Welcome to the Post-Totalitarian Disneyland

April 3, 2014

Gems - main

NATIONAL PRIDE–There’s no shortage of venues at which to sample Myanmar’s precious stones.

NAYPYIDAW—Ever since arriving in Myanmar back in September, I have harboured a nagging desire to visit the country’s new capital city. Naypyidaw, unveiled by former dictator Than Shwe in November 2005 (although not actually given its name until four months later), has become somewhat legendary for all the wrong reasons. Apparently it was so unattractive a place that, when the regime invited foreign embassies to relocate from Yangon, Bangladesh was the only country to take them up on it. People I knew who had gone there described it as a post-totalitarian Disneyland: a soulless collection of theme parks, animal attractions and golf courses separated by giant, Stalin-esque multi-lane roadways and garishly festooned roundabouts. A Las Vegas-meets-Pyongyang sort of vibe. Of course, I had to see it.

Built mostly by slave labour in a malaria-infested jungle about two hundred miles north of Yangon, Naypyidaw—translated literally from Burmese as “royal city of the sun” but more generally as “seat of kings”—lies a couple of miles west of Pyinmana, the town where General Aung San established his Japanese-backed independence army during World War II. The idea of a new capital city, as SPDC chairman and Senior General Than Shwe spun it, was to restore the glory days of the junta’s three favourite kings: Anawrahta, Bayinnaung, and Alaungpaya. (There are three giant statues of these kings in Naypyidaw. Unfortunately, they are located in a military zone and thus off limits to foreigners and citizens alike.) Than Shwe worshipped this trio of ancient royals because they had thwarted all foreign invaders. The junta leader aspired to similar glory, evidently, by building a completely unnecessary and dreadful new capital city that no one in his right mind would want to visit.

Naypyidaw, in its very essence, is the product of a dictator’s paranoid fantasies. Astrologers told Than Shwe that Yangon was too close to the ocean and thus vulnerable to amphibious assault—namely, a seaborne invasion by the United States that was surely imminent, given Myanmar’s refusal to heed international criticism of its atrocious human rights record. Thus the new capital would have to serve as a kind of fortress: home to all the ministries and government apparatus, yes, but also the nerve centre for one of the best-funded armies in the world. Astrologers were also consulted about the location of the new capital and the timing of the switchover. The first convoy of government servants moved to Naypyidaw on November 6, 2005. The rest left at 11 a.m. on November 11 in a convoy of eleven hundred military trucks carrying eleven military battalions and eleven ministries. (Yes, eleven is Than Shwe’s favourite number.)

What would it be like to visit the place? The only people I knew who’d been there had gone strictly on business, either as journalists or as NGO or UN representatives. Most stayed no longer than a day. Notwithstanding the recent Southeast Asian (SEA) Games hosted there, and despite the government’s promotion of the city, it was definitely off the country’s tourist grid. So on March 29, with just two weeks remaining in my time here, I took advantage of my one remaining chance to go.

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Highway

HIGHWAY AS AIRSTRIP–Naypyidaw is tailor made to repel foreign invasions.

At three-thirty a.m., the conductor on our Yangon-Naypyidaw bus wakes up my companion and I to tell us we have arrived. The bus drops us off in the middle of the sprawling hotel zone, in front of the Royal Naypyidaw Hotel. As it speeds away and disappears on the eight-lane highway, we are soon left in silence with no other vehicle in sight, the crickets our only company. We haven’t booked in advance, but my good friend Ko Maw thinks the Royal Naypyidaw is worth a try—until he calls up the front desk to ask for their rates. “We’d better look somewhere else,” he says, hanging up. “They’re charging the foreigner rate: $135.” After he finds a cheaper place in the Lonely Planet guide, we begin walking toward it.

“It’s only four hotels away,” says Ko Maw.

He might as well have said four kilometres: the distance between hotels here is greater than in any other city I’ve been. Maybe I’m just being cranky because it’s twenty to four, I’m dragging a small suitcase on wheels through a strange place in the dark of night, and I would rather be horizontal at this particular moment. By the time we realize we’ve been going in the wrong direction—and that, phone calls to the hotel notwithstanding, there really is no motorbike coming to pick us up—we have been walking for half an hour. It takes another twenty minutes before a passing teenager on a motorbike takes pity on us and, for a fee, drives us to a third hotel: the Oasis, at the south end of the hotel zone. At eighty bucks a night, it’s not bad. From the main building, a bellboy drives us by golf cart through a meandering tropical compound to our Malibu-style flat a couple of minutes away. The room is cozy and tasteful, and the staff accommodating: rather than kicking us out at noon, they will let us keep the room until we’re ready to leave on the night bus back to Yangon.

