The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Obama’s journey through Burma’s strange, ‘ghost town’ capital

NAYPYIDAW, Burma -- After attending two international summits and meeting leaders such as famed activist-turned politician Aung San Suu Kyi, President Obama took his motorcade through an empty city, passing water fountains -- even a full-fledged water park -- lit up colorfully in the dark. He was on his way to visit the palace of Burmese President Thein Sein.

The capital of Burma moved to Naypyidaw, meaning "Abode of Kings," in 2005. The new capital was a dramatic departure from the bustling streets and crumbling colonial piles of its predecessor, Rangoon. Built out of the jungle, it seemed at first the fever dream of the country's secretive junta: wide boulevards pass by empty government office buildings and gated compounds; a network of tunnels, supposedly constructed with North Korean help, run beneath.

It is perennially described by visitors as a "ghost town."

But in the years since its construction, Naypyidaw has attracted more residents and foreigners, lured in by Burma's booming economy and the promise of democratic reforms, which have been guided by Sein's new government. The U.S. president's visit to the new capital is yet another sign of the end of Burma's diplomatic isolation.

Obama's motorcade made its way to Sein's residence down a broad street, with eight lanes on either side. Yet almost no other cars or trucks were seen, and not a single person watched the 24-vehicle presidential caravan pass by. Three elaborate roundabouts that had giant Lotus-like flower sculptures, lit up green, in the center, glowed en route.

And then the motorcade turned sharply left down a narrowed street that led the group to the palace. An enormous white marble palace, looking larger -- and more opulent -- than the White House, came in sight. The motorcade crossed over a moat on a bridge with white suspension spokes before pulling up to the entrance of massive wood-paneled doors.

The president's limo was parked out front. Lights replicating shooting stars hung from the trees of an expansive front lawn. Men and women in bright white robes welcome us, and in the foyer was a dramatic and huge crystal chandelier hung from the 25-foot ceilings.

This bilateral meeting was different than others -- the thin oak tables that are normally the stock-in-trade for such summitry were absent. In their place was a golden Buddhist throne that loomed above a pair of golden arm chairs for the two presidents. Other arm chairs lined both sides for the respective delegations. The two sides faced each other but were separated by a good 15 feet.

After about an hour-long discussion between the leaders, both made brief remarks. Obama cited important progress made by the Burmese government regarding the release of political prisoners, its discharging of child soldiers in the army's ranks and efforts toward reconciliation with a number of armed, separatist movements.

But Obama also emphasized the need for more reforms, referring to the violence in Rakhine State, where the Muslim Rohingya minority faces tremendous persecution. "We recognize change is hard and you do not always move in a straight line, but I'm optimistic," said the American president.

Sein called the talks "candid" and said some areas of reform need time. "We're in the process of addressing these concerns. We definitely need to address these concerns," he said.

An earlier meeting in Rangoon between Obama and opposition leader Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate who spent years under house arrest, served notice of the need for more meaningful democratic change. Suu Kyi is frustrated by the country's 2008 constitution, which has entrenched the authority of the military by giving it an automatic bloc of seats in parliament and the ability to veto any proposed changes to the constitution. It also bars her from contesting the presidency.

U.S. officials, including Obama, are disappointed by the Sein government's inability so far to change the constitution.

But, in Naypyidaw, the capital the generals built, Obama ended on a positive note.

"The democratic process in Myanmar," said the president, using the government's chosen name for Burma, "is real."

Swati Sharma contributed to this report.