Build it and they will come

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS - Ni­cholas Far­relly

When US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama gal­loped through Naypy­itaw last month it was the con­sum­ma­tion of a dream many years in the mak­ing. Myan­mar's old mil­i­tary rulers have long sought le­git­i­macy and in­ter­na­tional re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion.

Get­ting such en­dorse­ment from the leader of the free world hasn't come cheaply or eas­ily. It has meant build­ing a new po­lit­i­cal sys­tem, and with it a new city.

It is now almost a decade since for­mer Se­nior Gen­eral Than Shwe or­dered the big move north. Naypy­itaw is still widely de­rided as a “potemkin”, “fake” and even “lu­di­crous” city, a place where almost no­body vol­un­tar­ily spends time.

If you talked to Myan­mar gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials in re­cent years about their ex­pe­ri­ences in Naypy­itaw they voiced almost unan­i­mous frus­tra­tion. The buses that leave the city on a Fri­day af­ter­noon are full for a rea­son: large num­bers of of­fi­cials still main­tain fam­i­lies and lives else­where in the coun­try.

While Naypy­itaw has yet to fully turn the cor­ner, and it re­mains a dis­tress­ing place to be stranded with­out trans­porta­tion, now with the Novem­ber 2014 sum­mit sea­son over, there are signs that its de­vel­op­ment is mov­ing into a new phase.

Weekly com­muters from Yan­gon to Naypy­itaw are look­ing to buy land and build houses, and the city is grad­u­ally ac­quir­ing the in­fra­struc­ture, for ed­u­ca­tion, health­care, shop­ping and en­ter­tain­ment, that will support Myan­mar's first pur­pose-built mid­dle class hub.

While it is still too easy to crit­i­cise the over-sized in­vest­ments in the city, es­pe­cially when so many other parts of the coun­try lan­guish with­out gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rate at­ten­tion, the Naypy­itaw vi­sion is start­ing to come to­gether. It has a frag­ile but highly sym- bolic leg­isla­tive core, sur­rounded by the ap­pa­ra­tus of bu­reau­cratic, ex­ec­u­tive and ju­di­cial decision-mak­ing.

In the shad­ows of the hills on the east­ern flank the mil­i­tary zone is kept off the stan­dard maps. But you can still bump into po­lite Ma­jors and Sergeants, and the wives of se­nior of­fi­cers, in the long aisles of the Ocean su­per­mar­ket.

For years, the ques­tion about Naypy­itaw was sim­ply “why did they move?” The new ques­tion, surely, must be “why might they stay?”

The pur­pose­ful­ness with which Naypy­itaw has been imag­ined, and steam­rolled into ex­is­tence, means that fu­ture Myan­mar gov­ern­ments will be forced to adapt to its re­quire­ments.

Ev­ery large city in the world has gone through phases of de­vel­op­ment, and even planned cap­i­tals, like my own home­town of Can­berra, get rad­i­cal shake-ups. Th­ese shake-ups usu­ally hap­pen over decades, and they are rarely well-per­ceived by those who are liv­ing through them.

In Naypy­itaw's case the ini­tial foun­da­tion has been set for fur­ther ex­per­i­men­ta­tion and cre­ation. In fu­ture, Myan­mar's peo­ple will still gripe about the lav­ish con­di­tions of Naypy­itaw and the eco­nomic costs borne by the whole na­tion. Yet, in time, they may also be­come proud of a city that has in­fi­nite po­ten­tial, and tremen­dous room to grow.

Then, at some stage, the city may have out­lived its use­ful­ness, or be sub­jected to the tides of for­tune, war or dis­as­ter. Un­der those con­di­tions it has the po­ten­tial to fall from its perch, as so many other Myan­mar cap­i­tals have done be­fore.

In re­cent cen­turies both Yan­gon and Man­dalay have played the role of ex­em­plary cen­tre, but across the vast sweep of his­tory there have been many oth­ers. Ru­ins lit­tered across the Myan­mar land­scape are a re­minder that when you build it they will come, even Amer­i­can Pres­i­dents.

And yet noth­ing, in this im­per­ma­nent world, not even Naypy­itaw, will last for­ever. Dr Ni­cholas Far­relly is a Part­ner at Glen­loch Ad­vi­sory, an­in­vest­ment and po­lit­i­cal con­sul­tancy, and a Fel­low atthe Aus­tralian Na­tional Univer­sity. Hes­pent the first half of2014 in Naypy­itaw for an Aus­tralian Re­search Coun­cil funded project on po­lit­i­cal cul­ture “in tran­si­tion”.

The par­lia­ment com­plex in Nay Pyi Taw. Photo: Hong Sar

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