Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Burma - Studies in Naypyidology-How the other 43 live

STRANDED in the middle of nowhere, 200 miles (320km) north of the old capital Yangon and 160 miles south of Mandalay, Naypyidaw, the surreal, gaudy new capital of Myanmar is slowly coming to a tiny bit of life. Built for no obvious reason (but possibly on the advice of an astrologer) by the secretive generals in the early 2000s, it cost so much, maybe up to $6 billion by one estimate, that even the generals’ closest ally, China, took them to task for the extravagance.

On my previous trips here last year the place was almost totally deserted. It was a sort of ghost capital. An occasional ox-and-cart or scooter plied the 16-lane highways; my hotel was empty (and barely functioning). It was clear that whereas the generals and the civil service had moved up here from Yangon five years previously, no-one had come with them.

Visiting a few week ago, however, the changes were obvious. The  cars on the roads are still outnumbered by the lanes they have to choose from, but at least there are cars. There is a brand new daily air-shuttle service from Naypyidaw’s enormous  Chinese-built airport to Yangon, costing $99, so the place feels a bit less remote. And there were actually a few guests in my Thai-owned hotel.

Myanmar’s opening up to the outside world has undoubtedly contributed to the action, if that’s not overstating it. Streams of foreign businessmen, lawyers and diplomats now make their way up to the new capital for the entirely novel experience of glad-handing ministers and meeting officials. But much of the new life in Naypyidaw I attribute to the unexpectedly active parliament, bolstered by the presence of the 43 opposition National League for Democracy (NLD) MPs led by Aung San Suu Kyi.

Together with the opposition ethnic parties in parliament they have even spurred some of the “robots”, as the Burmese like to call their military-appointed MPs, into action too. Suddenly there are parliamentary committees operating, delegations coming and going, and lots of other unusual people milling around, like foreign journalists. But it’s also clear that whereas the NLD might  be contributing most to the country’s democratisation, its representatives are still treated very much as second-class citizens in their own capital. 

On entering town one of the first buildings to spot is the palatial headquarters of the ruling Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), the generals’ proxy. The style is fantasy neo-classical, replete with columns and pediments. The hundreds of USDP MPs live in and behind here. They get plenty of perks too. On taking up their seats in early 2011 they were all given a rare, discounted car by the government. One of the reasons, I am told, that Naypyidaw has so few vehicles is that most of the MPs promptly sold their gifts to raise cash.

Life for the NLD MPs, however, is very different. They and other opposition MPs are all parked a fair way from the centre of town in a complex of isolated bungalows. As this is so far from the parliament building, and they weren’t given the cars, access to work is only by a special bus which leaves at 8.30am every morning and returns at about 5pm.  Life is spartan, to say the least. The bungalows are almost completely bare. Each MP has one room, and the only furniture provided consists of three basic wooden bedsteads, a few chairs and a table. The extra beds are mostly used for visiting family members.  There is a small canteen and restaurant on site, and that’s about it. 

Access is monitored by the government. I was stopped and questioned by a plainclothes “immigration official”.  As Naypyidaw is so far away from anywhere the majority of MPs don’t bother to try to get out to Yangon or elsewhere  for weekends, so they are often stuck here for weeks on end while parliament is sitting. Ms Suu Kyi does slightly better with a separate house a few miles away.

For MPs anywhere else this might be a dispiriting experience, but the NLD MPs I spoke to were cheerful enough. They are conscious of how inferior their living and working conditions are compared with government MPs, but argue that they never got into politics for the free cars, fancy houses and jade-mining concessions anyway. To participate in a parliament at all is reward enough. Indeed, as one MP told me, merely to be free is still quite a novelty for many of them. More than half of the NLD MPs were political prisoners, or, as he puts it, “jailbirds”.  It’s a reminder of how hard-won Myanmar’s stuttering democracy has been. Banyan for The Economist (Photo credit: AFP)

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