The Murky Origins of Burma’s Capital City

The city’s origins are clouded in rumour and speculation. Some describe it as a vanity project of Than Shwe, the former military leader of the country. Many believe the “audacious” name given to the city might reflect “illusions of grandeur or … perhaps another sign of [Than Shwe’s] possible dementia”, according to one 2006 US government diplomatic cable, released in the trove of documents published by Wikileaks.

Other theories have pointed to an increasingly paranoid junta wanting to move the capital away from the sea, fearing an amphibious US invasion. Instead, the seat of military and political power now sits closer to the restive regions where separatist movements and ethnic groups are pushing for greater rights for bitterly oppressed minorities, including the Karen and Rohingya.

The regime, and Than Shwe, pitched the move to Naypyidaw as akin to building a new Canberra or Brasilia, an administrative capital away from the traffic jams and over-population of Rangoon. Not many believe this story. “By withdrawing from the major city, Rangoon, Than Shwe and the leadership … sheltered themselves from any popular uprising,” suggest activists Benedict Rogers and Jeremy Woodrum in their book Than Shwe: Unmasking Burma’s Tyrant.

Matt Kennard and Claire Provost writing for the Pulitzer Center about Naypyidaw, the eerie, master planned capital of Burma. Located in the middle of one of the world’s poorest countries, grandiose Naypyidaw was built on a massive scale and is seemingly devoid of people.

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