Capitals have moved before, but rarely so mysteriously. When Myanmar’s military government began streaming out of the country’s longtime capital city of Yangon on the morning of Nov. 6, headed for a fortified but unfinished compound in jungle-clad mountains 400 km to the north, people scratched their heads. The junta has been both scorned and secretive for years, but hardly enough to explain this sudden relocation.
Myanmarese and foreign observers alike had questions: Why would the junta move? Why would it move now, with facilities at the new site still so primitive that government bureaucrats couldn’t even receive faxes? And why would it go to such a forbidding place, deep in the hinterlands? Two weeks later, no one is much the wiser.
Usually, when a government moves, there are good and obvious reasons why. In 1923, Turkey’s Kemal Ataturk established his capital in Ankara, rather than Istanbul, to symbolize the distance between the modern, secular state he envisioned and the ailing Ottoman regime he had defeated. After World War II, Germany had little choice but to find new headquarters, since Berlin was an occupied, partitioned, bombed-out wreck. The Cold War kept the government in Bonn longer than expected, but by 1999 most German ministries were back in Berlin.
Those moves made sense. Others have been more controversial because they have been less explicable. Take the Nigerian and Kazakh governments’ moves to the raw new capitals of Abuja and Astana in the 1990s. Neither shift was driven by war, the classic catalyst of displacement. And both entailed an unpopular decision to move inland, which the two governments justified by saying their capitals should be more centrally located.
In the case of Astana, which sits in the middle of a blizzard-scoured steppe more than 1,300 km from the former capital of Almaty, in temperate southern Kazakhstan, security was also an argument. Almaty was too close to the Chinese border, officials said. But not many people were persuaded. A Western diplomat who was in the country at the time recalled: “Most public opinion was that [the move] was a totally stupid idea.”
The Myanmar junta’s move from Yangon, better-known as Rangoon, to the obscure settlement of Pyinmana is of this second type. In fact, officials have recycled the two main arguments that Nigeria and Kazakhstan used to explain why they wanted to move house.
“Due to changed circumstances, where Myanmar is trying to develop a modern nation, a more centrally located government seat has become a necessity,” an official statement said, without bothering to define what circumstances have changed. (Impolite speculations have included the country’s growing political isolation and tanking economy.) Later, the information minister expanded on this argument, telling reporters that Pyinmana “has quick access to all parts of the country.”
Indeed it does, including access to the major rebel-held border states of Shan, Chin and Karen — a point the minister touched on when he explained that the government was “making development endeavors in all parts of the country, including those border areas, with accelerated momentum.” A Karen guerrilla leader told a Chinese reporter, “They want to concentrate in middle Burma and radiate from this new military operation center toward every direction. [Pyinmana] is a place suitable for guerrilla warfare.” The rebel leader evidently felt no need to spell out the ugly realities concealed in that bland word “endeavors.”
A repressive regime needs to worry about security, without as well as within. Not mentioned by junta officials but central to most analysts’ conjectures about the move is the Myanmarese generals’ fear of attack, perhaps by the United States. The idea might seem silly to outsiders — isn’t the U.S. military preoccupied just now? — but reliable sources suggest that the narcissistic regime in Myanmar felt Yangon’s location on the Bay of Bengal was just too exposed for comfort.
There is an original twist to this tale: Myanmar may be trying to modernize, but it is still beholden to its fortunetellers. An official committee of astrologers, which helps the junta draft policies and decide things like festival dates, was reportedly responsible for the otherwise bizarre timing of the move to Pyinmana. At the very least, it makes as much sense as the other theories.
If Astana’s experience is anything to go by, Pyinmana will become an adequate but inglorious capital. People will adapt, and one day a legitimate government will move operations back to Yangon. For now, the dilapidated but historic city is better off without the usurpers and criminals now so appropriately slinking off to a lair in the jungle. Sometimes what appears to be a capital loss can turn out to be a gain.
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