Junta in the Jungle Myanmar Shows Off New Capital to the World

Myanmar's secretive military government has allowed foreign journalists into its new capital of Naypyitaw, which is being built from scratch in the jungle.


It's not often that a country changes its capital city. When it does so, it tends to be because of momentous political changes, such as when Germany moved its capital back to Berlin from Bonn after reunification, or reflecting a taste for ambitious state planning, as was the case when Brazil relocated its seat of government from Rio de Janeiro to the new city of Brasilia in the country's dusty interior in 1960.

The motives behind the Myanmar military regime's decision to suddenly move the country's seat of government to the jungle in 2005 remain unclear. But for a regime that was happy to change the name of the country, which used to be called Burma, a new capital is surely a mere bagatelle.

The government of Myanmar let foreign journalists take their first look at the country's new capital Naypyitaw Tuesday. Around 50 journalists were given visas to cover ceremonies to mark the country's Armed Forces Day. It was the second time the ceremony, which marks the date when the Burma Independence Army revolted against Japanese occupation forces during World War II, has been held in Naypyitaw, having previously taken place in a park in the former capital of Yangon.

The country's leader, 74-year-old Senior General Than Shwe, arrived in a Mercedes limousine and spoke for almost an hour to an audience of around 500 invited dignitaries, diplomats and journalists. Than Shwe, who is head of the State Peace and Development Council, as the military junta is known, said that building a "strong, efficient, modern and patriotic" military and reinforcing the unity of the military and the people were essential for defending Myanmar. He said that the country still faces danger from "powerful countries" that are attempting to "sow the seeds of discord and dissension" among the population and weaken the military.

The military leadership moved Myanmar's capital upcountry to a construction site in a jungle town of Naypyitaw, 385 kilometers (240 miles) north of Yangon, in late 2005. Government employees were given no warning and were expected to relocate with their families immediately.

The reasons for the sudden move are not clear. Some say the military was paranoid after the United States invaded Iraq, while others blame astrological forecasts. Another theory is the junta is following the example of former Burmese kings who liked to move capitals to mark a new era.

The jungle city now has half a dozen hotels, which were fully booked by diplomats and other people attending the ceremony. Access to the city is still limited -- there are only three flights a week from Yangon, while the journey by car takes seven hours along a two-lane highway.

Western journalists reported Myanmar's new seat of government to be eerily quiet, with dusty hills dominating the horizon and few people on the city's eight-lane highways.

"It's bizarre," a senior Western diplomat in Yangon, who asked not to be identified, told DER SPIEGEL last year. "It wasn't designed to be a workable city. It was designed to isolate. ... This is a country that's trying to close itself in."

The international community has denounced the military junta for its poor record on human rights and for refusing to hand power to the party of pro-democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi after they won a landslide election victory in 1990.

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