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As Scrutiny Grows, Burma Moves Its Capital
Country's Isolation Is Taken One Step, and Many Miles, Further

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.

The information minister, Brig. Gen. Kyaw Hsan, said in an interview that the shift to Pyinmana would not interfere with government operations. "The movement to Pyinmana will be made step by step to ensure no difficulties for service personnel and to ensure continued function of the departments," he said.

But civil servants have told their families that few buildings are ready in the new capital, located about 20 miles west of the existing town of Pyinmana in a region with one of the country's highest rates of malaria. Government housing remains unfinished, with electricity and water supplies running short. In one ministry building, about 90 people slept on the floor. Higher-ranking officials camped out atop desks and tables. There were few signs of the schools, hospitals, shopping mall and luxury hotels the government has promised.

"You know there's no psychiatric hospital in Pyinmana," a government official quipped. "They'll need one because everyone is going to go crazy."

The move has divided extended families, and parents are to be separated even from their children, at least until schools are built in Pyinmana. For civil servants, who often moonlight or sell their government gasoline allowances on the black market to supplement monthly pay of $20 or less, it also means they may lose their main sources of income. There is no ready market in Pyinmana.

Kyaw Hsan said shifting the capital to the center of the country was designed to help develop Burma's outlying regions, where the government has been trying to ensure peace after years of insurgency by minority ethnic groups.

"It's good for the future as regards management and administration of the country," the information minister said.

Some foreign diplomats and Burmese exiles attribute the move more to the regal presumptions of Than Shwe, 74, who has ruled for 13 years and may be seeking to build a legacy like Burmese kings of old. They noted he had already established a new military district to include Pyinmana and dubbed it Naypyidaw, or Royal City.

Diplomats and exiles said the new location could also prove more defensible, with a vast military complex being built nearby, nestled against the mountains and, some say, housed partly in underground tunnels. The new location could also insulate the government from potential unrest generated by students and others suffering mounting hardships in the rest of the country, especially Rangoon.

Two months ago, without advance notice or explanation, the government slashed fuel subsidies, hiking gasoline prices by nine times, and then boosted bus fares by as much as five times, forcing many day laborers to stay home rather than look for work.

"We can't understand the reasons," said a man named Aung, who works for a foreign company. "Who suffers? Only the ordinary people, the office workers, government workers, gardeners. Inflation is tremendous. Our money is worthless."

The escalating fuel prices have stoked inflation, now running as high as 40 percent annually, up from about 10 percent a year ago, according to statistics compiled for a Western embassy. U.N. agencies report that malnutrition, rural landlessness and school dropout rates are all on the rise.

"People are suffering. But they can't complain. Good or bad, people have no right to say anything," said a Burmese businessman.

Yet Rangoon's markets still teem. Store shelves are heavy with cheap goods from China and Thailand. Crowds of peddlers, hawking shoes, shortwave radios and pirated software, make the sidewalks a maze, and the narrow aisles of the traditional meat and vegetable markets are clotted with shoppers.

Aware that a rice shortage could spark unrest, the government has invested heavily in dams, reservoirs and pump stations for irrigation, directing farmers about five years ago to raise two crops annually rather than one. Rice exports are also regulated. As a result, the staple is widely available and, in recent weeks, the price has dropped.

As the military rulers have isolated themselves, they have done the same with Suu Kyi and her party, the National League for Democracy. The military has repressed the party in waves since an initial clampdown in 1988.

The 60-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate was arrested for a third time in 2003 and is now confined to her lakefront home in northern Rangoon under heavy police guard. The government has eliminated most of her household staff, leaving only two female companions. Her only visitor is a doctor who comes once a month, and her communication with the outside has grown even less frequent over the past six months, foreign officials said.

Outside Suu Kyi's home, her party's flag -- a gold peacock on a red field -- has faded. Members of her party said no one has been able to replace it. About 300 of their offices have been shut down by the government, leaving only the national headquarters, a two-floor storefront operation cluttered with creaky, old wooden furniture and stacks of musty files. Some members are jailed and others are barred from holding meetings, party officials reported.

"They won't let us move an inch," explained one of the party's leaders, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of government reprisal. "What is our plan? To survive. We are still here after 17 years and this is how we intend to stay."

But another party figure was more melancholy than defiant.

"We are not pushing anything," said the activist, who had been elected to parliament in the 1990 vote. "We are just floating on the political current. We are trying not to drown."

Correspondent Ellen Nakashima in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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