In Myanmar's curious capital, quiet before Clinton

NAYPYITAW Wed Nov 30, 2011 9:18am GMT

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walks up the steps of her airplane prior to her departure from Gimhae International Airport in Busan November 30, 2011. REUTERS/Saul Loeb/Pool

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton walks up the steps of her airplane prior to her departure from Gimhae International Airport in Busan November 30, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Saul Loeb/Pool

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NAYPYITAW (Reuters) - Myanmar's new capital, Naypyitaw, translates as "Abode of Kings," fitting for U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to begin historic talks that could restore some lustre to one of the world's most reclusive states.

But just hours before her arrival on Wednesday to become the first U.S. secretary of state to visit Myanmar in more than 50 years, there were no obvious signs of preparations -- no crowds, no festivities, no flags -- aside from policemen outside the hotel compound where she will stay.

In striking contrast, a large billboard had been strung up at a nearby hotel, welcoming the prime minister of Belarus, who is also due to visit in coming days.

Some workers were sweeping the wide but mostly deserted boulevards of the sprawling city built from scratch just five years ago, where Myanmar's leaders and powerful retired generals have isolated themselves, some 320 km (200 miles) from the largest city and former capital, Yangon.

Naypyitaw is a maze of ministry buildings, government mansions, civil servants' quarters and presidential palaces complete with grand Roman-style pillars -- all rising from dusty, arid scrubland. At its heart are parliament's 31 buildings, with pagoda-style roofs.

Bestowed with manicured lawns and forbidding stone walls, it bears no resemblance to the rest of Myanmar, one of Asia's poorest countries, or even to nearby villages, where many people live in thatched wooden huts.

Attractions include half a dozen resorts and golf courses, drinkable tap water, a Western-style shopping mall, a large zoo, a grand "water fountain garden," lavish mansions and 24-hour electricity in a nation beset by chronic power outages.

A labourer at a construction site next to parliament said he had no idea who was visiting.

"All I know is someone important is coming but I don't know who," said the worker, Ye Pun Naing. Told that it was Clinton, he shrugged his shoulders and said that meant nothing to him.

That's not too surprising.

Myanmar has only just begun to emerge from an extraordinary half-century of isolation. The past few months have seen the most dramatic changes in the former British colony since the military took power in a 1962 coup when it was known as Burma.

A string of reforms, breathtaking by Myanmar's standards, have been introduced by former generals who swapped fatigues for civilian clothes in March when a new parliament opened following last year's elections, the first in two decades.

While in South Korea earlier on Wednesday, Clinton expressed cautious optimism that Myanmar's tentative democratic reforms could develop into a movement for change to the benefit of the people.

PUZZLINGLY WIDE ROADS

Unarmed policemen were seen in pairs or in groups along some roads, along with the occasional trucks carrying riot police armed with shields, baton and guns.

"A number of foreign dignitaries are due to arrive here in a day or two," said Ma Nyein, 26, as she tended plants by the side of a road. She said she had never heard of Clinton, although she knew who U.S. President Barack Obama was.

Much of Naypyitaw was built by workers like Ma Nyein toiling in searing heat with basic equipment. When Reuters journalists visited early last year, women were hauling stacks of bricks balanced upon their head and men cleared land with wooden-handled scythes. Ox carts transported wood.

Diplomatic sources say the construction of Naypyitaw would have cost billions of dollars, drawing criticism from aid groups over the priorities of a country where a third of the population lives in poverty and where infrastructure is in tatters due to trade-crippling sanctions and mismanagement.

The city's rise reflects the riches reaped by its rulers as Southeast Asia and China tap its natural resources, from timber and natural gas to precious gems, despite the Western sanctions imposed in response to rights abuses.

It may have amenities but there's no lively city centre thronged with people, even five years after the government moved nearly all its workers there. Officials put its population at about 1 million, including surrounding townships.

Its roads are puzzlingly wide, including one 20-lane boulevard, but they are largely empty. Civilian cars are rare. The city centre, a roundabout where five roads meet, is populated mostly by palm trees and potted flowers.

One person the former ruling junta were happy to leave in Yangon was opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate freed from years of detention last year.

But Suu Kyi has since visited several times and could even enter parliament when her political party contests by-elections expected early next year.

(Additional reporting by Aung Hla Tun; Writing by Jason Szep; Editing by Robert Birsel)

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