Behold a New Empire
By Aung Zaw
Burma’s former monarchs frequently relocated their capitals to mark the advent of a new empire. Perhaps the new “royal city” of Naypyidaw is Than Shwe’s attempt at formalizing a new dynasty
Many ideas have been floated about the ruling State Peace and Development Council’s decision to relocate its administrative capital to the country’s central plains. Was it a calculated choice based on projections by military, political, or economic strategists? Or was it a product of the whimsical superstitions of Snr-Gen Than Shwe, the country’s astrologically-minded leader?
Whether reasoned or irrational, the decision has significant implications for the future of Burma and merits closer examination.
Michael Aung-Thwin, a Burmese-born American academic and professor of Asian studies at the University of Hawaii, and regarded by some as being sympathetic to the SPDC, has made a recent effort to frame Burma’s administrative relocation in the context of a return to the country’s ancient cultural roots.
In an article published in the English language daily Bangkok Post, Aung-Thwin suggests the move was an about-face from Burma’s colonial past. “Pyinmana [now effectively absorbed by Naypyidaw] is in Myanmar’s traditional heartland, where its most important sacred sites, ancient capitals, and repositories of culture are to be found,” he wrote. “Whereas Rangoon is a symbol of colonialism—a political center imposed by foreigners on an indigenous society, Pyinmana is not,” he says, referring to Burma’s former British colonial masters.
The move to Naypyidaw, therefore, is neither mysterious nor surprising, in his view. “This is where the country’s Paleolithic, Neolithic, Chalcolithic and urban cultures were located,” he adds. In terms of history and culture, Naypyidaw more closely reflects the cultural heart of Burma.
Furthermore, the central Burmese hinterland was once the “rice-basket” of Burma—“the nucleus of the most extensively irrigated regions”—which sustained for centuries the majority of the country’s population. It was also the focus of the country’s best religious and literary traditions—and still is, according to Aung-Thwin. “The dry zone [central Burma]…in other words, is the ancestral home of the Burmese people, and it is very much part of their psyche.”
And what of Rangoon? He dismisses the former capital as merely a colonial city built to serve British economic interests and one that lacked any indigenous culture.
Seen in this light, the move to Naypyidaw represents an attempt to relocate Burmese identity from one imposed by foreign invaders (Rangoon), to one that reflects a correct understanding (according to the generals) of the country’s history.
Whatever the merits of such an argument—and those in Rangoon who view the Shwedagon Pagoda as the country’s holiest religious site may well dispute it vigorously—Aung-Thwin is not the only academic to find a certain logic in the move to Naypyidaw.
Thai scholar Sunait Chutintaranond, the director of Thai and Southeast Asian Studies at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok, says the moving of capitals in Burma—and Thailand—is a historical tradition.
Such moves have been linked to perceived cultural or moral crises, and the traditions that shaped such thinking have passed down through the generations and perhaps continue to resonate.
King Mindon, who moved Burma’s capital from Amarapura to Mandalay in 1857, is said to have consulted astrologers before the relocation. He justified his decision by citing the legend that Lord Buddha once visited Mandalay Hill with his brother Ananda and said that a future king would establish a capital there.
British historian V C Scott-O’Connor noted in his book Mandalay and Other Cities of the Past that Mindon had grown tired of Amarapura, and associated it with the disastrous reign of his half-brother, King Pagan (1848-1853). “He was anxious to make a better beginning, he was avid of fame and he wished to draw the attention of his people from the disasters that had overtaken his dynasty,” writes Scott-O’Connor. “The hereditary temptation to migrate to a new capital must have become almost irresistible.”
Other historians see it differently, arguing that Mindon was primarily concerned with the British, who had captured Lower Burma during the second Anglo-Burmese War and had their sights set on the north. Adolph Bastian, a German traveler, wrote in his 19th-century memoir, A Journey to Burma (1861-1862), that King Mindon resettled in Mandalay because he had seen British envoys coming upriver by steamboat to his capital in Amarapura and recognized that he would be in easy range of British artillery.
Historical precedents for capital relocation are plentiful. Three of Burma’s former kings began their dynasties from new capitals: King Anawrahta (1044-1077) in Pagan, central Burma; King Bayinnaung in Toungoo, in the northeast; and King Alaungpaya in Shwebo, central Burma.
