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Construction cranes tower over two new football stadiums rising up from the tropical scrubland of Naypyidaw – part of a building boom that is transforming Burma’s remote capital.
The military regime surprised the world in 2005 by suddenly shifting the seat of government from Rangoon to the new site, when its vast roads were largely deserted and there were still no schools, clinics or grocery stores.
Once off-limits to the general public, the new nominally civilian government is now preparing to showcase the fast-developing “Abode of Kings” to an influx of visitors for the 2013 Southeast Asian Games.
“Before, this area was jungle and forest,” said project director Khin Maung Kywe, looking out at the site of a 30,000-capacity football stadium that will double as a track and field venue.
“With the rain and wind we have so many difficulties for construction,” he added, as barefoot labourers perched on bamboo scaffolding in a tropical downpour – part of an army of 2,000 workers for the project.
In stark contrast to the pot-holed streets of Burma’s main city Rangoon, Naypyidaw boasts broad motorways and even a 20-lane boulevard leading to the new parliament, a maze of marble-floored corridors and air-conditioned chambers where hundreds of lawmakers now gather.
The capital rarely suffers from the kind of electricity blackouts that plague the rest of the impoverished country, despite its abundant natural gas supplies.
Workers tend manicured lawns by the side of roads and outside ministry headquarters, while the hotel zone is a hive of construction activity.
Well-stocked supermarkets offer everything from watermelons to flat-screen televisions for the city’s residents, mostly government workers and their families, though many relatives apparently opted to stay in Rangoon.
There are several golf courses, a golden pagoda modelled on Rangoon’s iconic Shwedagon, a cinema, a convention centre, a gems emporium and accommodation for the civil servants.
The city even has a safari park and a zoo with an air-conditioned penguin house. State media recently reported that 58 rare animals of 10 different species had been flown in from South Africa on a chartered Boeing plane.
Naypyidaw Airport is also undergoing a major expansion to enable it to handle millions of passengers each year.
“Every time we go up we see something new,” said one Rangoon-based Western diplomat.
In 2005 government workers were reportedly given less than 48 hours notice to move to the city – which was largely built in secret and still not completed at the time – under threat of imprisonment if they refused.
While the motive was unclear, diplomats speculated it could be based on the advice of astrologers, fear of a foreign invasion or a desire by then dictator Than Shwe to replicate pre-colonial kings who repeatedly moved the capital.
A US diplomat who visited the city in 2006 spoke of “a vast green empty space sparsely populated with buildings,” according to a leaked cable, adding: “The layout makes no sense, but then the move made no sense either.”
The note said many labourers had abandoned work sites due to “poor working conditions, low wages, and the threat of malaria,” while there were reports of forced relocations of villagers to make way for infrastructure projects.
But unlike in some areas of the country, there have been no allegations of forced labour at the building sites in the new capital, said Steve Marshall, the International Labour Organisation’s liaison officer in Rangoon.
“There have been some suggestions of use of child labour… but there is obviously in this country a tendency to start working pretty young,” he said.
Today parts of the capital, including the parliament building, military facilities and residential areas for top officials, remain closed to the public, behind security checkpoints.
The country now has a nominally civilian government but its ranks are filled with former generals, including President Thein Sein.
While visitors are unlikely to see most of the official population of about one million on the streets, the roads are no longer completely empty, with cars and motorbikes joining a steady flow of construction vehicles.
Steel for the new Chinese-designed facilities for the Southeast Asian Games is shipped from China to Rangoon and then transported by road more than 200 miles to the capital.
“Our target is maybe next year we are going to complete our football stadiums,” said Zaw Zaw, a wealthy tycoon whose Max Myanmar Group –h which is subject to US sanctions – is building many of the new sports facilities.
There are also plans for a swimming pool, tennis courts and an indoor stadium for basketball, volleyball, table tennis and badminton, with seats for more than 12,000 spectators.
But while the city is slowing coming to life, so far none of the foreign embassies have accepted the government’s offer to relocate there.
“I don’t think we’ll be moving there any time soon,” said the diplomat. “The problem is who’s going first. You could have quite a lonely life.”