The Road to Naypyidaw: What Hillary Clinton Will See in Burma

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A deserted 10 lanes highway in Naypyidaw. (Photo: MC TRESSIN / Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

As U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton makes her historic visit to Burma from Nov. 30 to Dec. 2, she will be touring two vastly different cities. Clinton, the first U.S. Secretary of State to visit the isolated nation in more than half a century, first stops in Naypyidaw, the country’s capital. The vast, surreal city, which means “the abode of the kings,” did not exist when Clinton’s predecessor John Foster Dulles went to Burma, now known officially as Myanmar, back in 1955, before the country’s military junta wrested control from a civilian government. In fact, Naypyidaw was only unveiled six years ago when a startled civil servant corps was told to pack their bags and head north from Burma’s former capital, Rangoon. One cavalcade of trucks started on the road to the as-yet-unnamed city at the astrologically inspired time of 11 in the morning on Nov. 11 . Burma’s then ruling junta was known to factor the stars into their leadership plans.

No one is absolutely sure why Burma’s generals, who earlier this year handed over power to a semi-civilian government still packed with army men, left bustling, dilapidated Rangoon. The official answer was that Rangoon had gotten too crowded. But other theories abound. The country’s kings had a legacy of building grand capitals, like Ava and Mandalay, to preserve their legacy. The junta’s chief Than Shwe, a reclusive general who is said to be a student of the country’s royal history, may have wanted to add Naypyidaw to that royal building tradition.

Naypyidaw, which is situated on a vast plain overlooked by the Shan Hills in central Burma, is also far more bunkered than Rangoon, the southern trading port that was coaxed into relevance by the colonial British. For a clutch of battle-hardened generals, the fortress-like quality of their planned city—with a vast military zone inaccessible to normal citizens and honeycombed with tunnels and other martial trappings—must have been reassuring. Back when cyclone Nargis tore through lower Burma’s Irrawaddy Delta in 2008, killing some 140,000 people, Naypyidaw was left unscathed. As the generals dallied on providing emergency aid to victims—a delay that cut short lives—speculation circulated in Burma that Western powers might invade to force the junta to save its beleaguered citizens. The rumors were, of course, fanciful. But surely the generals felt more immune to attack in their fortress capital than in Rangoon, which is more easily approachable by sea. (However, members of one ethnic group, which has on occasion raised a rebel militia, still roam the Shan Hills, proving that even Naypyidaw cannot be isolated from the ethnic troubles that continue to bedevil Burma.)

When I first visited Naypyidaw in 2008, it was a vast, empty place with all the charm of a down-market American housing estate spread across a space so vast it takes an hour to cross by car. Street-sweepers languidly brushed dust off the six-lane highways. There was no need for them to get out of the middle of the road because so few cars traveled the spotless thoroughfares. A couple years later, I drove a juddering car up the new highway from Rangoon, passing young girls working in road-construction crews who were paid only $1.50 per day—if they were lucky enough to collect their wages. I expected that Naypidaw would have developed somewhat since then, but apart from a shopping center with video arcade and a massive parliament building, the city still felt vacant. Today the highways are still largely devoid of cars. Built just a few years ago, the civil servants’ housing blocks—color-coded by government ministry—have weathered badly, their paint jobs bleached and left to decay, like victims of the sub-prime crisis. A Russian company will eventually build the country’s first subway system in Naypyidaw, if local media is to be believed.

If this is the generals’ dreamscape, then Naypyidaw speaks to peculiar priorities. There are several golf-courses, an air-conditioned enclave for penguins at the zoo and a scattering of immense government ministries marooned amid scrubland.  But across the city, few people wander about. No one is here unless they have to be. Many civil servants have left their families back in Rangoon. Embassies have refused to move. Even the generals’ children and grandchildren, the pampered princelings whose antics have shocked the Burmese populace, prefer to live in Rangoon. Naypyidaw has little nightlife to offer. On maps sold in the capital, the entire military zone is blank.

The new capital does boast a towering replica of Rangoon’s Shwedagon pagoda, the nation’s holiest site. When I visited the Naypyidaw pagoda’s construction site a few years back, I saw a row of children, some who looked no older than in first grade, carrying piles of rocks on stretchers. The straggle of youngsters was lined up like some surreal parody of a monastic processional. By the time the Naypyidaw Buddhist site was finished, real monks roamed the fancy new prayer halls with lavish gilt swirls. But the place had, as one pilgrim whispered to me, “no heart.”

By contrast, Rangoon, where Clinton will arrive on Dec. 1, is full of soul. A chaotic conurbation of some 5 million people, Burma’s largest city was during British colonial times a polyglot metropolis with state-of-the-art infrastructure. Burma back then was one of the richest regions in Asia, blessed with fertile land and many natural resources. Following the military takeover in 1962, Rangoon, now known officially as Yangon, was preserved in amber for decades as the country isolated itself from the world. The nationalist regime ejected many Indian and Chinese residents in favor of the majority Bamar ethnicity, and the economy degenerated into one of the poorest in the world. But even today, amid the golden pagodas, there are hints of Rangoon’s multicultural past: mosques and a Tamil temple, brick churches and a historic synagogue.

