Welcome to Naypyidaw, Madam Secretary

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U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton began her historic 3-day trip to Myanmar this week, the first high-level U.S. official to visit the country in roughly half a century. Unlike her diplomatic predecessors, however, Clinton touched down not in Yangon, the historic captial of the country once known as Burma, but in Naypyidaw, the new seat of government.

Clinton's visit marks a sharp change in U.S. policy, as the Obama administration begins its strategic move to Asia and amid signals from Myanmar's leaders that democratic openness may, in fact, finally be coming to the long-isolated country. As Jim Della-Giacoma wrote in in October, "After 20 years without a parliament and democratic process, its new leaders are now showing a surprising impatience with the status quo and are changing the way this country is ruled."

But signs of the military junta's authoritarian imprint abound. Naypyidaw, or "abode of kings," the pronunciation-defying administrative seat of Myanmar's government, was only a glimmer in the junta's eye as recently as 2005, when construction began in a remote mountain jungle. By the middle of the next year, the capital -- much of it reportedly built underground -- was racing toward completion, when all of a sudden everything from file cabinets to government employees were trucked virtually overnight to the new site (on an auspicious date, allegedly proscribed by former senior leader Gen. Than Shwe's personal astrologer). Today, the partially completed capital boasts both sprawling temples and deserted streets, massive administrative buildings and empty public squares. 

Above, a smiling Clinton walks from her airplane upon her arrival in the capital on Nov. 30.



Above, people offer prayers at the newly-completed Uppatasaniti Pagoda in Naypyidaw on Jan. 30, as the country's capital prepared for the opening of the national parliament. At precisely 8.55 am on Jan. 31,  hundreds of uniformed soldiers and over 1,000 elected lawmakers gathered in the capital for the inauguration of the country's parliament. Following the 2010 election, marred by the absence of democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi and claims of cheating and intimidation, the junta enjoyed an overwhelming majority in parliament.


Women walk inside the newly-completed Uppatasaniti Pagoda in Naypyidaw on Jan. 30, 2011. The pagoda is a replica of the famed Shwedagon Pagoda in the historic capital, Yangon.


Above, members of the Myanmar Parliament attend proceedings at the Union Parliament in Naypyidaw on Aug. 22. Myanmar's President Thein Sein said his government was ready to work with the international community in a speech at the opening of the current parliamentary session, a recent sign that the authoritarian nation is finally seeking to end its decades of diplomatic isolation from the West.


Above, a worker pauses on the construction site of the new parliament building in 2006. The capital is considered by some to be one of the world's fastest-growing cities.  



The newly-built Uppatasani pagoda in Naypyidaw on March 26, 2010.


Above, the gateway to a massive housing complex for Myanmar's military leaders soars above a deserted highway on May 23, 2008.


An aerial view of housing units in Naypyidaw on May 23, 2008. 


Buddhist monks in Pyinmana, on the outskirts of the country's new capital on March 26, 2010.


Workers sweep the steps in front of a water fountain in Naypyidaw on Jan. 30. 


Policemen at a check-point on the road leading to the national parliament. In the background, shuttle buses carry members of parliament to the newly completed compound on Jan. 31.


Guards of honor parade during a ceremony in the capital on Feb.12. The same day, Myanmar's junta chief told people to safeguard the country's new "democracy" -- a day after parliament approved a cabinet packed with retired military officers. Former Senior Gen. Than Shwe called for people to "tackle any forms of disruptions to the new system."


The vast parliament building, now completed, stands in an area once dominated by jungle. 

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