WITNESS: Overnight in Myanmar's ghost town capital

Sat Jul 4, 2009 11:28am EDT

1 of 4. A sign welcomes visitors to Myanmar's isolated new capital, Naypyidaw July 4, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Louis Charbonneau

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Louis Charbonneau, U.N. correspondent for Reuters, joined the company in Vienna in 2001, where he was a beat reporter covering the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency. He has traveled extensively in Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East during his nearly two-decade career as a journalist.

In the following story Lou writes about his experience travelling with a U.N. delegation to Naypyidaw, the new capital of Myanmar.

By Louis Charbonneau

NAYPYIDAW, Myanmar (Reuters) - A green and yellow sign greeted us in English and Burmese with the words: "Welcome to Naypyitaw." Someone in our bus quipped that it should have read: "Welcome to the Dictators' Disneyland."

Myanmar's remote new capital, Naypyidaw, looks more like a seaside resort-in-progress than a city. But it is too far from the sea to make it a proper resort.

In fact, Naypyidaw is a virtual fortress where the reclusive military rulers of the former Burma have isolated themselves, some 320 km (200 miles) away from the mass demonstrations that occasionally erupt in the country's largest city, Yangon.

I was one of a small group of journalists who had the rare privilege of spending the night in Naypyidaw, where foreigners are banned unless they are invited there on official business.

As members of a U.N. delegation traveling with Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon we got special treatment -- we could use satellite telephones, which are illegal in Myanmar, to contact the outside world.

We also had access to the Internet to file stories and send emails about Ban's second trip to the new capital, established in 2005.

During his two-day visit, Ban tried unsuccessfully to persuade Senior General Than Shwe, the junta leader, to let him meet Myanmar's main opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, who is currently trial for breaching the terms of her house arrest.

One of the first things I noticed about Naypyidaw was the lack of people and cars, which gave the city the eerie atmosphere of a ghost town.

As we sped along the pristine but empty highway toward our hotel, the only people we saw were military police, security officials, and a few labourers working in the fields or on construction sites.

The preferred architecture for ministry buildings and government mansions is white and beige stone with colored roofs surrounded by carefully manicured lawns, palm trees, shrubbery and stone walls.

Some of the buildings have cheerful-looking signs identifying which ministries they belong to.

One of the officials in the delegation told us privately that there have been some recent additions to Naypyidaw -- it now has a shopping mall and its own zoo, complete with penguins and lions to keep the rulers and people forced to relocate there entertained.

There is also a golf course, since the generals and many of their official guests enjoy taking in an occasional round of golf.

Underneath the city, U.N. officials explained, is an extensive network of tunnels designed by engineers from North Korea, a country with a communist government that rivals Myanmar in its secrecy.

The most impressive building we saw was the junta's new palatial reception hall. Named after an 18th century king, Bayint Naung Yeiktha, it is where Ban met with Than Shwe and other leaders of the junta.

Surrounded by rolling hills and jungle vegetation, the building is circumscribed by a high-security fence that would not be easy to climb.

Inside the hall, there was an ornate waterfall fountain in which massive goldfish rise up and spout water against a mountainside.

Journalists received rough treatment at the hands of the military police and security officials. I was trying to photograph Ban as he entered the meeting with Than Shwe when a uniformed military official grabbed me by my backpack and threw me roughly back toward a chair.

They pushed us around constantly until we were out of sight of the 76-year-old Than Shwe.

Back at the Naypyidaw hotel, our hosts had forgotten to arrange for food for the reporters. The eternally polite hotel workers took care of us.

They gathered up leftovers from a buffet prepared for some of the security officials -- fried noodles and vegetables, spicy sour soup, dried fish and fried rice.

After a delicious dinner, I took the opportunity to update my Facebook status with the words: "Lou Charbonneau is in Naypyidaw, the surreal and brand-spanking-new capital of Myanmar, better known as Burma."

I'd like to think that was a first for Naypyidaw.

(Editing by Valerie Lee)

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