Burma's rulers take the road to Mandalay

The Burmese capital is being moved to a purpose-built 'command and control' centre deep in the jungle by the country's secretive and brutal military junta.

General Than Shwe, the country's most senior leader, has shifted the capital from its dilapidated riverside site to a purpose-built jungle "command and control centre", located about 250 miles up-country in Pyinmana. After months of government dithering, speculation and denial, unmarried civil servants from nine ministries were ordered on Friday to start packing their bags. By Sunday, a great convoy of vans was lumbering up the main road towards Mandalay and away from the golden pagodas of old Rangoon.

In the erstwhile capital, residents are baffled by this sudden exodus and wonder if foreign diplomats and all their foreign currency may soon follow. Protective spirals of razor wire and concrete security bunkers, erected in front of Rangoon's foreign embassies shortly after the 11 September attacks, were inexplicably dismantled yesterday.

Not everything, however, has changed that radically: roadblocks were still in place outside the lakeside house of Aung San Suu Kyi, the democracy icon and imprisoned Nobel peace laureate.

The junta's secret dream scheme for a new command centre far away from Rangoon was well under way even before Ms Rice stood in front of the US Senate last January and lumped Burma together with North Korea, Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe and Belarus as "outposts of tyranny."

Quietly, the sleepy trading centre of Pyinmana has become the focus for a mania of construction. This verdant town, where steam locomotives still arrive pulling freight cars of sugar cane, was the stronghold of the Japanese army during the Second World War, and is guarded by jungle-clad hills. It was from here that Ms Suu Kyi's heroic father, General Aung San, launched the Burmese independence movement.

With very little fanfare, the town has been refortified over the past three years by the Burmese generals into a xenophobe's Xanadu. There are reports that the new military complex now extends over 10 square kilometres and that the infantry is already in place.

Immediately after the US-led war in Iraq, Burmese exiles circulated rumours that the US would surely back regime change in south Asia next. Any day, the Burmese bush telegraph suggested, a fleet of warships, nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers would sail up the Irrawaddy and launch yet another invasion.

The generals, already smarting from tough US sanctions on textile exports and the banning of all new investment, have apparently been making serious contingency plans, with anti-aircraft artillery and missile silos in place. If all else fails, it seems the pariah regime could wage a guerrilla war from the surrounding jungle, adapting the techniques of the ethnic forces with whom they finally have signed ceasefire agreements.

Government hardliners were braced for reprisals from Washington last week after Charm Tong, a 23-year-old Shan human rights activist, met with President Bush and described the systematic gang rape committed by Burmese soldiers against ethnic women inside the country.

But it is not only the worry of being branded war criminals that fuels the junta's paranoia. Some analysts see the hand of astrology in its decision to relocate, especially because the move appears to have been planned for a particularly auspicious date. Like his predecessor, the dictator Ne Win, who once insisted that every denomination of the country's currency be divisible by his lucky number nine, General Than Shwe is known to be extremely superstitious. It was the recent proclamation of a soothsayer that predicted Rangoon was on the verge of "collapse". Informed sources say the leader concluded the city "must be destroyed" to save the regime.

The new capital will be officially named "Yan Lon," which translates as "secure from strife;" a close cousin to "Yan Gon", or "end of strife", the official name for Rangoon.

In Rangoon, where rumours circulate quickly, the new capital has been redubbed by local wags as "Escape City". Just who is escaping whom is not clear. Land has been confiscated from thousands of villagers who were displaced to make way for the new capital. More than 5,000 more will go by the start of next year. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has registered complaints that labourers were made to construct camps for army battalions and an air defence squadron.

"At least 14 villages had to provide 200 workers each on a daily basis for the work," said an ILO report, which the regime rejected as baseless. Shortly afterwards, death threats were made against ILO representatives in Rangoon, and Burma gave notice that it would withdraw from the organisation.

There are said to be no proper primary schools in Pyinmana, a city envisioned as a martial Milton Keynes, so families have not been commanded to move there yet. Forced labour reportedly has, however, built government bureaucrats a stellar golf course, next to escape tunnels, bunkers, a military hospital, an airstrip and a mammoth hydroelectric plant to power their mansions. A parliament building is rather a low priority in the authoritarian scheme, at least until a new constitution is formalised.

Funding for the new capital's infrastructure comes from Chinese and Russian investors, plus well-connected businessmen and arms dealers who can conveniently launder their ill-gotten gains through the massive government project. The country's most competent electricians, plumbers and technicians have assembled a grid which will be the envy of old Rangoon, where power cuts are routine. Pyinmana is the only place in Burma, other than the Wa Army's collection of casinos and barracks at Pangsang, where international telephone calls go through unhindered.