We’ve only got this day to work with, so we get up after four hours of sleep. After a quick breakfast, we sit down with our hired driver to map out a plan. Then we hit the road in his fancy white Cadillac with red and blue lights underneath that flash when he turns on the engine. (Ko Maw says he thinks it might be a general’s car.) The moment we hit the highway, we are swallowed up by the horizonless landscape. The first impression one has of Naypyidaw is less that of Orwellian dystopia than of Swiftian hyperbole. One feels like a Lilliputian freshly arrived in Brobdingnag: completely dwarfed by the length and width of the highways, the great distances between buildings, and the massive scale of most of the properties. You could land a plane on most of Naypyidaw’s highways, or lift off from them, and that might be just what Than Shwe intended. It’s always good to have emergency escape options.

We pass by a number of attractions—or distractions, if you prefer—not having time to visit each one. We pass by the gems museum, which showcases Myanmar’s world-famous jade, ruby, and other precious stones, and then the water fountain park (which we’ll check out that night, when the lights are on), before arriving at the Uppatasanti Pagoda. This is the infamous replica of Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda that the dictator and his wife commissioned as an act of merit-making—as if spending millions of dollars in state funds on a religious shrine when the country is in “least developed” status could buy him the good karma to wash away half a century of military repression. We stop to check it out, taking an elevator from street level to a plaza surrounding the 321-foot golden pagoda.

Inside the cavernous dome, there are intricate, carved marble murals depicting the life and legend of Buddha and key scenes from the country’s Buddhist history. In a ring around the ceiling are a series of golden plaques bearing orbs of Buddhist wisdom in badly punctuated English. My favourite message is the “Noble Truth of Suffering”: Coming to be in new existences repeatedly, old age, illness, death and association with those one does not love, separation from those one loves, not to get what one desires are sufferings. In brief, the five aggregates of clinging are suffering indeed. (I guess the government sponsors of this pagoda should know, having inflicted so much suffering on the Burmese people.) Charmingly, the pagoda’s name translates as “protection against calamity.”

Back at street level, we stop for a brief visit with the pagoda’s two celebrated white elephants (more pink, actually), and their black elephant companion. Then we hit the road again, taking yet another eight-lane highway that separates a large bean plantation before proceeding past the zoological garden and safari park. After moving east through Pyinmana, we head north on the old Yangon-Mandalay Road through a rural village until we find the Zeyar Thiri Sports Stadium. A state-of-the-art complex built exclusively for the SEA Games, the Zeyar Thiri doesn’t get much use these days. Ko Maw calls it “the lonely stadium.” We pay the guards a thousand kyats ($1) for the privilege of driving around it. Listening to the flagless ropes clipping the metal flagpoles in the wind, with not a soul in sight at high noon, I try to imagine the reaction back home if government provided the funding to build something this grandiose, in the middle of nowhere, and then let it gather dust after one big event.

Driving west and into the hills, we pass a valley of small wooden houses with aluminum roofing. The houses, placed a few feet apart, go back as far as the eye can see. The driver tells Ko Maw that this is the military housing zone. It is dizzying, the number of these little shacks out there. One wonders how a drunken soldier could find his way home in a clone field such as this. Speaking of clones, we’re on our way to another: this one of an Indian-style obelisk whose name escapes me. The obelisk is located near a dam, with a covered walkway that offers shady relief from the scorching sun. Under it, local Burmese families gathered for a picnic invite the white foreigner to sit and join them for some rice and curry dishes. But I politely decline: this is strictly a bathroom break, and we must be on our way.

Hluttaw

LOOK BUT DON’T ‘SHOOT’–In “democratic” Myanmar, the parliament is still off limits to most people.

