Myanmar’s new capital is the antithesis of everything a successful urban centre should be. But it is also a glimpse of Asia’s antiseptic future.
The city, some people say, was born in a dream the General had one night in which the Buddha promised him eternal glory if it was constructed. Others say that General Than Shwe, a high school graduate and postal clerk who ruled the country until 2011, acted on the advice of an astrologer who prophesied a new capital, that housed objects of magical potency like white elephants and Buddhist relics, would enhance his phon or imperial glory. Still others say Nay Pyi Taw — or Royal Capital — was meant to be a citadel, guarding Myanmar’s military junta against naval attack.
It has been almost 10 years now since Myanmar’s junta announced the construction of a new capital. In that time, Nay Pyi Taw has risen inexorably out of central Myanmar’s jungle, hewn from concrete, steel and glass, funded by the sale of timber, precious stones and natural gas.
Zoned to separate ministries from businesses and hotels, separated by 20-lane highways long and wide enough to land jetliners on, the city has defied predictions that it would end up a ghost town. Businessmen from China and Japan have managed to keep room rates in the hotel district up at $80 a room and above. Local officials assigned from Yangon once developed mysterious illnesses to avoid moving, but many have now been lured by 24-hour electricity, modern apartment blocks, clean air, and generous perquisites. There are even sex workers, lined up along the road in the seamy Paung Laung area, apparently drawn by the high wages of construction workers.
However, there is no sense of cultural context except for the small Burmese-style adornments plastered on to gargantuan rectangular buildings. Kilometre after kilometre can roll by without anyone being seen. There are no public squares, where people can gather. Except at a museum-like display of Myanmar’s tribes, there is no visible sign of ethnicity on the streets.
There is almost no functional public transport — and, if there was, there would be nowhere to go, except the Uppatassanti, a faux-edition of Yangon’s iconic Shwedagon Pagoda, and the dubious charms of the Junction Centre shopping mall. Even nature has been recreated, in an act of military will. In 2008, the military trucked in 420 animals from the Yangon Zoological Gardens: elephants, tigers, crocodiles, zebras, kangaroos and, most improbable of all, penguins housed in an air-conditioned ice-house. It is not a success but the government isn’t giving up. “Two of the penguins are unwell and on drips,” a Myanmar government liaison officer said, “so visitors aren’t allowed. We’re getting some new penguins, though, so you can come back and visit them later in the summer.”
Nay Pyi Taw is more an idea than a city. For centuries, royal power rested in upper and central Myanmar — far from the coastal centres that colonialism was to breathe life into. From the 11th to the 18th centuries, kings shifted capitals, driven by tribal wars, famines, and the revenues of the overland trade routes into Yunan. The country is full of forgotten capitals from forgotten times: Bagan, Innwa, Taungoo. The rulers staged wars of pacification in the coastal south but the heart of power lay in the country’s dense central jungles, out of which Nay Pyi Taw emerged. Then, in 1826, East Indian Company troops crushed the Burmese empire in a two-year-long war, the most expensive campaign in the history of its Indian empire, costing £5million, and the lives of 15,000 British and Indian soldiers. The British took control of Assam, Manipur, the Cachar hills and the Jaintia tracts. In 1852, the British went to war again, crippling the Burmese kings further.
Following the defeats, the royal capital shuttled between Innwa and Amarapura, before moving, in 1858, to Mandalay. Thai prince Damrong Rananubhab, who visited Myanmar in 1935, speculated that the decision was made because of “the arrival of European steam-powered trading ships. During the reign of King Min-don, steamers began to come up to Ava and Amarapura. Since both towns were on the bank of the Irrawaddy, it would have been possible for the Europeans to bring artillery pieces up-river aboard the trading ships and to shell the capital. The Burmese, therefore, thought the capital should be moved some distance from the river.”
The King, he said, did not want fear of the British to be seen as the reason for this shift, so “pointing to his portentous dream and the prophesy of the Lord Buddha, he instructed his chief minister to discuss his view with the Heir Apparent, senior princes, ministers, royal councillors, ecclesiastical chiefs and court Brahmins.” It was a vain effort: in 1882, the British snuffed out what remained of Burmese independence, and the port of Yangon became its capital.
That memory, the scholar Maung Aung Myoe has suggested in a seminal paper, still shapes the thinking of Myanmar’s military. Its commanders, he says, believe “an amphibious landing on the west coast of Myanmar (Rakhine State) and a land-based invasion from the east (Kayah State) will not only cut off Yangon from Upper Myanmar but also make it an encircled target for attacks from the south. The new location will give the military high command an easy access to heavily forested mountainous areas in the north bordering China or India; this is vital for protracted guerrilla warfare.”
Michael Aung-Thwin, another scholar, casts Nay Pyi Taw as an act of post-colonial reconstruction. “It is where the capital of the first classical state of Burma, Pagan, and where all subsequent capitals of its dynasties, except one, have been centred. It is the ancestral home of the Burmese people and is very much part of their psyche, unlike Rangoon, which has been a reminder of the country’s colonial experience.”
However, in this ancestral home, ancestry — of culture, of environment, of people themselves — has been ripped out. Nay Pyi Taw is, at its core, an anti-city: it is a product of modern construction technologies and capital, not the lived historical experience of people. New cities like this are emerging across Asia, much like the mass-produced suburbs William Levitt introduced to the United States after World War II. China’s new industrial hubs or Indian metropolitan suburbs like Noida and Gurgaon are a response to the most dramatic tide of urbanisation in human history. They are also monumental admissions of our rejection of our civilisation: the antiseptic ethos of Singapore and Dubai are their guiding lights, not local cultures and traditions. Nay Pyi Taw is soulless and depressing, a General’s epic folly — but it is also Asia’s future.