What's more, Burmese exiles in Thailand claim that the new capital will be located conveniently close to a secret spot in the western Shan Hills where Burma's nuclear programme is being developed. Because it is frequently shrouded by mists, Pyin Oo Lwin, just 42 miles east of Mandalay, will be difficult to monitor by satellite.

Burma's Information Minister, Brigadier General Kyaw Hsan, is declining to catalogue the reasons for the government's precipitous move. Just last month, General Maung Aye, the deputy leader, announced that the move would be deferred until the new year. But the wishes of General Than Shwe have obviously prevailed.

"The reason we are moving is because Pyinmana, which is in the centre of Myanmar, is geographically and strategically located for the development of the country," Kyaw Hsan said, reading from a prepared statement. "We have made arrangements to fulfil food, shelter, education and health requirements for the convenience of the government servants."

When reporters pushed him to comment on any defensive military motives for relocation, the officer gave a tight grin: "Has there been any declaration that the US will attack?

"If you need to communicate on urgent matters, you can send a fax to Pyinmana," the statement continued. "We will send you the new numbers in due course, and you will be informed of the date to start communicating with us."

The move has understandably sent shock waves through Rangoon. "I couldn't believe my ears when I first heard about this project," one junior commerce ministry official said to reporters over the weekend. "We all were officially informed about this only on Friday. We were shocked."

Political pundits say moving the capital miles away is designed to further isolate Burma's democratic opposition and limit the influence of Aung San Suu Kyi, for whom last month marked 10 years under house arrest. Campaigners in exile are pressing the United Nations Security Council to demand the release of Burma's most prominent dissident, the restoration of democracy, and freedom for 1,100 political prisoners locked up for years in the country's jails.

Ms Suu Kyi, who turned 60 this summer, has resisted any compromise with the ruling junta for 16 years. Her passionate calls for "Freedom from Fear" have echoed around the world. The UN envoy, Razali Ismail, has been banned from seeing her for the past 16 months and any possibility of dialogue with the generals looks increasingly remote. Meanwhile, the human rights situation in Burma appears as abysmal as ever.

According to the latest report, submitted to the UN by the former Czech president Vaclav Havel and the retired South African archbishop Desmond Tutu, more than 70,000 child soldiers have been conscripted by the regime for its fight against ethnic insurgents. They serve alongside security forces who routinely rape civilians, torture prisoners, and execute citizens without trial. The junta censors and wiretaps private communications and harasses the press. Government-hired thugs disguised as monks intercepted Ms Suu Kyi's convoy in May 2003, beat her and killed scores of her political followers.

Mr Havel and Archbishop Tutu recommended that the UN Security Council adopt a resolution compelling Burma to implement democratic reforms. When the US attempted to start a formal discussion of Ms Suu Kyi's release in the UN security Council last year, Russia and China refused to table the motion. China, by far Burma's biggest trading partner and arms supplier, was recently allowed to build its first military base on the Indian Ocean on Burmese soil.

As part of a face-saving "road map to democracy", the junta also has drawn up a new constitution which effectively tightens its grip on power. It reserves seats in the national and regional parliaments for the army, and bars Ms Suu Kyi from ever becoming president. The document was completed without any input from the National League for Democracy (NLD), her party, which has boycotted the convention.

Ms Suu Kyi was tending her ailing mother in Rangoon when General Ne Win staged a coup in 1988 and the military fired on student protesters, killing thousands. After speaking out against the army's excesses, she was taken at gunpoint and placed under house arrest the following year. The NLD won a landslide victory in the 1990 elections, but the generals annulled the result. Ms Suu Kyi, kept incommunicado by the junta at her family's run down house in Rangoon, became an icon for the dispossessed and a thorn in the junta's side.

Admirers, who fear that military spies might overhear her name and must refer to her obliquely as "The Lady", would throng to Ms Suu Kyi whenever she was allowed to travel inside her country, from 1995 to 2000 and for a few months in 2002 and 2003. Her passion for Burma meant she frequently sacrificed contact with her two sons, who now live in Britain.

While she was locked away, her British husband, the Oxford don Michael Aris, died of prostate cancer in 1999. Ms Suu Kyi made the painful decision not to visit him on his deathbed at Oxford because she suspected the generals would block her re-entry to her country. And so, while her country changes around her, Burma's indomitable "Titanium Orchid" remains in Rangoon, a staunch advocate of democracy, while the generals switch their lair and devise new ways to try to retain their grip on power.