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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Myanmar Abruptly Relocates Its Capital

YANGON, Myanmar -- Military trucks rumble up in front of Yangon's ministries several times a week and workers lug ancient desks, chairs and filing cabinets to the waiting vehicles. The convoys depart at daybreak on a 12-hour journey along roads badly rutted and pocked, then return for another load.

In Myanmar, also known as Burma, the military rulers are rapidly transferring the country's century-old capital from Yangon to the desolate, rocky terrain of Pyinmana about 320 kilometers to the north, aiming to empty most offices by the end of next month.

Distraught civil servants, among the thousands scheduled to relocate, have wept in front of foreign officials. Some government employees have asked to quit, including many at the Irrigation Ministry who tried to resign en masse but have been told that is forbidden, according to their family members.

"The government's crazy. Everybody hates this idea," said Soe, a deliveryman whose cousin, a military officer, has been transferred. "This Pyinmana, I wish I could blow the place up."

Few in Yangon, formerly known as Rangoon, can fathom the motives for the abrupt move, which began Nov. 6. Most observers and even some officials say they suspect it was the brainchild of General Than Shwe, the secretive head of Myanmar's ruling military junta. Some have speculated that government fears of a U.S. invasion are to blame for the move, or perhaps civil unrest or even the prophesies of a soothsayer.

Whatever the reason, the impact is clear. The move further isolates the government at a time when demands are mounting at the United Nations for the release of the imprisoned opposition leader and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Aung San Suu Kyi. Myanmar's neighbors are expressing impatience with the country's lack of democratic reform, and the United States trying to bring the issue before the UN Security Council.

Myanmar's gradual retreat from contact with the outside world began in October 2004, when Than Shwe fired his prime minister, General Khin Nyunt, and ordered his arrest. While Khin Nyunt had been head of military intelligence, some Asian governments regarded him as a moderating force on the issue of democratic change.

He was also the rulers' main interlocutor with foreign governments and agencies. With his removal, the government purged several allied Cabinet ministers who had experience working with the United Nations. Since then, Myanmar also has tightened travel restrictions on foreigners and threatened to withdraw from the International Labor Organization. The former British colony has been controlled since 1988 by the military junta, which refused to accept the results of 1990 legislative elections in which Suu Kyi's party won in a landslide.

Senior Burmese ministers were given just two days' notice of the relocation from the port city of Yangon to the heartland of the majority Myanmarn ethnic group. Witnesses recounted seeing the initial convoy depart Yangon at precisely 6:37 a.m., a time that many Burmese attribute to the counsel of government astrologers.

Only the next day did the Foreign Ministry of Myanmar notify foreign diplomats that the capital had left town.

"You can communicate with the Myanmar government by letter. If you have an urgent matter, you can send a letter by fax," said an Asian diplomat, repeating the instructions he had been given by the Foreign Ministry. "Can you believe that?"

Officials said foreigners would not be allowed to visit Pyinmana until April at the earliest. Embassies will eventually be leased land in a diplomatic compound and are expected by the government to begin building new missions in late 2007.

Civil servants have told their families that few buildings are ready in the new capital, about 32 kilometers west of the existing town of Pyinmana in a region with one of the country's highest rates of malaria. Government housing remains unfinished. There were few signs of the schools, hospitals, shopping mall and hotels the government has promised.

"You know there's no psychiatric hospital in Pyinmana," a government official quipped. "They'll need one because everyone is going to go crazy."