Published in The Irrawaddy print magazine, December edition, out Dec. 1 2013
http://www.rte.ie/news/player/world-report/2013/1201/ – radio version here. Broadcast Dec. 1.
Making sense of Myanmar’s capital
By SIMON ROUGHNEEN / Naypyidaw
With its water-slides, swings and cafés half-hidden in the shrubbery, Naypyidaw’s Fountain Park is designed as an evening retreat for Myanmar’s civil servants and their families – somewhere to chill out after a day’s toil inside the city’s imposing and far-flung government buildings.
In major cities elsewhere in the world, urban parks function as relaxing oases, getaways from the hectic city outside.
But in Myanmar’s eight-year-old capital, the logic seems to be the reverse, with imperious highways – not streets – linking the city’s far-flung districts, and the roadways, some nearly wide enough to have a horizon line of their own, mostly as quiet as a rural side-road.
The idea of Fountain Park, it seems, is to drown out the silence outside. “I’m a Barbie girl in a Barbie world” screeched from the park’s speakers, a gratingly-memorable line from a song once listed by Rolling Stone magazine as among the world’s most annoying.
Unperturbed by the din, couples and families swatted mosquitoes and stopped at the fountain to pose for selfies — the colours of the neon-lit water jets lost in the orange and lilac dusk above.
“It’s not as nice as some of the places in Yangon,” said one 34-year-old government worker, who asked that his name be withheld. “But we sometimes like to come here in the evening.”
Almost a decade on from the opening of Myanmar’s secretly-built capital, which is all massive government buildings and endless multi-lane highways, Fountain Park is one of only a few places to go on an evening in a city that otherwise would work well as a setting for a Mad Max remake – should Mel Gibson manage to botox off a couple of decades.
For now, though, Naypyidaw, with its unwitting post-apocalyptic vibe, mostly plays host to visiting government and business delegations, whose numbers will shoot up in 2014 when Myanmar chairs the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), the 10-country regional bloc of which Myanmar has been a member since 1997.
This month, however, the focus will be on the Southeast Asia (SEA) Games, a regional sports and athletics competition, with most events taking place at several gleaming new purpose-built stadia in Naypyidaw. In all, 33 sports will be contested at the SEA Games, which run from December 11 – 22.
Before the Games, as is often the case, the host country sought to gerrymander the events by including a few obscure sports played only by Burmese. And though other host countries have done similar in the past, a pushback by Thailand and the Philippines led the Burmese to relent on including, say, a betel nut spitting competition – and a consensus was reached on the 33 sports that will be contested at the SEA Games, which run from December 11 – 22. 11 + 22 adds up to 33, an auspicious omen for a success-starved Myanmar team in a country where numerology is widely-practiced.
The venues are set on hills, fed by approach roads wide enough for a triumphant army to march up: a Myanmar version of the Via dei Fori Imperiali leading up to the Colosseum in Rome. All the opening ceremony will need, one thinks, is a toga-clad, laurel-hatted President Thein Sein to shout. “Ludi Incipiant!” (“Let the Games begin!”), as the stadium gates rise to unleash the half-starved beasts of Naypyidaw Zoo on the rival countries’ defenseless athletes, avenging the failed Myanmar attempt to weigh the Games in its favour by including a range local-delicacy sports
But to be fair, the venues and the facilities, such as the Athletes Village built a mile up the road from the main track-and-field stadium, look to be top-notch. So good, in fact, that workers finishing off the Athletes Village houses, a month before the Games were due to start, chose to camp out in one of the buildings in a compound set to be shared by Vietnam and Laos, Southeast Asia’s pair of Communist comrades.
“There is Wifi, flatscreen TV, a fully-equipped kitchen and a medical centre in each building,” said Nyi Nyi Soe, who manages the Vietnam-Laos sector.
But despite the plush new sports facilities, spectators visiting Naypyidaw to watch the games who want to get around the city to see the few sights will likely face a forbidding ordeal.
Calling a taxi from a hotel reception can mean waiting for an hour or so. And while it is possible to hail a motorbike taxi near some bigger hotels or around the city’s few shopping malls, Naypyidaw’s far-flung layout means that a half-hour taxi ride – and that with no traffic – turns into an hour or longer under a hot sun on the back of a motorcycle. Moreover, drivers aren’t necessarily familiar with many locations.
Getting from Junction Naypyidaw, the city’s main shopping mall, to the gargantuan new Defense Services Museum, took almost two hours, counting haggling a fare and explaining what the Defense Services Museum is.
Once you get there, however, the Museum is worth it, at least as a reminder of the military’s overweening influence in a country just coming out of five decades of army rule — worth it, that is, once you convince the soldiers at the gate to let you in, a process that ended up taking a half-hour, though I didn’t see any other visitors all afternoon.
“You need a guide, you might get lost,” said one of the soldiers, adding in a Kafka-esque touch that the museum does not yet employ English-speaking guides for foreigners, or any other sort of guides, for that matter.
A shuttle bus might be needed as well, given the sheer size of the museum. It’s a kilometer from the front gate to the main reception area, where huge paintings of Generals Than Shwe and Ne Win, Myanmar’s notorious military dictators, sit either side of a painting – mounted slightly-higher on the wall – of General Aung San, Myanmar’s independence hero and father of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.
A full day was needed even to undertake a whistle-stop visit around this Ozymandian complex. After finally finding the place and haggling a way inside, I got to spend three hours there, chaperoned by an eventually-helpful army guy.
The displays are almost all annotated just in Burmese, with only bits and pieces translated. A paean to Myanmar’s military, they are detailed and meticulously-curated memorabilia, from ancient Myanmar weaponry to a display of Aung San’s personal effects – from his books to his hip-flask to his uniform.
But despite her recent professions of affection for the military, there is no mention of Aung San’s daughter, a would-be next president of Myanmar. Suu Kyi’s debut on the Myanmar political stage, amid 1988 student protests against military rule, is referred to as “The 1988 Affair,” a single glass-cased hiccup between the multitude of homages to the Myanmar military’s achievements.
The one handy aspect of the museum’s location, however, is that it’s around a mile from Naypyidaw Zoo. The layout is similar, if smaller, than the Singapore Zoo, a likeness amplified by the presence of four white tigers, a major selling-point for Singapore. Naypyidaw’s big cat quartet includes one particularly imposing feline, which stood around 10 inches taller at the shoulder than the other three cats – and which hailed “from Africa,” one tiger-keeper adamantly told me.
Inside the compound, the giant cat lazily licked its chops and otherwise looked indifferent to the keeper’s shaky sense of geography, a trait shared by another motorbike taxi driver I hailed as darkness fell outside the zoo gate.
With the taxi driver stopping four times to ask for directions, the hour-long evening-time motorbike from the zoo to a Yangon-replica shopping mall turned into an almost two-hour odyssey.
On the way, the gilded Uppatasanti Pagoda – Napyidaw’s replica of Yangon’s Shwedagon Pagoda – glimmered in the moonlight, a mile or so away from the road as we passed.
Back in Yangon, the Shwedagon Pagoda is packed at this time of day – an evening influx of lost-looking tourists and sometimes solemn-faced Burmese pilgrims – all reverent at the sight of the 99 meter high golden stupa, Myanmar’s best-known landmark.
But the only noise as we passed the Naypyidaw replica, one foot shorter than the more famous Yangon temple, was the motorcycle’s engine, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of the streets around the Shwedagon – a reminder, eight years on, that Myanmar’s new capital has a long way to go to emulate Yangon’s vibrancy.