Since its foundation, a decade and a half ago (2005), the capital of Myanmar – Naypyidaw – has been a great mystery. Located in the center of the country, among dense tropical forests and rice fields, this city is shrouded in a veil of secrecy and illogicality. Until now, when the military coup carried out on February 1, 2021, and when everything suddenly began to make sense. The location of this city, its urbanism, lack of public space, its symbolism and demography have gained their full meaning. With the coup, the “meaningless city” finally achieved its purpose.
The military junta has designed a capital to rule. Naypyidaw is not a place to rule from, it is not a place at all. That city is itself an instrument in the hands of the military by which they allow and forbid “democracy” in controlled conditions. How did they succeed in that?
The choice of location made the city an island. Away from the densely populated south, as well as from any larger urban center, the civilian government is completely isolated from the citizens. In conditions where military structures are dominant, this can be fatal to a democratic system. Also, distance creates the psychological impact of isolation and confinement. A kind of island mentality is being created in the middle of dense Myanmar rainforests.
Even if the citizens wanted to support the civilian government, they would not be able to do so. By bringing Haussmann’s principles of security urbanism to caricature, the gigantic distances within the city have led to a situation where Naypyidaw has no public space at all. The kilometers that separate parts of the city, oversized boulevards and extremely low population density discourage any thought of rebellion. In such a “cartographic dictatorship”, the citizen feels small, like a grain of rice (Varadarajan, 2007). And indeed, in such a pseudo-urban environment, it is impossible to create a critical mass of people who could exert any political pressure.
Naypyidaw is divided into functional zones – for housing, for business, for trade, for diplomatic colonies, for political institutions. However, the only sector that cannot be entered and where special rules apply is the military zone. It stands on the outskirts of the city and overwatches everything that happens in it. The huge presence of the army, as well as its motorization, completely dominate the security structure of the city.
Last but not least is the iconography of the city. Monuments in the capital are almost exclusively celebrating military leaders and marking military victories. The main museum in the city is the Army Museum. It presents, often very questionable, historical facts of the army’s achievements and contains oversized depictions of military victories and battles. The main sculptural complex of Naypyidawa are 3 giant sculptures of Burmese kings (depictions of kings Anawrahta, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya, who are considered to be the three most important rulers of Myanmar). Needless to say, all three were remembered as great warriors, who consequently give historical legitimacy to the army and its (high) position within society. The entire symbolism of the city’s memorials gives legitimacy to the army as a pillar of the state and society. The monuments daily remind both the citizens and the civil administration to whom they should owe gratitude and where their loyalty should lie.
Myanmar democracy is not possible in a city like Naypyidaw. It denies citizenship and distances government from citizens even more than usual. At the same time, its urbanism does not allow any social or political initiatives of citizens. On the contrary, the lack of public space stifles and discourages any form of civic activism. Finally, it is a city that is both symbolically and factually dedicated to the military. As such, this city is completely incompatible with any form of civilian government in the country. Naypyidaw was necessary for the play of democracy that the military had briefly allowed. The new capital has become a stage on which the junta can safely pull its political strings. At the same time, the city is just a cage for civilian authorities. Maybe golden, but again just a cage.
This article was created within the research project Dreamt Capital Cities.
All copyrights are reserved. It is allowed to publish the article citing the name of the author and the source.
Varadarajan, Siddharth. 2007. “Dictatorship by cartography.” Himal Southasian, February 01, 2007. http://svaradarajan.blogspot.com/2007/02/dictatorship-by-cartography-geometry.html