Bangkok – Myanmar's ruling generals are retreating to the hills, for reasons ranging from its strongman's pretensions to be the new Burmese monarch to fears of a US invasion. Whatever the motive, the move to relocate the capital further inland is unlikely to endear the military rulers to their Asean counterparts since it means having to move their own embassies to an area that is lacking in infrastructure.
After months of rumours, Information Minister Kyaw Hsan confirmed on Nov 7 that the ruling junta is moving the capital from Yangon to Pyinmana, a trading town on the highway between Yangon and Mandalay. The new capital is nestled within mountain ranges and dense forests.
"Due to changed circumstances, where Myanmar is trying to develop a modern nation, a more centrally located government seat has become a necessity," Mr Kyaw Hsan told a news conference. "The authorities have chosen Pyinmana because it is centrally located and has quick access to all parts of the country."
Ten ministries – including the interior, agriculture, forestry and power - have already relocated to Pyinmana this week. The second phase will begin in December, followed by a further move in early January. Foreign embassies are likely to have to follow the Myanmar government into the hills eventually.
The idea of the new capital is believed to have come from top general Than Shwe and building started two years ago. "This is typical of Than Shwe’'s pretensions to be the new Burmese monarch. Like all Burmese kings before him, he is building a new palace - capital for posterity," said Mr Win Min, a Burmese analyst based in Thailand.
An Asian diplomat described the relocation as a "strategic retreat". The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 reinforced the top generals' fear that the US might attackMyanmar.
The country's military strategists have long argued that Myanmar's defences were vulnerable to an attack from the sea – hence the need to move inland.
Other analysts believe that the move is also intended to give the regime better access to the frontier areas, especially the Chin, Karen, Kayah and Shan, where most ethnic groups with ceasefire pacts with the military regime are strong.
"Although the ethnic organisations have ceasefire agreements with the junta, the top generals remain highly suspicious of the ethnic groups and want to be in a better position to control them if they need to," said Mr Win Min.
Singapore's Foreign Ministry has described Myanmar’s move to shift its capital as "puzzling". "We are very surprised by this sudden development," a ministry spokesman said.
In an editorial, The Straits Times said: "The Myanmar government owes it to its Asean friends to end the lively speculation (over the relocation). Besides the Aung San Su Kyi cause celebre and the reconvening of the on-off constitutional conference next month, the nation is sedate.
"Might the junta be preparing for the day when political liberalisation alters the governing landscape? Yangon then could be too small for the generals and liberals."
* Government on the run (Bangkok Post, Nov 8)
*On the road to Mandalay (The Straits Times, Nov 10)