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Myanmar's military built a new capital as a haven for power; other countries have tried that, too

By MIRIAM BERGER | The Washington Post | Published: February 7, 2021

A country's capital, its seat of power, is typically the center for showdowns during times of political unrest. But not in Myanmar.

Tens of thousands of protesters marched Saturday and Sunday in Yangon, the country's largest city, in the first major street demonstrations since the military seized power Feb. 1 and jailed leader Aung San Suu Kyi. But 225 miles to the north, Naypyidaw, Myanmar's purpose-built capital, unveiled in 2005, was comparatively quiet. U.N. staff estimated a protest of about 1,000 people on Sunday.

The roster of capitals-by-design dots the globe, from Canberra in Australia to Brasília in Brazil. Even Washington was laid out for the job of governing. Some countries — including Egypt, Indonesia and Myanmar — have built new capitals in part to shield their leadership from the people.

Myanmar

Naypyidaw is infamous for its eerily empty 20-lane highways and high-end hotels, golf courses and spas in a city about six times the territory of New York City in one of Southeast Asia's poorest countries, according to the Guardian. The British paper summarized it as a "monument to hierarchy."

Naypyidaw was the brainchild of Myanmar's former military leader, Than Shwe, who relinquished power in 2011 when the country began a transition to democracy. Shwe was never publicly challenged when he said Myanmar needed a new capital because of Yangon's heavy traffic and population density. But analysts have described the decision as motivated by a desire to secure the military's seat of power from any threat of protests or invasions.

For its part, Naypyidaw has still not been truly settled. Civil servants were ordered to move there, but many reportedly kept their families behind in Yangon. Diplomats and foreign aid workers have similarly preferred to travel to Naypyidaw for meetings rather than set down a base.

The city has its draws, like fast internet and widespread WiFi — though the government shut down the internet across much of Myanmar on Saturday. The development of the city also came at a heavy cost, both in the billions reportedly spent on construction and the communities allegedly displaced from their homes so the military could build its own.

Egypt

Ten years ago, massive street protests in Egypt led to the ouster of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak. During 18 days of unrest, protesters gained control of bridges and squares around the capital, Cairo. The most important of all was Tahrir Square, which became the beating heart of the revolution. The most important was Tahrir Square, the beating heart of the revolution.

After Mubarak's ouster, the military stepped in, but protests and battles for control of Cairo continued. When a year later the country held its first free presidential election and the military stepped back, Tahrir continued to be an axis for protests and politics.

No longer. In 2013, the military retook power in a coup. Under President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, a former general, Egypt is now more repressive than it was under Mubarak, according to human rights groups. Tahrir is highly securitized, its revolutionary past whitewashed away: In the place of protest camps, there's a new parking lot and a monument to 2011 installed by the military.

Cairo is plagued by congestion, poverty and pollution. Informal settlements, known as ashwaiyaat, make up major parts of the city. But instead of channeling efforts toward maintaining and upgrading the existing capital, Sissi plans to move the government's political and administrative buildings to an entirely new city some 30 miles away from Cairo, aided by loans from investors such as the United Arab Emirates and China.

This is accelerating a trend already underway of keeping the urban poor — and their grievances — separate from Egypt's political and economic elite: Upscale communities now fill Cairo's exurbs, including Media Production City, where media are incentivized to be based.

Indonesia

Jakarta, Indonesia's current capital, is sinking under accumulative pressures. The city of more than 10 million people is beset by pollution, chronic gridlock and exponential population growth. It has become a massive strain on the area's water resources and, alongside other impacts of climate change, has led the land underneath to literally sink.

In 2019, President Joko Widodo announced a chosen successor: a still-to-be-built city in Kalimantan on the island of Borneo, more than 620 miles away. Under his plan, Jakarta would remain Indonesia's financial and commercial hub.

Construction on the $33 billion project was supposed to begin in 2021, but in August the government halted work, saying it had to focus efforts on the pandemic instead. Under the original timeline, bureaucrats were expected to start moving to the new capital around 2024.

Nearby Malaysia similarly built itself a new administrative capital, Putrajaya.

Kazakhstan

Kazakhstan was still emerging from decades of Soviet rule when, in the 1990s, then-President Nursultan Nazarbayev moved the country's capital from Almaty to the lesser-known Akmola, since renamed Astana and, most recently, changed again to Nur-Sultan. Almaty remains Kazakhstan's largest city and the country's commercial and cultural hub.

Officially, the government justified the move as a way to increase investment in Kazakhstan's interior and avoid earthquake-prone Almaty. But analysts at the time said it was aimed at securing a capital both closer to the country's oil production and increasing the ethnic Kazakh population there. As an authoritarian leader, Nazarbayev faced no opposition.

Nazarbayev stepped down in 2019, after which the capital was renamed in his honor. Despite periodic unrest in both Almaty and Nur-Sultan, Nazarbayev's Nur Otan party remains firmly in control.

Equatorial Guinea

The city of Oyala has a five-star hotel, golf course and, most important for Equatorial Guinea President Teodoro Obiang Nguema, barely anyone actually there to challenge his rule in a country where more than half the population lives below the poverty line.

In 2017, Obiang, who has held power for more than four decades, officially moved Equatorial Guinea's government from the coastal capital of Malabo to Oyala, also known as Djibloho. The still-unfinished city nestled among rainforests and national parks has been in the works for years, spearheaded by the president in part as an attractive haven from military coups or other threats to his power, the BBC reported.