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Abrupt relocation of Burma capital linked to astrology

RANGOON, Burma -- The government workers received two days' notice to pack up their offices and be ready to move. The military regime that rules this impoverished country had decided to move its capital to the remote, dusty town of Pyinmana.

On Nov. 6, the morning of the move from Rangoon, the longtime capital, hundreds of workers gathered at their offices, according to some accounts, and chanted ''Out, out, out!" before they left. When the civil servants arrived in Pyinmana, 200 miles to the north in central Burma, they found a construction zone.

For more than a month now, many of the country's civil servants have been living like refugees in the concrete shells of unfinished buildings, often without running water or electricity. Offices and residential buildings are still being built, and major roads remain unpaved. Malaria is rampant. Many of the workers have asked to quit, but none of them has been allowed to, said a former civil servant who stays in touch with his old colleagues.

Even for a populace accustomed to arbitrary decrees from the country's brutal military regime and its leader, Senior General Than Shwe, the sudden move from bustling Rangoon to Pyinmana has struck many as bizarre.

''This is a very strange country, a very strange government," said a veteran journalist who could not be identified by name for fear of government reprisal. ''Even the most senior civil servants are angered by the move, and they dismiss it as the work of a fanatic. Pyinmana is a small country town. It cannot accommodate a capital."

Many people in Burma, also known as Myanmar, attribute the move to Than Shwe's faith in astrologers, who recently began predicting that his government would fall if he did not quickly set up a new capital. The astrologers have warned that Than Shwe's star is in decline and will reach its nadir in April. The only way the ruling general can save the regime, according to their predictions, is to move the capital from Rangoon, also known as Yangon.

''They predict the government will not last beyond April," the veteran journalist said. ''I don't believe it, but the generals believe it and the people believe it. The move is all about avoiding collapse of the government."

Burmese officials have said Pyinmana provides a more central location as the military government tries to consolidate its hold on northern border areas dominated by ethnic groups. Some suspect that the decision to move the capital from the coastal city of Rangoon also was prompted by Than Shwe's desire to isolate the government and protect it from possible threats, such as a popular uprising or a US invasion.

Either way, the regime's decision to spend its money building a new capital while most of the population lives in abject poverty indicates that the military has a firm grip on power.

''All of this shows how irrational this regime is," said a senior Western diplomat who declined to be identified by name or nationality. ''There is no rhyme or reason in what they are doing. These guys are isolating themselves."

Burma has been ruled by the military since 1962. In a rare election in 1990, the opposition National League for Democracy won 80 percent of the vote but was not allowed to take power. The party's leader, Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, has been under house arrest or imprisoned for 10 of the past 16 years. The government recently extended her detention for six months.

Than Shwe, 74, a onetime specialist in psychological warfare, has headed the regime since 1992. He has ruthlessly suppressed dissent, arresting pro-democracy activists as well as potential rivals, including then-prime minister General Khin Nyunt and many of his subordinates last year.

Widely regarded as one of the world's most repressive regimes, the Burma government is holding more than 1,000 political prisoners. Torture is common, former prisoners say, and citizens live in fear of arrest if they speak out. News is routinely censored, and many people are forced to work on government projects without compensation.

Despite a wealth of resources, including gems, timber, and oil, Burma has become one of the poorest countries in Asia. Trade sanctions imposed by the United States have contributed to the country's economic slide, but so far have not helped bring democracy to the former British colony. At the urging of the United States and Britain, the United Nations Security Council held a closed-door discussion on Burma on Dec. 16. In addition, the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations has said it would press Burma to free Suu Kyi and other political prisoners and ''expedite" the establishment of democracy.

Western officials say that planning for the capital's move to Pyinmana began five or six years ago and construction of new offices, residences, and roads has been underway for many months.

Historically, founding a new capital has been how Burma's rulers established new dynasties and made their mark on the nation, including the move in 1859 from Inwa to Mandalay, the last pre-colonial capital. The British established Rangoon as the capital in 1885.

Most government workers receive the equivalent of $5 to $10 a month and many rely on second jobs, bribes, or the income of family members to survive. It is illegal for them to resign without permission. ''It's basically a huge construction site," the foreign aid official said.

Despite the hardship, however, there is little chance that the country's docile civil servants will protest or pose a challenge to the government.

''They complain privately," another senior Western diplomat said, ''but they won't do anything about it."

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