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Secretive Myanmar to offer glimpse of new capital

Written by: Staff

Bangkok, Mar 26: Outsiders will get a rare glimpse of secretive Myanmar's new capital tomorrow a fortified compound deep in the jungle analysts say signals a further retreat into isolation.

Five months after the military junta announced the shock move to a lumber town 400 km (250 miles) north of Yangon, strongman Senior General Than Shwe will preside over a military parade attended by foreign diplomats to mark Armed Forces Day.

The generals say the move to a new capital, which irked neighbours trying to keep Myanmar engaged with the outside world, will make it easier to run the country of 54 million people. Few believe them.

Some analysts say the decision stemmed from paranoia about an invasion by the United States, which calls Myanmar an ''outpost of tyranny''. Others suggest it is fear of a popular uprising if the economy continues to deteriorate after decades of mismanagement.

History may also be a factor in a country where the capital has shifted 10 times due to war or cultural upheavals.

Or perhaps Myanmar's astrologically-obsessed leaders saw a warning written in the stars.

Whatever the reason, it will make contact with one of the world's most withdrawn regimes much more difficult, says David Steinberg, director of Asian Studies at Georgetown University.

''It is a retreat. A feeling that they can go it alone no matter what. They don't need the outside world,'' he told Reuters.

PACK UP AND GO Most ministries have decamped from Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon under British imperial rule, since bewildered civil servants were first told in November to pack up.

''We could not believe our ears. The room fell completely silent. Some of us were close to tears,'' recalled Win, who was among the first to leave Yangon on November 6.

Win and his colleagues were given a few hours to gather food and belongings before they were loaded onto Chinese-made trucks.

''We left at 6:37 am sharp. It was a very long convoy, as long as the eye could see,'' he said of the timing analysts say may have been chosen by astrologers.

When they arrived at the mosquito-infested compound outside Pyinmana, their building was half-finished. ''We had to sleep on the floor and others slept on tables.'' Government officials have said nothing about the cost of the Pyinmana HQ, which includes a hydro-electric plant, scores of new buildings, a golf course and airport.

Accommodation is still in short supply with reports of up to eight civil servants packed into a single apartment.

The junta dismisses concerns of a retreat, pointing to other nations such as Nigeria and Pakistan which have separate government and commercial capitals.

But diplomats in Yangon are still waiting for new phone and fax numbers promised months ago, and few of the 27 embassies are expected to take up an offer to move to Pyinmana in 2007.

''It's absolutely ridiculous. We can't contact them even for the most innocent of reasons. It's like they are in another country,'' said one Western diplomat.

Neighbours miffed

The move rankled neighbours who received no advance warning.

Criticism of Myanmar from within the 10-nation ASEAN grouping has grown as democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi remains confined to her home nearly three years after her May 2003 arrest.

The latest attempt to cajole Yangon into accelerating political reforms ended abruptly on Friday when Malaysian Foreign Minister Syed Hamid Albar cut short a fact-finding trip to Myanmar. He had hoped to meet Suu Kyi, but did not.

Some analysts see in Pyinmana a bid by Than Shwe to emulate Burmese kings who moved capitals in the past.

''I see this as a rejection of modernity and the lenses that we use, such as human rights and globalisation, have no meaning for this mindset,'' said veteran Myanmar analyst Bradley Babson.

The fear of a US invasion was probably a ploy by Than Shwe, an expert in psychological warfare, to keep his soldiers in line.

Astrological portents may have played a role too, said Steinberg, noting a Burmese expression, ''yar da ya'', which means taking an action to ward off danger foretold by a soothsayer.

Whatever the explanation, ordinary people in one of Asia's poorest countries are unlikely to care.

''They build some capital in the jungle instead of spending on education and health care. They don't care about the people and the people don't care about them,'' another Western diplomat said.


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