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Burma: How to Choose Your Country's Capital City


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Soothsayer orders new capital

By Nick Meo

BURMESE bureaucrats en route to a new capital city that has been hacked out of the jungle were told to leave Rangoon on the orders of the personal astrologer to the country’s dictator, Senior General Than Shwe.


Although government employees had expected a move from the old capital for nearly two years, most learnt of the order to go only at 6.30am on Sunday. They were told to leave their families behind, pack their belongings and join convoys moving about 200 miles north to Pyinmana, the city that only a year ago was little more than a collection of straw huts and rice paddies.

The timing was believed to have been chosen as auspicious by astrologers. Moving the seat of government to an easily defensible valley surrounded by jungle is the latest sign of paranoia exhibited by a pariah military regime that fears both invasion by the United States, which has branded it an outpost of tyranny, and an uprising by its own downtrodden populace.

A senior soothsayer may also have advised building a new centre of power, as Burma’s kings frequently did in the past. Astrologers play a key role in Burmese life and have prompted some of the strangest and most disastrous episodes in the country’s recent past.

The world’s newest capital city has been built, probably in part at least, by forced labour. It lies just off the main road linking Rangoon and Mandalay from which villagers were evicted about 18 months ago.

The move of the first nine government ministries was officially announced yesterday by Brigadier-General Kyaw Hsan, who said: “Now a more centrally located government seat has become a necessity.”

One Western diplomat in Rangoon, the British-built city on the Bay of Bengal, which has been the capital since independence in 1948, said that Burma’s small community of expatriates has no idea what the new capital looks like.

It reportedly consists of a compound six miles (10km) square, which is planned to have mansion homes for the generals, diplomatic quarters, a parliamentary building, an airport and a golf course. At the moment it is in a secure military zone that foreigners cannot enter, protected by anti-aircraft missiles. Underground bunkers and office blocks are believed to have been constructed but it is not clear how much of the city has been built so far.

The British Embassy learnt of the move in a brief note sent yesterday afternoon informing of a relocation to a “command and control centre” and instructing UN and diplomatic staff to stay in Rangoon for the time being.

Burmese politics is rarely clear, but the regime has shown even more secrecy than usual since one military faction was pushed aside in a power struggle last year. Coup rumours and fears of invasion have haunted the regime, which trained villagers in using sharpened bamboo sticks during the US invasion of Iraq.

Than Shwe is not the first leader of Burma to take advice from a personal astrologer. General Ne Win, the former dictator, fell from power after he changed the currency so that all notes were issued in denominations of nine, his lucky number. Half the money in circulation became worthless overnight, sparking street protests.

The biggest protest in Burma’s recent history, which was crushed bloodily by General Ne Win’s military successors, was called on August 8, 1988, at 8.08am, by organisers who thought the time and date auspicious.


Brasília Begun in 1956 to relocate Brazil’s central administrative area from Rio de Janeiro to somewhere less prone to naval attacks. Inaugurated in 1960

Abuja Became Nigeria’s capital in 1991, after a decision in 1976 to move the administration from Lagos to the centre of the country. Many buildings, still incomplete

Washington Replaced New York and Philadelphia as seat of US federal Government, inaugurated in 1800. Site selected by Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton

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