Build it and they will come
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