This column was published in The Myanmar Times on Monday, 29 February 2016
It once made sense to talk, simply, about a country named Burma, where the people spoke Burmese, and some of them were called Burman.
Since the assertion of Myanmar as the dominant organising term, there have been all sorts of linguistic acrobatics to make the term fit for the sometime Myanmarese. To my ear, it never sounds quite right. Insisting that the Myanmar people speak Myanmar in Myanmar hardly makes it easier to understand.
But with new places there can be good reason to get our tongues around entirely new words.
Take Naypyitaw. What should we call the people who live there? Last year the Australian National University’s Olivia Cable introduced the “Naypyitawrian”: a new type of Myanmar citizen, denizen of the seat of power.
Her “Humans of Naypyidaw” Facebook initiative offers snapshots of life in the capital. Many are unexpected, intriguing, even funny. But, taken together, they up-end the comfortable idea that Naypyitaw is a joke.
Over time, the city has become home to new ideas, economies, cultures and politics, and not just among the transient political uber-elite. There is a large, settled population in the greater Naypyitaw area who are making their way through one of the world’s most remarkable urban landscapes.
Just who are these people? The fact is that while we have been scratching our heads about their astounding city, hundreds of thousands of Naypyitawrians have been quietly getting on with life.
Some are residents of the old townships of Lewe, Pyinmana and Tatkon that have been absorbed by Nay Pyi Taw. Most casual visitors do not get a chance to see the agricultural and manufacturing industry that thrives in these areas. These jumbled and energetic places were successfully settled ages before Naypyitaw was ever planned. They will probably still be there long after it is gone.
Elsewhere in Naypyitaw, especially in the newer neighbourhoods, gradations of access and power are well-marked and signposted. At the start, there were rigid distinctions between the status of different areas.
While some of those differences are now harder to see, there is no escaping the steep hierarchies that order day-to-day life in Naypyitaw. There are few places on earth where the discrepancy between the richest and the poorest is so great.
Such hierarchy is, of course, apparent in the sprawling districts set aside for official residences. They range from small, crowded dormitory rooms stacked with junior civil servants right up to the gated communities reserved for Myanmar’s top powerbrokers, including those ensconced up in the military’s Zeyathiri township.
When considering the Naypyitawrians, we should also not forget the surprising numbers of people who live in the unglamorous residential townships that few of us ever get to know. The hardscrabble areas of northern Pobbathiri township are only a half-hour drive from the glittering lights of the Dekkhinathiri hotel zone. But it can feel like a world away.
Given this diversity and inequality it is worth considering how the Naypyitawrian identity will distinguish itself alongside the repertoires of belonging – ethnic, geographic, religious, political and linguistic – that are so important elsewhere in Myanmar.
What makes Naypyitaw different is the concentration of decision-making power. And even if they resent the affiliation, and have little power themselves, it is the proximity to power that ensures Naypyitawrians will become an ever-more-identifiable cohort in Myanmar society.
For now, their city confronts the tension between its genesis on a Tatmadaw drawing board and the ongoing evolution toward Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s democratic hub. Now that members of the National League for Democracy will hold some authority in Naypyitaw, there is no doubt a new hum will follow.
That hum will last for some time. And while Naypyitaw is still the union capital, it will be the Naypyitawrians who will survive as governments rise and fall. My guess is that when Naypyitaw fades, so too will the democratic flirtation, just another in the long line of regimes that the Myanmar people have seen come and go.
In the meantime, there is much talk of more concerted efforts by the diplomatic and foreign community to take up the offer of space in Naypyitaw.
This shift has been a long time coming. In the years and decades to come, that presence should give the city an international stamp of approval. I suppose there will always be grumbles about its relative lack of amenities.
But before we get too fixated on narrow ideas about what the city should be, take a moment to consider the people who already live there. Next time you are in the capital, make the effort to meet some of these Naypyitawrians and ask for their views.
It is their city. Given its role in Myanmar’s transformation, you might find they are increasingly proud of the chance to show it off.
Nicholas Farrelly is the director of the Myanmar Research Centre at the Australian National University and co-founder of New Mandala.