Skip to main content

Ross Wilson-illo-CDPIn the hin­ter­land of Myan­mar, the coun­try formerly known as Burma, an improb­able new cap­it­al has sprung up.

Called Naypy­id­aw, it has been built by the country’s mil­it­ary dic­tat­or­ship as a replace­ment for Yan­gon (Ran­goon), the old cap­it­al on the coast. And what a replace­ment! It is, for the moment, mostly an admin­is­trat­ive cap­it­al, but that dry adject­ive hardly con­veys the grandeur of the place. Great gov­ern­ment depart­ment build­ings stand at least a kilo­metre from each oth­er, so as to make the city harder to bomb; between them stretch multi-lane high­ways on which almost no one drives. It’s a test­a­ment to what you can get done with abso­lute, unadul­ter­ated power.

Of course, Myan­mar is demo­crat­ising, or so we’re told, and that’s where Ross Wilson, the former head of New Zealand’s Coun­cil of Trade Uni­ons, comes in. He recently returned from being the point man in Myan­mar for the Inter­na­tion­al Labour Organ­isa­tion, try­ing to make trade uni­ons — which in Myan­mar were banned until quite recently — into the found­a­tion stones of a new democracy.

When it comes to organ­ising, the Burmese, Wilson says, “are doing fant­ast­ic­ally well. There is a determ­in­a­tion here that we don’t see in West­ern coun­tries. Hav­ing the right to asso­ci­ate means you have the right to meet, the right to speak, the right to protest.” None of these things, you see, is gen­er­ally a right in Myanmar.

Wilson was work­ing in a coun­try poised between two modes of oper­a­tion: open and closed. So he could host work­shops on how to set up a uni­on, “but we were con­stantly being dis­rup­ted by the Spe­cial Branch of the police com­ing to our train­ing ses­sions and try­ing to get the register of attendees”. Then again, Wilson says, with a laugh that has some steel in it, “I used to send them away. They were per­sist­ent. But things have changed to the point where you could send them away.”

He dealt with some curi­ous char­ac­ters, espe­cially at the seni­or level. “Mainly they are ex-col­on­els, in the case of the dir­ect­or-gen­er­als and min­is­ters. The deputy min­is­ter I had most deal­ings with was the former head of the Spe­cial Branch. And he was a very pleas­ant guy. But you couldn’t get out of your mind the fact that sit­ting oppos­ite you was a guy who was Spe­cial Branch.”

And then there’s the new cap­it­al, which sounds odd, to say the least. “Well, I think Can­berra was prob­ably quite odd when it was estab­lished. And Bra­sil­ia. But Bra­sil­ia at least had some extraordin­ary archi­tec­ture — which is more than can be said for Naypy­id­aw. It is just so spread out, and so illo­gic­ally spread out. Why would you want gov­ern­ment depart­ments being a kilo­metre from each other?”

If you’re a mil­it­ary dic­tat­or­ship, of course — even a demo­crat­ising one — these things all makes sense. It also helps to under­stand, Wilson says, “the tra­di­tion that new king­doms always build a new cap­it­al. There’s quite a few ancient cap­it­al sites around the coun­try. I also think there was a bit of self-aggrand­ise­ment in action. These build­ings are monu­ment­al struc­tures — and the pres­id­en­tial palace is only exceeded in grandeur by the commander-in-chief’s palace.”

Spare a thought, in all of this, for the poor civil ser­vants. They are made to live in Naypy­id­aw, though their fam­il­ies are still gen­er­ally in Ran­goon. There is no pub­lic trans­port in the city, so at around 8.30–9am spe­cial buses take them from home to work. But if they miss the bus, there’s no oth­er way of get­ting to work. Wilson used to take pity on them, and sched­ule meet­ings in Ran­goon for a Monday or a Fri­day, so they had an excuse to stay with their fam­il­ies over the week­end. “A lot of them don’t oth­er­wise see their fam­il­ies much at all.” It must have been a touch of nor­mal­ity, and kind­ness, in a tur­bu­lent country.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.