Meet Ma Ni Myint. She is one of hundreds of landscape laborers that keeps the newly constructed capital city of Nay Pyi Taw neatly manicured and looking immaculate.
Ma Ni Myint works long days along the vacant sidewalks of the sixteen-lane highway circling the government Parliament buildings. The addition of roads and modern infrastructure to an area positioned within the driest zone of Myanmar makes this one of the hottest places to work outside. As such, wearing Thanaka is an essential component of work life here.
In 2005, Myanmar’s capital was suddenly uprooted from Yangon to Nay Pyi Taw, which was originally a rural area covered by rice fields and narrow dirt roads. Nay Pyi Taw, translated to ‘Royal City of the Sun,’ is a nickname that Burmese kings have used for centuries once they had established a central government stronghold. This brand new city of grand proportions and 24-hour electricity, which is nonexistent in any other Burmese city, is a glowing example of the continued tradition.
Many Myanmar people have no answer for why the move was made—but whatever the reason was, the government has built an extraordinary home for itself. The Parliament compound is a modern-day Versailles, complete with a vast moat and two drawbridges that protect the towering and gilded ministry buildings beyond. This is one of the many ‘districts’ that make up the spacious Nay Pyi Taw. Each of the five main districts is separated by functionality, which includes shopping, government housing, hotels, ministry buildings, and general homes. An endless network of vacant eight-lane boulevards connects all of these areas and makes walking nearly impossible. The current setup creates the façade of an up and coming city, but it lacks the population to fill it.
Since Nay Pyi Taw is purely a government town, it differs greatly from typical metropolitan areas. Myanmar's 'Royal City' not only lacks a general population of city dwellers but also that of young professionals and privatized industry—here one is either in government or working for the government. In fact, the only visible workforce seems to be in place to maintain government infrastructure. Top government officials have imported workers from throughout Myanmar to accomplish their goal of swiftly transforming rice fields into a modern metropolis. By blanketing the previously rural area with grandiose districts, the government has in turn created a face for the city that seems to allude to the hope they have for the state as a whole. As Ma Ni Myint sweats her traditional Thanaka away, a new vision for the country is rising behind her.