A few kilometers later, we’re passing through an industrial zone when we stop at a gas station to fill up—and to meet the old friend of Ko Maw’s who runs it. From there, it’s on to one of the main attractions: the Hluttaw, or Myanmar Parliament. It seems more of a plaza than a street that leads to this place, as the road turning into the parliament grounds turns into a 20-lane passageway. This is Forbidden City proportions, which makes sense since it was probably the Chinese who designed the place (and much of the rest of Naypyidaw). The buildings themselves, traditional Burmese structures painted yellow with red roof tiling, appear to be set half a kilometer back from the road. First they are fenced off from the public with an iron gate. Then, several metres inside the gate, they are further separated by a moat. Those entrusted with governing Myanmar—from the lowliest MP to President Thein Sein himself—get the royal treatment when they enter this place, as they have to cross the moat by passing over a bridge flanked by two towering arches. Despite this imposing display of power, this impressive control of public space, photographs of the Hluttaw are not allowed. So we have to stop the car quickly and roll down the window just to get a few shots of the entranceway.

Later we pass by the six-lane driveway that leads to the Presidential palace (which was not completed in time for Than Shwe to enjoy its opulence), and proceed through a leafy suburb of government housing complexes. Then we head uphill. Partway up it, the driver points at a gated driveway to our left: that’s the entrance to Than Shwe’s former house, he tells Ko Maw. Around the corner, he stops the car. Ko Maw points up, above a gully and through the trees, where a house can barely be seen. “That was his house,” says Ko Maw. “Was?” I ask. “Where does he live now?” The driver tells us that Myanmar’s former dictator, now eighty-one, has moved back to Yangon. This seems wrong, somehow. Why should the man who imposed Naypyidaw on so many unwilling compatriots—I’ve met people who quit their jobs rather than accept relocation to the new capital—be allowed to enjoy his dotage in Yangon? Shouldn’t he be sentenced to Naypyidaw for the rest of his life? (Such questions, of course, imply that the army is not, in fact, still running this country.)

After a late lunch, we drive down Zaya Thani Road, where all the ministries are located. It’s like driving through the Hollywood hills, bureaucrat style: Zaya Thani is a winding, tree-lined road dotted with street lights, perfectly manicured hedges and lengthy driveways that lead to each ministry. I stop at the most important one—the Ministry of Information—to take a couple of photos. After that, our late-night bus ride and lack of sleep have begun to catch up with us, so we return to the Oasis for a power nap. Then we head out for a couple of evening stops: first a return to Uppatasanti Pagoda, to take a photo that captures the temple’s nocturnal golden glow, then a stop at the water fountain park, to sample some of the light shows.

As we enter the park, it occurs to me that this is the first time in the ten waking hours we have been in Naypyidaw—well, apart from the picnic, and a brief drive through Thayegon Market—that I have seen a gathering of more than five people in a city that apparently has one million inhabitants. (Does everyone just stay in their offices or barracks when they’re not at home?) Of course, this is a Saturday night, so it is no surprise that great swathes of Naypyidaw government workers and soldiers would turn up with their spouses and children at the one place that most appeals to the masses. The water fountain park costs only 500 kyats (50 cents) for locals, and there are cheap thrills to be had with some of the lighting displays (although the man-made rock waterfalls are pretty tacky). The gardens, too, are pleasant enough to walk through. But it feels sad that an amusement park, with all its distractions, is the only public space I have seen locals gather.

Uppatasanti by day

OVER THE TOP–Uppatasanti Pagoda, Myanmar’s tax dollars in action.

And that is when the brilliance of Naypyidaw—or, at least, of the paranoid minds that created it—occurs to me: these great distances between everything, which most people find inconvenient, are in fact a deliberate strategy to inhibit direct communication and discourage public gatherings except in easily controllable environments. Unlike in Yangon, which is an actual living and breathing city with a civic culture and vibrant social scene, a protest could never happen in Myanmar’s new capital city. (Come to think of it, I have never seen or heard the words “Naypyidaw” and “protest” mentioned in the same sentence.)

This, I think, as Ko Maw and I board the bus back to Yangon, must have made Naypyidaw the perfect city for Than Shwe. That is, at least, until he retired as dictator and could no longer tolerate the vast empty spaces, the long silences, and the voices in his head raging against the absence of his own civic vision.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

dad April 3, 2014 at 10:33 pm

great pics Dan, looking forward to having you home much love always dad

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