To understand why the country’s current rulers have decided to follow suit requires an examination of their rhetoric and the subsequent pageantry that accompanied the inauguration of the administrative center in Naypyidaw.
Before the relocation, the junta emphasized—not for the first time—that it had restored peace, stability and law and order in Burma. Among the earliest pictures of Naypyidaw were images of three enormous statues of Anawrahta, Bayinnaung and Alaungpaya overlooking the military parade ground.
Three of Burma’s most celebrated kings stand watch over Naypyidaw, the “royal city” where Than Shwe presides over what might be called a new empire. What lies in store for him, and the kingdom he is carving out of the dusty hills of central Burma, will undoubtedly remain a topic of speculation for politicians, pundits, and perhaps even the country’s many soothsayers. The question remains: Is a fourth Burmese dynasty in the making?
Burma’s kings went walkabout down the centuries
By Aung Zaw
After the fall of the Pagan dynasty—the first Burmese empire, founded by King Anawrahta in 1044—Burmese rulers have relocated their capital no less than 11 times.
The last of the Pagan line was King Narathihapate, an ineffective ruler of voracious appetite—for food and women. It is said that his daily diet encompassed up to 300 dishes, and he had 3,000 concubines.
Like other Burmese kings, he was superstitious and strongly believed in astrology. Among his eccentric and superstitious acts was an order to halt construction of the Minglazedi Pagoda after hearing rumors that his kingdom would collapse if the structure were ever completed. Ironically, one of his last acts was to destroy his own palace.
Narathihapate’s reign was brought to an end by the Mongol emperor Kublai Khan, angered by the Pagan ruler’s rejection of a proposal to assimilate his kingdom. Narathihapate not only rebuffed Kublai Khan’s demarche but had the Mongol ruler’s emissaries executed.
Kublai Khan sent an army to capture Pagan and Narathihapate fled to the Irrawaddy delta, earning himself the title Tayoke Pye Min (the king who ran from the Chinese. Burmese viewed Mongols as Chinese). He left a trail of destruction behind him, destroying thousands of temples and even his own palace.
Narathihapate was poisoned by his own son, and Mongol troops took over the city in 1287 after learning of his death. There are conflicting reports about the fate of Pagan, with some historians maintaining the Mongols sacked the city and others disputing this. Pagan certainly never recovered its lost glory, although the current regime has made botched attempts to restore its ruins in the hopes of attracting more tourists.
Other ancient capitals in central Burma included Ava (Innwa), Amarapura and Sagaing, although none of them achieved the prominence of Pagan. Sagaing was the capital of a Shan ruler who dominated upper Burma for a brief period beginning in 1315. The seat of power was moved to Ava in 1364 and there it remained for four centuries.
The third Burmese empire was built by Aung Zeya or King Alaungpaya (the “Embryo Buddha”), with his capital in Shwebo (also known as Moksobo) from 1760 to 1764.
Alaungpaya founded the Konbaung dynasty and suppressed Mon resistance in the south, renaming Dagon as Rangoon (“End of Strife”) after concluding the campaign. The king also subdued the Shan and invaded Manipur in India, creating fearful havoc. Ava was his capital city.
A later Konbaung king, Bodawpaya, conquered Manipur and Assam, annexing them to his realm. In 1782-83, he built a new capital, Amarapura (now known as Taungmyo), resulting in a mass migration from Ava.
The migration boosted the population of the new capital to 200,000. The city was open to foreigners, with quarters for Chinese, Indians, Muslims and a small community of Christians, mostly Portuguese and Armenians. At the center of the city stood Bodawpaya’s palace, surrounded by a wall 1.6 km in circumference, with a pagoda standing at each of its four corners. Within the wall were secular buildings built of timber.
Although Bodawpaya demolished what remained of Ava and then flooded the city, his successor, Bagyidaw, rebuilt it and moved his capital there in 1823.
But in 1841, King Tharawaddy moved the capital back to Amarapura, and there it stayed until King Mindon decided to establish the seat of the Konbaung dynasty in Mandalay. It was the final shudder in the death throes of the Konbaung dynasty—Britain invaded Burma in 1885 and set up a colonial administration based in Rangoon. Burma's imperial days were over, and its kings found their final resting places.