As Scrutiny Grows, Burma Moves Its Capital

A woman prepares fish for sale in Rangoon, where markets teem despite high inflation. The Burmese government asserts that it is moving the capital away from the city to a more desolate area to develop outlying regions.
A woman prepares fish for sale in Rangoon, where markets teem despite high inflation. The Burmese government asserts that it is moving the capital away from the city to a more desolate area to develop outlying regions. (By Alan Sipress -- The Washington Post)

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By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, December 28, 2005

RANGOON, Burma -- Military trucks rumble up in front of Rangoon's ministries several times a week and workers lug ancient desks, chairs and filing cabinets to the waiting vehicles. The convoys depart at daybreak on a 12-hour journey along roads badly rutted and pocked, then return for another load.

Burma's military rulers are rapidly transferring the country's century-old capital from Rangoon to the desolate, rocky terrain of Pyinmana about 200 miles to the north, aiming to empty most offices by the end of next month.

Distraught civil servants, among the thousands scheduled to relocate, have wept in front of foreign officials. Some government employees have asked to quit, including many at the Irrigation Ministry who tried to resign en masse, but have been told that is forbidden, according to their family members.

"The government's crazy. Everybody hates this idea," said Soe, a deliveryman whose cousin, a military officer, has been transferred. "This Pyinmana, I wish I could blow the place up."

Few in Rangoon can fathom the motives for the abrupt move, which began Nov. 6. Most observers and even some government officials say they suspect it was solely the brainchild of Gen. Than Shwe, the secretive head of Burma's ruling military junta. Some have speculated that government fears of a U.S. invasion are to blame for the move, or perhaps civil unrest or even the prophesies of a soothsayer.

Whatever the reason, the impact is clear. The move further isolates the government at a time when demands are mounting at the United Nations for the release of the imprisoned opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi. Burma's neighbors are expressing impatience with the country's lack of democratic reform, and the Bush administration is campaigning to bring the issue before the U.N. Security Council.

Burma's gradual retreat from contact with the outside world began in October 2004, when Than Shwe fired his prime minister, Gen. Khin Nyunt, and ordered his arrest, ostensibly for corruption. While Khin Nyunt had been head of military intelligence, some Asian governments regarded him as a moderating force on the issue of democratic change.

He was also the rulers' main interlocutor with foreign governments and agencies. With his removal, the government purged several allied cabinet ministers who had experience working with the United Nations. Since then, Burma also has tightened travel restrictions on foreigners and threatened to withdraw from the International Labor Organization over its criticisms. The former British colony has been controlled since 1988 by the military junta, which refused to accept the results of 1990 legislative elections in which Suu Kyi and her party won in a landslide.

Senior Burmese ministers were given just two days' notice of the relocation from the port city of Rangoon to the heartland of the majority Burman ethnic group. Witnesses recounted seeing the initial convoy depart Rangoon at precisely 6:37 a.m., a time that many Burmese attribute to the counsel of government astrologers. As the trucks pulled away from the ministries, including several housed in red brick Victorian buildings dating to the colonial era, army officers led a ritual chant of "We're leaving! We're leaving!"

Only the next day did the Foreign Ministry of Burma, renamed Myanmar by the junta, notify foreign diplomats that the capital had left town.

"You can communicate with the Myanmar government by letter. If you have an urgent matter, you can send a letter by fax," said an Asian diplomat, repeating the instructions he had been given by the Foreign Ministry. "Can you believe that?"

Officials said foreigners would not be allowed to visit Pyinmana until April at the earliest. Embassies will eventually be leased land in a diplomatic compound and are expected by the government to begin building new missions in late 2007.

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