Golfing in Burma’s New Capitol

Burma is a strange country.  It feels like the clock stopped in the 1950’s, and most forward progress along with it.  In the capitol city of Rangoon, everything is old – the cars, the buildings, the infrastructure, the money.  And this is the capitol, where most of the wealth in the country is concentrated.  Very little has been invested in modernization, mostly because it is tightly controlled by an authoritarian military junta that keeps the country isolated from the rest of the world.  Foreign Policy just included the country in its list of the 20 least free places on earth.  With the exception of other reclusive nations and kindred spirits, like North Korea, and trading partners trying to gain access to the country’s abundant natural resources, Burma keeps its distance.  A fraction of the money coming from the lucrative contracts with neighboring Asian countries for oil and gas exploration is reinvested in developing the country.  Despite money coming in, the country has its share of problems.

Burma ranks in the bottom fourth of countries (138 out of 182) on the Human Development Index.  A third of the population lives below the poverty line, though this number is probably a lot higher, given that the study required the cooperation of the Government of Myanmar.  The country spends just 1.2% of GDP on education, placing them almost at bottom, just above Equatorial Guinea.  For comparison, the weighted average for the rest of the world is 4.9%.  It ranks 18th in the world for number of HIV/AIDS deaths, placing them at the top of the Asian countries behind only Thailand.  There are no major manufacturing or production industries.  70% of the labor force is based in agriculture.  With a GDP per capita of $1,100, the country ranks 208 out of 227.  But even this dismal indicator is skewed, since the concentration of wealth among the top ranks of the government is incredibly high.  After all, 60% of businesses in Burma are owned and operated – at a loss – by the government.  It is the second-largest exporter of opium – the key ingredient in heroin – right behind Afghanistan, and receives a Tier 3 classification regarding human trafficking, indicating “serious problems” with forced labor and commercial sexual exploitation.

And, in the end, all of these statistics likely underestimate the severity of the situation.  The CIA Factbook describes the current economic situation in the country:

Burma, a resource-rich country, suffers from pervasive government controls, inefficient economic policies, and rural poverty. Despite Burma’s emergence as a natural gas exporter, socio-economic conditions have deteriorated under the regime’s mismanagement, leaving most of the public in poverty, while military leaders and their business cronies exploit the country’s ample natural resources. The economy suffers from serious macroeconomic imbalances – including rising inflation, fiscal deficits, multiple official exchange rates that overvalue the Burmese kyat, a distorted interest rate regime, unreliable statistics, and an inability to reconcile national accounts to determine a realistic GDP figure. Burma’s poor investment climate hampers the inflow of foreign investment; in recent years, foreign investors have shied away from nearly every sector except for natural gas, power generation, timber, and mining. The business climate is widely perceived as opaque, corrupt, and highly inefficient. Over 60% of the FY 2009-10 budget is allocated to state owned enterprises – most operating at a deficit. The most productive sectors will continue to be in extractive industries – especially oil and gas, mining, and timber – with the latter two causing significant environmental degradation. Other areas, such as manufacturing, tourism and services, struggle in the face of inadequate infrastructure, unpredictable trade policies, neglected health and education systems, and endemic corruption. A major banking crisis in 2003 caused 20 private banks to close; private banks still operate under tight restrictions, limiting the private sector’s access to credit.

All of this is to say that the country has problems that are unaddressed by the ruling government.  The military junta held an election in 1990, in which it was defeated by Aung Sang Suu Kyi, the leader of the National League for Democracy.  In response, the junta voided the results the election and has kept Aung Sang Suu Kyi in and out of prison for the better part of the last decade.  The country is holding its first election in 20 years this year, though it is likely to be rigged so that the junta will end up with a stronger grip than ever.

A few years ago, the government, led by senior general Than Shwe, decided to move the capitol city to a town in the middle of nowhere called Naypyidaw at a cost of about $4 billion dollars – a little less than 10% of the country’s gross domestic product.  And the government’s new home is as over-the-top as you would guess:

If I caught myself in pant's like that I'd have to kick my own ass.

Millions of Burmese are still reeling from Cyclone Nargis while rising food prices push many closer to starvation, but the military rulers are pumping money into their personal utopia. Sealed off from the rest of the world, an estimated £2.7bn from the ruby, teak and opium trades is giving Naypyidaw such luxuries as 24-hour lighting – most Burmese get electricity for a few hours a day – three golf courses and a zoo, complete with a climate-controlled penguin house.

Glimpses of the hidden city are rare. There are no international flights. Foreigners are banned. There is no mobile phone network. To get here, would-be visitors must take the battered road north of Rangoon. Suddenly the dirt track becomes a vast eight-lane highway stretching across the scrub land to the horizon. The highway is weirdly empty, used only by horses and carts and the occasional, screaming convoy of the junta’s blacked-out SUVs.

Than Shwe and his junta have locked themselves away in a fortress within a fortress, in a closely guarded secret quarter populated entirely by military leadership. No civilians – let alone foreigners – are allowed here. Reports say the area is a network of bunkers and luxury houses, from which the generals rarely venture, emerging downtown only to play golf or gamble in the specially built five-star hotels.

When I went to Burma, one of the things that seemed the most ridiculous were the golf courses.  I went trekking through to Inle Lake from a town called Kalaw, which is home to one of the largest military academies and training facilities in the country.  There is a terrible golf course with an unoccupied restaurant at the end called “The 19th Hole.” Burmese businessmen and military leaders play golf together, using teenage girls as caddies.  One person told us that all high-ranking military members have to play golf because business is done on the course, and that’s the way to get ahead.

So while the country gets pummeled by natural disasters and remains in a period of ongoing stasis, the old ruling generals build a city in the middle of nowhere with golf courses, a zoo, and an eight-lane highway that stays empty most of the time.  It is like Nero playing the fiddle while Rome burned, except less crazy and more pathetic.  The generals rule the country with no regard for its people.  They are either delusional or criminal or both.

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