Enlivening Naypyitaw, Myanmar's "Ghost Capital"

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 1/05/2014 08:06:00 AM
Where Google Earth fears to tread. Welcome to Naypyitaw
In the pantheon of vanity projects, there is none more hubristic than establishing a nation's capital in the middle of nowhere. The archetypal and best-known example is Brasilia, the erstwhile seat of Brazilian government. Lesser-known but no less the product of planning on a grand scale are Australia's capital of Canberra and Canada's capital of Ottawa. None of these so-called capitals are among these countries' liveliest cities; it is difficult to pre-plan a "happening" town, and they generally prove this point. Seen any rock albums entitled Live in [Brasilia, Canberra, or Ottawa]?

The debate between creating master-planned gateway cities and allowing them to emerge spontaneously (Le Corbusier versus Jane Jacobs) is a very interesting one with enormous policy implications. For instance, would any urban planner have allowed the emergence of megacities built on fault lines (San Francisco and Los Angeles)? Or, for that matter, megacities in arid regions alike Las Vegas and Phoenix which add insult to injury by drawing people away from ("Rust Belt") cities that do not have problems with water supplies or generating power for massive amounts of air-conditioning? People do not necessarily decide to live in places where it makes ecological sense to do so.

This all brings me to Southeast Asia's own, rather obscure Naypyitaw, the Burmese junta's own capital in the middle of rice paddies. Originally meant to seclude government from prickly opposition types in the old capital of Rangoon (today's Yangon) among other things, it has long suffered from having government and not much else. Sounds familiar, ey? However, its situation has been exacerbated by the ruling clique deciding on who can stay there, as well as the general isolation of sanction-ridden Myanmar. However, with the country now opening up to the world, things are looking up in the country and Naypyitaw is benefiting particularly:
Eight years after Naypyitaw — "Abode of the King" — was proclaimed the new government seat, it has become something more than a "ghost capital hacked out of the jungle," as it was once described. Private enterprise is staking some ground. More shops and restaurants have opened and 79 hotels are operating or under construction. Some foreign companies, notably the Japanese, have set up small branch offices.

A dozen impressive stadiums, meeting halls and hundreds of villas for visiting VIPs have been built here for the Southeast Asian Games, an 11-nation event (featuring all ASEAN members plus Timor Leste) that began Wednesday. Naypyitaw (nay-pee-thaw) will be in the spotlight again next year when Myanmar chairs the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations.
The sheer scale of the project, however, makes it difficult to "fill" Naypyitaw. Remember too that this was a country lumped with North Korea not so long ago in the hermit sweepstakes:
But the capital remains far from meeting the grand expectations that built it. It's 40 times the area of Washington, D.C., dotted with enormous public buildings that seem incongruous in one of the world's poorest countries. The U.S. Capitol is positively puny compared with the equivalent here. The main conference center dwarfs the United Nations building in New York, and the airport, home to just two international airlines, is designed to handle up to 10.5 million passengers a year. Vast empty spaces dominate. Many government workers live alone because their families don't want to move here.
It will be interesting to watch whether they can make Naypyitaw something more than a curiosity; an answer to a trivia question. Certainly, it will take the buy-in of more than the generals if it is to become so. It is very much a matter of political geography.