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Myanmar's new capital: a vast, empty city

Pool / Reuters

A policeman drives down Yazahdani Road on the way to the President's Office before a meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Myanmar's President Thein Sein in Naypyitaw on Thursday.

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar – U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton could be forgiven for believing she's visiting two different countries – one called Naypyitaw, the other Myanmar.

Naypyitaw is the new capital of Myanmar, the country formerly known as Burma. It’s been built from scratch in the middle of nowhere. It's still a work in progress, it was only designated as the administrative capital in 2005, and until recently was largely off-limits to foreigners.

It’s a sprawling, surreal place with so few people that its eight-lane highways are almost deserted – a somewhat shocking site in this congested part of the world.

For several miles down one stretch, I saw just three motorcycles and a truck transporting a group of workers who had been tending the landscaped gardens on either side of the road.

Despite the apparent lack of people, Naypyitaw does have plenty of monstrous government buildings and villas, and several hotels and an international airport are under construction.

"Where's downtown?" I asked a Myanmar journalist. "I keep asking them that," he replied, “But nobody seems to know."

For many, Naypyitaw is a symbol of military ego, a metaphor for the former junta's isolation from the world – and its own people.

Pool / Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton meets with Myanmar's President Thein Sein at the President's Office in Naypyitaw Thursday.

Myanmar's new president, Thein Sein, a former army officer, is reportedly a modest man. But there's little modesty about his sprawling palace, where he and other officials from the new and nominally civilian government received Clinton in an ornate reception room. It was so new you could almost smell the paint.

The police made a big show of stopping what little traffic there was to make way for the Clinton cavalcade as it crisscrossed the city.

There was never any danger of congestion.

Myanmar has been so secretive that it's not clear precisely when work began on the city, nor how much it cost. It is lavish by any standards, but almost obscenely so against the backdrop of the enormous poverty elsewhere in the country.

It's hard to say where the money came from – but the military had its finger in many business pies, of various degrees of legitimacy. China has also been a big benefactor.

The government justified the move by saying Yangon was too crowded, and that Naypyitaw was chosen because it is smack in the middle of the country. Though one bizarre explanation was that former military strongman Than Shwe was shaken by an astrologer's warning that an American attack was imminent and Yangon was too exposed. Cynics suggested he was afraid of his own people as well.

The real Myanmar
Clinton flew late in the afternoon Thursday to the country’s old capital, Yangon, the city also known as Rangoon, seemingly a world away. Yangon, 200 miles from Naypyitaw, is a city of stunning pagodas and dilapidated, colonial-era buildings, including the run-down lakeside residence of pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

Saul Loeb / Pool via AP

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton pours water over a Buddhist statue, as she tours the Shwedegon Pagoda, a Buddhist temple founded between the 6th and 10th centuries AD, in Yangon, Myanmar, Thursday.

It’s a real city, with real people and a real soul. And for the most part, its residents are giving the benefit of the doubt to the reforms coming from Naypyitaw.

Clinton met Suu Kyi for a private dinner Thursday evening, the meeting itself a remarkable sign of change.

Many are still skeptical about the government's intentions – although Suu Kyi isn't among them.

She was expected to tell Clinton she thinks President Thein Sein is sincere in wanting change, that he truly believes it is the best way forward for the country.

Suu Kyi will likely test the reforms by standing for a vacant parliamentary seat early next year.

It is an unusually positive response to the government’s claims of reform – she’s been persecuted for years by the regime for her pursuit of democracy, spending 15 of the last 21 years under house arrest.

Thursday evening was the first time the two have met, and Clinton, while welcoming the reforms, is taking a more cautious public line.

Pool / Pool via Reuters

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton tours the Shwedegon Pagoda in Yangon, Myanmar Thursday.

That, after all, is her job.

Though it’s my guess that she'll be enchanted both by Suu Kyi and Yangon – a good deal more so than the sterile meeting rooms of Naypyitaw.