Why Burma's Junta Left Town

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The notion that the U.S. might be planning to invade Burma might be news to the Pentagon, but some observers believe it may have prompted that country's military junta to leave town. At precisely 6:37 a.m. on November 6, the country's notoriously reclusive ruling generals and their civil servants packed up and left Rangoon for a new capital city, hacked out of malarial jungle in the center of the country.

The order to leave was sudden and startling—civil servants were given just two days notice, and refusal to go was punishable by imprisonment. They traveled by convoy through the jungle, arriving in an isolated, half-finished city without adequate running water or supplies of food. Its name, Nay Pyi Daw, can be translated as "Place of the King."

As news of the move spread around the embassies and markets of leafy, pagoda-dappled Rangoon, the city was abuzz with speculation over the reason behind it. In a country where the rulers don't communicate with their subjects and the press is tightly controlled, rumor often replaces news. One popular theory was that the generals feared a U.S. invasion and wanted to get away from the coastline. Bunkers and tunnels have reportedly been built into the rock faces of the mountains that ring the new metropolis in the jungle.

Another theory is that the move was recommended by astrologers to avoid some future peril. The generals are known to perform "yadaya chay"—ritualistic ceremonies to ward off enemies and misfortune—and one story claimed that soothsayers to Burmese leader General Than Shwe were behind the decision to relocate.

The generals themselves, typically, revealed little. At a press conference in Rangoon in which he took no questions, Minister of Information Gen. Kyaw San denied his bosses fear U.S. military action. "The government is building a modern and developed nation—and there is a need for a command and control center based in a strategic location," he said.

A few observers believe the threat perceived by the generals was more likely domestic: Burma, already one of the world's poorest nations, recently saw a ninefold increase in the price of oil and a 40% increase in the price of rice, which may have given the junta reason to fear a popular uprising in Rangoon.

But Prof. Michael Aung-Thwin, a Burma specialist at the University of Hawaii, thinks the decision has more to do with rejecting the legacy of colonization. "Rangoon was designed primarily to serve Britain's colonial export economy. In one respect, then, this is a return to Burma's historical, religious, cultural (and therefore psychological) roots," he said.

Whatever the reason, the new city is clearly run by and for the military. That seems to suit Gen. Than Shwe just fine. Than Shwe is a leader who hears no bad news, because, reliable sources say, aides fear bringing the 75-year-old general any information that indicates all is not well in Burma. Now, safely ensconced in Nay Pyi Daw, he doesn't have to see any either.