels, nervous I might be turned away. The receptionist gave me a cold stare, noted down my passport details in a mammoth register, and for $60 a night, offered me the key to a luxurious, self-contained villa with foreign cable TV and air conditioning.

After some arguing, the hotel agreed to rent me a $3-an-hour motorbike with a driver, for a quick tour of Naypyidaw. "No pictures," I was warned. Two men caught taking pictures a few months ago are now serving time in the notorious Insein prison in Rangoon, I was reminded.

At first, Naypyidaw feels less like a city and more like a series of desolate zones, carefully dispersed. It is eerily quiet, unlike Rangoon's crumbling, colonial-era streets. Due to be completed by 2012, it is reminiscent of Russia's Potemkin villages, the fake settlements built to impress visiting dignitaries during the reign of Catherine II.

We ride past behemoth buildings – government offices, diplomatic quarters with blue and yellow metal roofs glinting in the sun, a parliamentary building, and a large military complex, the latter strictly out of bounds for civilians. Their Stalinist feel is heightened by the gigantic statues of bygone Burmese kings.

Hacked out of a malarial jungle, this 6-square-mile inland fortress is teeming with an army of 80,000 bedraggled-looking construction workers, some of whom human rights groups claim are forced laborers.

The military junta has never given any real explanation as to why it chose to relocate the capital to Naypyidaw. One theory was that Rangoon had become too congested; another was that it was done on the advice of Gen. Than Shwe's fortune teller, whom the leader has a habit of consulting on matters of state.

But the city, hemmed in by mountains and forests, undoubtedly confers the junta a strategic vantage point over potential threats. When widespread protests erupted on the streets of Rangoon in September, the ruling military generals hunkered down here from the enraged crowds in this outpost. It's their war bunker.

There are unconfirmed reports of extensive tunneling at the main site and of missile-proof caves in nearby mountains.

Naypyidaw is being built by a handful of Burmese business conglomerates such as Asia World, Htoo Trading, Eden Group, and Max Myanmar, with close ties to the junta. Asia World, a Rangoon-based construction giant run by former drug lord Lo Hsing Han, is believed to be handling over two-thirds of the construction project.

I was worried I had been spotted clicking pictures, but I wasn't questioned when I settled the hotel bill. On the bus back to Rangoon, sitting next to me, was an employee of Asia World. In a casual conversation, he revealed that the junta was defaulting on payments to the company.

Despite the losses, Asia World isn't withdrawing from the project because it was granted a government license to import foreign cars, a favor that ensures it profits elsewhere.

Last week, democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi met with junta leaders, and more recently authorities agreed to a visit by Paulo Sergio Pinheiro, the UN special rapporteur for human rights in Burma (also known as Myanmar), despite barring him for years.

In Rangoon, I realize the regime's expenditure on the new capital has created even more resentment against the junta. "The new capital is an epic waste of money," says a senior journalist based in Rangoon. "Only a sliver of the budget goes to healthcare and education."

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