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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 November 2005, 12:14 GMT
Burma's confusing capital move
By Kate McGeown
BBC News

Site of new capital near Pyinmana ( image courtesy of Burma Media Association)
The site of the new capital is in a remote mountainous area
Burma's decision to shift its seat of government has left many analysts at a loss to explain the move.

After all, why go to the huge trouble and expense of relocating thousands of officials to a remote mountainous region, when there is a well-established political infrastructure in the port city of Rangoon?

Information Minister Kyaw Hsan said the site of the new capital, near the town of Pyinmana, was a more strategic location for Burma's military rulers.

"It is centrally located, and has quick access to all parts of the country," he told reporters on Monday.

But analysts outside the country were unconvinced.

They said the real reason was probably still a mystery, but it was possible the country's hard-line military rulers were worried about foreign invasion, or wanted more control over ethnic minorities in the border regions, or were even following the advice of fortune tellers.

"I'm Burmese, and sometimes even I don't understand what the government is thinking," said Aung Zaw, the editor of Irrawaddy, a publication run by Burmese journalists in exile.

Joseph Silverstein, a Burma specialist and Emeritus Professor of Rutgers University, described the plan as "totally irrational".

Fear of attack

The military junta's liking for secrecy, coupled with its suspicion of the outside world, has led many people to speculate that the move is due to some generals' fear of being attacked by the United States.

Rumours of an American invasion are just a joke - but the military is extremely paranoid
Aung Zaw, Editor of Irrawaddy
According to Aung Kin, a Burmese historian based in London, the country's army is much stronger than its navy.

It is "more comfortable defending a land perimeter" such as Pyinmana than a coastal city such as Rangoon, he said.

But according to Christian Lemiere, Asia editor of Jane's Country Risk, any potential enemy is much more likely to attack by air than by sea - and therefore moving location will make little difference.

In fact, if anything, a smaller centre of government will be easier to target from the air, Mr Lemiere said.

All this is of course assuming someone is actually planning to attack Burma in the first place - a move which analysts agree is extremely unlikely.

It is true that Burma's poor human rights record has done little to ingratiate its senior generals to the international community. But analysts say there has been no suggestion of a foreign attack.

"Rumours of an American invasion are just a joke - but the military is extremely paranoid," said Aung Zaw.

'Rat hole'

Diplomats have speculated that another possible reason for the move to Pyinmana is that its central location will make the government better able to monitor the lawless border regions of the ethnic Shan, Chin and Karen states.

Aung Zaw said that to a certain extent this may be true, but he doubted it would make much difference in terms of military control.

Saw Sarki, from the Karen National Union (KNU), agreed.

"The army is quite decentralised anyway, and it is spread throughout Burma already," he said.

Others say the move may simply be about the government's need to increase its own security.

"Pyinmana is much less populated, so it can build a fortress from scratch," said Saw Sarki.

Reports from inside Burma talk of a maze of underground tunnels being built, and Aung Zaw described the new location as the government's "rat hole".

The isolated new site will also provide the authorities with increased secrecy from the outside world.

Many ministries - including the foreign ministry - are in the process of moving to Pyinmana. But foreign and UN embassies have been told there are currently no plans for them to follow.

Rangoon skyline - august 2005
Rangoon already has the necessary infrastructure
"If you need to communicate on urgent matters, you can send a fax to Pyinmana," the foreign ministry said in its statement on Monday.

A British diplomat told the BBC that she could not predict what impact the move would have on relations with embassies and the government.

But analysts say it will almost certainly make contact with the Burmese leadership - already one of the world's most secretive governments - even more difficult.

Joseph Silverstein believes the most likely explanation for the relocation is advice by traditional Burmese fortune-tellers.

"Everybody listens to fortune-tellers in Burma," he said.

General Ne Win, who came to power in 1962, was totally dependent on their advice, Mr Silverstein added.

"He is once said to have decided to change the direction of traffic overnight [as a result of a fortune teller]. It caused a huge number of accidents," he said.


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