Two days ago, Yangon, this country’s earlier capital, 320 km from here, saw protests over power shortages, with as many as 300 people, reports said, coming out on the streets to demand more regular electricity supply. That’s a lot of people protesting, for Myanmar.
But because the power never goes off in Naypyidaw, Myanmar’s new capital where Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh landed on Sunday, the penguins in their airconditioned enclosure in the city’s zoo, continue to slumber peacefully through the hot afternoons. The zoo, a pagoda, some shopping malls and enormous government buildings are all there is in Naypyidaw, which means royal capital in Burmese.
The new capital is far from the country's main population centers — nine hours by road from Yangon — but not totally isolated. It is 16 km from the small city of Pyinmana and is near the main road and railway line between Yangon and Mandalay, the former royal capital, farther to the north. The government claims there are a million inhabitants living over 7,000 sq km — more than treble the area of Delhi. The total cost of building Naypyidaw is not clear, but Sean Turnell, an expert on the economy with Macquarie University in Sydney, is quoted in The New York Times as saying the consensus estimate is $4-5 billion.
It is clear that Chinese minds have been at work in planning the city (they, and Thailand, donated the penguins, that have to be fed on special fish flown in from Yangon because the local fish gives them indigestion). Everything has been built with capacity in mind, not the current needs. So, there are vast four-laned roads, with no danger of traffic jams because these are deserted most of the time. There is an avenue for hotels and an area dedicated to restaurants. The government offices have a Burmese-meets-Chinese look. These are in one section. Housing for bureaucrats, partitioned and colour-coded according to ministry, is nearby. All this is, like India, off-limits to ordinary people. There are golf courses and two new movie theaters, empty.
Bureaucrats had to be threatened and coerced into moving to Naypyidaw. They were understandably reluctant, as you can contract malaria fairly easily here. But the quality of life will begin to become better, because the old capital Yangon, sacrifices all its electricity to keep the airconditioners humming in Bangkok. Myanmar sold natural gas amounting to $2.7 bn to Thailand last year.
In many ways, Naypyidaw reminds you of Mayawati — despite attacks and criticism, building huge structures designed to keep reminding Dalits of their identity and what they have managed to achieve. The military rulers of Myanmar, too, want to showcase their contribution to the history of this vast, resource-rich and poor nation. The building of the new capital has been criticised, especially by Western governments and journalists who have questioned the government’s priorities. With a per capita income of $280, perhaps Myanmar didn’t need a new capital. But it is a symbol of the new Myanmar.
PM focus on stronger links
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Sunday said stronger trade and investment links, development of border areas, improving connectivity between India and Myanmar, and building capacity and human resources were areas he’d be focusing on during his visit.
In a statement before embarking on this visit, his first to Myanmar and the first by an Indian PM since 1987, the PM said a number of agreements would be signed to further strengthen bilateral cooperation, besides promoting people-to-people contacts.
The Prime Minister said he was looking forward to meeting Opposition leader Suu Kyi and added India supported the transition by Myanmar to a democracy: “India welcomes Myanmar’s transition to democratic governance and the steps taken by the Government of Myanmar towards a more broad-based and inclusive reconciliation process. We stand ready to share our democratic experiences with Myanmar,” he said.