Myanmar: On the Road to Mandalay


Frank Milne

The climate of repression in Myanmar has intensified in the past months, and security measures have been tightened in the main towns, particularly after a small explosion outside the Traders Hotel in Yangon in late October, which caused no casualties. New restrictions have been imposed on the operation of UN agencies and NGO's, making their work increasingly difficult, and causing the Global Fund to withdraw altogether. The government has hinted that it plans to leave the ILO, because of its 'unfair treatment' of Myanmar. ILO representatives in Yangon have received numerous death threats because of their pursuit of the forced labour issue. Eight Shan politicians including the leaders of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy, arrested shortly before the resumption of the National Convention in February 2004, were sentenced to prison terms ranging up to 106 years, evidently to discourage any ethnic groups from pursuing independence.

The economy continues to stagnate; the Asian Development Bank declined to give a growth figure for 2005, because of the lack of reliable statistics, while the Economist Intelligence Unit expects a figure of less than 1 per cent. The black market value of the kyat declined in October to almost 1400 to the US dollar, before recovering slightly to around 1300.

In the face of growing international criticism stimulated by a damning report on the situation in Myanmar to the UN by former Czech President Vaclav Havel and Bishop Desmond Tutu, and moves by the United States to place Myanmar on the Security Council's agenda, the generals running the country are retreating further into their shells, removing themselves and the central government machinery to a new administrative capital being constructed near Pyinmana, nearly 400 kms north of Yangon on the road to Mandalay.

The project, which has apparently been planned for a few years, is far from complete and the first group of civil servants, despatched without their families at one day's notice, are effectively camping, without essential facilities including proper accommodation and communications. The preparations for the military contingent, including underground bunkers, a hospital and the essential golf course are evidently better advanced. Ministries moved so far include Defence, Home Affairs, Foreign Affairs, National Planning, Commerce, Telecommunications and Information, and the move is to be completed by April 2006.

The motive for the move is unclear, but several observers have suggested that paranoid fear of a foreign invasion, after the precedents of Afghanistan and Iraq, and advice from astrologers about a propitious move may be factors. The isolation of the site will certainly enhance the regime's security, and facilitate their secretive style of government. They may well feel more comfortable away from the major centre of Yangon, where it might be harder to control any violent outbreak of discontent. This however seems an unlikely prospect, despite acute distress caused by economic mismanagement, rampant inflation and a recent eight-fold increase in petrol prices.

No provision is being made as yet for foreign missions and UN agencies to join the move, and contact with relevant Ministries will be even more difficult than before, and in the short term impossible. A government spokesman suggested that missions could communicate by fax in case of emergency, but no number was yet available. However, transacting business with the outside world is not a high priority for the SPDC, who will consider the absence of importunate or critical foreigners an added advantage of the move.

Editor's Comment: The article on Myanmar in the next issue of Asian Analysis will explore in further depth the possible reasons for the move to Pyinmana.

WATCHPOINT: How will the regime manage its communications with the international community from its new location, or will it simply abandon most contacts?


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