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Last Updated: Saturday, 17 June 2006, 01:11 GMT 02:11 UK
Burma's confusion over capital
cattle herder near Pyinmana, as a truck goes by
Farmers near Pyinmana have got used to all the trucks going past
In the fourth of a series from inside Burma, the BBC's Kate McGeown looks at how the government's abrupt decision to move its capital is affecting local people.

When Burma's military rulers began moving their seat of power to a semi-rural area near the town of Pyinmana last year, many people were mystified.

"I don't understand why they decided to leave Rangoon," said one man in the former capital.

"I don't know why they wanted to come here," added a villager not far from the site of the new city.

Many people said they had hoped the move would not actually happen, once the cost and complication became clear.

But now it seems there is no going back. The opening ceremony took place in March, and several locals who have seen the site - which the ruling junta has christened Naypyidaw (Seat of Kings) - said that half the buildings had been completed and were open for business.

But the new capital is not open to everyone. Almost all foreigners, especially journalists, are strictly forbidden from going anywhere near it.

Most ordinary Burmese are also denied access, and two Rangoon-based reporters were given three-year jail terms for attempting to film the area.

Precious cargo

To local people living near the site, many of whom are farmers and agricultural workers, the whole situation must be bewildering.

YOUR QUESTIONS

Until last year they were living in a rural hinterland. Now they are ploughing fields and raising cattle not far from their country's capital.

"I keep seeing new buildings, but I don't know what they're for," said one young woman on the outskirts of the city.

Those living along the main road to Pyinmana have got used to seeing large trucks laden with construction materials passing by, as well as cars carrying important members of the military.

"If you're driving down the road at the time they come past, you have to pull over and let them pass," said one woman.

Other people have been affected more directly by the move. One man said some of his neighbours had been thrown out of their homes, and had their land repossessed, with no compensation.

"I'm really scared that will happen to me, too," he said quietly.

Then there is the issue of who exactly is constructing the new capital. Definite evidence is hard to come by, but there are strong suspicions that the government is using forced labour.

"I've spoken to people who have fled Pyinmana, and have now come over the border into Thailand," said Maung Maung, the general secretary of the Federation of Trade Unions in Burma. "They say they were forcibly made to work on the roads, and clear areas of bush."

'Transfer of power'

Back in Rangoon, there are few obvious signs that the city is no longer the country's capital.

The one direct impact on local people is that the electricity supply - which was already erratic before the move - has now become even more unreliable.

"They've spent millions on the new capital. As a result, the services in Rangoon like electricity are getting worse and worse, but Pyinmana is all lit up," said one Western diplomat. "Locals joke that a 'transfer of power' has taken place."

Pyinmana -

Behind the scenes, there are other problems too. NGO workers and diplomats say the move is slowing down the process of government.

"Everything is taking twice as long, because you have to go to Pyinmana to get your documents stamped," the diplomat said. "There are containers stacked up in the ports because the necessary paperwork hasn't been signed."

Anyone who visits a government office in Rangoon will quickly notice something has changed. One businessman said that when he went to the Ministry of Culture for a meeting, he found it was virtually empty except for a few stray dogs and children playing games.

The ministers and officials might have gone to Pyinmana, but few seem to have gone willingly. Many were given little or no notice, and had to leave their families behind.

There are reports of several people retiring early, and rumours that an entire government department tried - and failed - to resign en masse.

In fact, many analysts say the enforced move was probably one of the main reasons government salaries were suddenly increased in April - in an attempt to persuade people to stay in their jobs.

Construction workers near Pyinmana
There are suspicions forced labour is being used to build roads
Since the announcement of the capital move last November, there has been intense speculation about the reasoning behind it.

Some believe the military wants to move further inland for fear of a foreign attack. Others say that Burma's most senior military general, Than Shwe, wants to emulate the kings of old by building a new capital in his honour.

Others even say it could be due to the advice of fortune-tellers, who play a central role in Burmese life.

So I asked a local soothsayer if the capital move would bring good luck.

After studying his charts and making some calculations, he remained unconvinced.

But whatever the future holds for Burma, it looks likely that a former agricultural backwater near Pyinmana is set to play a pivotal role.





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