The city had not aged entirely gracefully; residents are occasionally killed when buildings collapse or naked power-lines electrocute passersby. Unlike Naypyidaw, which is bathed in 24-hour light, Rangoon suffers from chronic power cuts and wonky wiring. Walking at night, without the aid of streetlights, it’s easy to trip over slabs of broken pavement or fall into uncovered sewers. One day I narrowly missed a chunk of concrete falling off a building near me. Instead, the piece of balcony slammed into a car next to me, smashing the windshield. The faces of decaying apartment blocks are striped with brightly colored strings to which plastic bags are attached, an ancient pulley system for those living on the higher floors. Nevertheless, Rangoon thrums with life, with people rushing to board the so-called “big belly” Chevrolet buses of mid-20th century vintage or lining up at street stalls to buy packets of betel nut and computer manuals that promise to teach “Latest Word Perfect Tips 1995.”

Because Rangoon was abandoned by the generals, majestic government ministry buildings now stand empty, colonial-era hulks surrounded by waist-high grass and flitting bats. Another dilapidated building in the former capital is the lakeside residence of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi, whom Clinton is scheduled to meet. New grass has been placed outside her crumbling villa, where she was kept under house arrest for the better part of two decades until her release last year. In a further sign of hospitality, a stretch of tarmac on a road passing a famous pagoda has been freshly pitched. The pagoda is temporarily housing a tooth believed to come from the Buddha himself that is on loan from China. Everyday, crowds of pilgrims line up to see the holy relic—and, as they wait, admire the stretch of new road.

Beyond the new sod and tarmac, Rangoon is beginning to boom in other ways. First-time visitors may still see a time-warped city, with peeling paint, mildewed walls and a proliferation of charmingly hand-painted signs. Most everyone, man or woman, wears the traditional Burmese sarong, known as the longyi. But Rangoon is changing, in large part because of a flood of foreign investment from Asian neighbors who do not impose economic sanctions on Burma. New construction—albeit mostly covered in bamboo scaffolding, as opposed to the more modern metal, and with nary a crane in sight—dots the city. Billboards decorate traffic circles and intersections, hawking either local or Asian products because of the Western sanctions. In a sign of the level of development Rangoon is striving for, a giant billboard advertises a Samsung “twin cooling system refrigerator—an appliance that will only work with plentiful generator back-up. The advertisement for the fridge looms near where a Japanese photojournalist was killed when the military crushed a monk-led protest in 2007, gunning down pro-democracy demonstrators and unarmed clerics. Elsewhere, I see billboards displaying gleaming white toilets and instant coffee. There is a new chandelier shop called “super power.”

Remarkably, as my 1960s-era taxi bumps along the road, my phone picks up the occasional wifi signal. New coffee shops offer lattés and biscotti. And some of the colonial-era ministries and government buildings that have been rotting in the tropical sun are now slated for re-development. Public indignation has ensued because at least one reportedly has been handed over to a regime crony so he can turn it into a five-star hotel. The income gap between the majority of Burmese, who struggle just to feed themselves, and the country’s new rich, their pockets lined by the selling off of Burma’s natural treasures, is yawning ever wider. At the airport, air-conditioned Land Rovers swoop in with “VVIP” emblazoned on the windshield. I wonder who counts as a mere VIP.

Rangoon’s center of gravity still remains at Shwedagon, the enchanting golden spire that rises above the city. Clinton will visit this holy site. Her plans, however, do not encompass a stop at the Shwedagon knock-off in Napyidaw. Indeed, her schedule in the new capital only includes meetings with government officials, including new President Thein Sein, a retired general and former junta member who heads the quasi-civilian government. But in Rangoon, in addition to Suu Kyi, Clinton is scheduled to convene with a wide swathe of Burmese, from political activists and former political prisoners to civil-society representatives and members of Burma’s disaffected ethnic minorities, who make up roughly 40% of the nation’s population.

One person Clinton will also likely be meeting is Zarganar, a famous comedian who was jailed after he dared to distribute food to victims of cyclone Nargis and publicized to the foreign media the generals’ paltry aid efforts. When I meet Zarganar in Rangoon this time, he expresses optimism about the reforms Burma is currently undergoing, particularly the political softening that prompted Clinton’s visit. “My feeling about Burma is that we are in a 3D time,” he says. “Right now it’s a new dawn in Burma. We must work hard to make sure the new dawn turns into a new day. But we have to make sure we don’t return to the old dark.”

More from TIME.com: Photographs of Burmese democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi

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