In Myanmar's curious capital, quiet before Clinton visit

NAYPYITAW Wed Nov 30, 2011 2:38am EST

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NAYPYITAW (Reuters) - Myanmar's capital with its forbidding stone walls translates as "Abode of Kings," a fitting setting perhaps for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to begin historic talks that could restore some luster to one of the world's most reclusive states.

But just hours before she was to become the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Myanmar in more than 50 years, there were no obvious signs of preparations in Naypyitaw on Wednesday for her arrival, aside from some policemen outside the hotel compound where she will stay.

In striking contrast, a large billboard had been strung up at a nearby hotel, welcoming the prime minister of Belarus, who is also due to visit in coming days.

The broad avenues of the city, which was only built five years ago when the then ruling generals decided on a new capital to replace the biggest city, Yangon, were largely deserted.

A construction worker at a building site next to parliament said he had no idea who was coming.

"All I know is someone important is coming but I don't know who," said the worker, Ye Pun Naing. Told that it was Clinton, he shrugged his shoulders and said that meant nothing to him.

That's not surprising.

Myanmar has only just begun in recent weeks to emerge from an extraordinary half-century of isolation with the most dramatic changes in the former British colony since the military took power in a 1962 coup when it was known as Burma.

A series of reforms, breathtaking by Myanmar's standards, has been introduced by former generals who swapped fatigues for civilian clothes in March when a new parliament opened following last year's elections, the first in two decades.

When Clinton arrives, her first stop will the capital which bears no resemblance to the rest of the country, one of Asia's poorest, or to nearby villages of mostly thatched wooden huts.

Naypyitaw is a maze of ministry buildings, government mansions, civil servants' quarters and presidential palaces complete with grand Roman-style pillars -- all rising from dusty, arid scrubland. At its heart is parliament's 31 buildings, with pagoda-style roofs.

Bestowed with manicured lawns, the city with its two Hluttaws, or legislative chambers, was built from scratch, allowing the former military rulers to isolate themselves some 320 km (200 miles) from the old capital and port of Yangon, where Clinton will visit on Thursday.

PUZZLINGLY WIDE ROADS

Naypyitaw's attractions include half a dozen resort-style hotels and golf courses, drinkable tap water, a Western-style shopping mall, a zoo, an elaborate "water fountain garden," lavish mansions and 24-hour electricity in a nation beset by chronic power outages.

Much of it was built by workers toiling in searing heat with basic equipment. When Reuters journalists visited early last year, women were hauling stacks of bricks balanced upon their head and men cleared land with wooden-handled scythes. Ox carts transported wood.

Diplomatic sources say the construction of Naypyitaw would have cost billions of dollars, drawing criticism from aid groups over the priorities of a country where a third of its about 50 million people live in poverty and where infrastructure is in tatters due to trade-crippling sanctions and mismanagement.

The city's rise reflects the riches reaped by its rulers as Southeast Asia and China tap its natural resources, from timber and natural gas to precious gems, despite the Western sanctions imposed in response to rights abuses.

It may have amenities but there's no lively city centre thronged with people, even five years after the government moved nearly all its workers there. Officials put its population at about 1 million, including surrounding townships.

Its roads are puzzlingly wide, including one 20-lane boulevard, but they are largely empty. Civilian cars are rare. The city centre, a roundabout where five roads meet, is populated mostly by palm trees and potted flowers.

One person the former ruling junta were happy to leave in Yangon was opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate freed from years of detention last year.

But Suu Kyi has since visited several times and could even enter parliament when her political party contests by-elections expected early next year.

(Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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