Hope, Anxiety, and Life in a Changing Burma

Scenes from a country in a slow-motion and still uncertain revolution

NAYPYIDAW, Burma -- This "city of magnificent distances" sprawls on a pancake-flat plain four hours north of Burma's largest city and former capital, Rangoon. On November 6, 2005, at a time apparently chosen by astrologers, Naypyidaw became the country's new capital, and the first convoy of government workers was dispatched up the highway to the dusty city-in-progress. The official explanation for the move was that British-built Rangoon had become too congested.Some observers, however, suggested the move could be defensive, to forestall a feared attack on Rangoon by the U.S. Navy; others pointed out the long tradition of Burma's rulers shifting the kingdom's capital in order to cement (in the most literal sense) the legacy of their rule.

For its first few years of its existence, Naypyidaw was barred to foreign visitors. What images emerged showed luxury hotels, military parade grounds, and empty mega-highways -- a project of megalomaniacal scope.Skirting through Naypyidaw's vast expanses today, you can almost feel the psychology that spawned them: Senior General Than Shwe, the opaque generalissimo who presided over the city's planning and construction, clearly intended that his brainchild be a prophylactic against the sort of mass protests that shook the nation in 1988, nearly toppling the military dictatorship.

The city lacks any focal point of the sort that might catalyze a spontaneous public gathering. Housing, government offices, hotels, and military barracks are disbursed loosely along miles of eight-lane highways and snaking arterial roads, all -- unlike just about every other road in the country -- lit around the clock. One observer described Naypyidaw as "the ultimate insurance against regime change," designed to defeat popular revolts "not by tanks and water cannons, but by geometry and cartography."

It was something of a surprise, then, when I visited recently and found that Than Shwe's city, now open to foreign visitors and served by a gleaming new motorway from Rangoon, is finally seeing some stirrings of life. In the two years since my last visit to the city, private gardens have sprung up around the city's apartment blocks and fashionable shopping malls have opened their doors. At the popular Water Fountain Garden, crowds of local families gather in the evenings to feel the spray from manmade waterfalls and watch fountains quiver to the thump of piped-in dance music. In one part of town I even witnessed something that would have been unthinkable two years ago: a traffic jam.

Naypyidaw's slow-motion metamorphosis can feel like a metaphor for the revolution now unfolding in Burma itself. In March, a nominally civilian government took office under the former general Thein Sein, who in less than a year has taken the country from hazy tropical despotism to an apparent democracy-in-waiting. The reforms have included the release of high-profile political prisoners, the rehabilitation of the political opposition, and a rapid normalization of relations with the United States. In his annual State of the Union speech this week, U.S. President Barack Obama hailed these recent developments as a "a new beginning" for Burma. Many now anticipate the scaling back or removal of Western sanctions and a scramble of foreign firms eager to cash in on this long-isolated market of 50 million.

This frisson of change is to be felt most in crumbling and neglected Rangoon, Burma's long-time political epicenter. The first thing you notice is the Lady. She is everywhere. Once an express ticket to arrest (or worse) by the military authorities, locals now proudly display images of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi on the walls of teashops and monasteries, and roaming street vendors sell them across the city. The new government, as if to symbolize a return to its roots, is even giving the old capital something of a facelift: scaffolding surrounds a number of the derelict colonial hulks downtown, and the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper opined recently that "big cities are the image and glory of a nation".

The atmosphere extends to the daily rhythm of life in Rangoon. Local people eagerly initiate conversations about politics, with a palpable excitement -- almost disbelief -- that change might finally be in the wind. "Soe", a former monk from Burma's second city Mandalay, fled the country after taking part in 2007's bloody anti-government protests, escaping to Thailand and then to France with the aid of Burmese exile groups. When he returned home around the time of the 2010 election, he said it almost felt like a different country. "Before I never talked with people like this," he said over small cups of sweet Burmese tea at a streetside teashop in Rangoon's bustling downtown. "Now they say this is democracy... If people don't believe it, they can say they don't believe it."

The accompanying political shift, though less visible, is more surprising still. The retirement of Than Shwe, whose dislike and jealousy of Aung San Suu Kyi was legendary, has now paved the way for her reconciliation with the government. The 66-year-old activist and her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), boycotted the rigged November 2010 poll that brought the new government to power, but have now agreed to run in by-elections scheduled for April 1, which could put a final stamp of legitimacy on Thein Sein's reforms. "We believe that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi can work with this President," said 85-year-old Tin Oo, the NLD's vice-chairman.

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Sebastian Strangio is an Australian journalist based in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His reporting from across Asia has appeared in Slate, Foreign Policy, The Economist, and other publications.

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