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Politics

A short history of relocating capitals in Asia

Indonesia's move has precedents in places such as Myanmar and Malaysia

From left, Naypyidaw, Putrajaya and Astana (source photo from Reuters)

YANGON/SEOUL/KUALA LUMPUR -- Indonesian President Joko "Jokowi" Widodo on Aug. 26 named a site in East Kalimantan Province in the Indonesian part of Borneo as the nation's new capital. He has several reasons: Jakarta, the current capital, is sinking, polluted and suffering from chronic congestion; Kalimantan is relatively free of natural disasters; and the area is at the center of the sprawling archipelago, supporting his plan to shift away from a "Java-centric" economy centered on Jakarta.

Widodo's plan has plenty of precedents. Countries from Brazil to Turkey have switched seats of government over the past century, the successes and failures of which can provide Indonesia with lessons for its $33 billion relocation plan.

Below, we take a look at similar moves -- some full, some partial -- across Asia in recent history:

Naypyidaw (Myanmar)

Wary of a growing pro-democracy movement, Myanmar's junta government decided in 2001 to relocate the capital from coastal Yangon to centrally located Naypyidaw. The construction of the city was completed in 2005, and all government functions were swiftly transferred there by the following year. It is unclear exactly why the site was chosen. Some say it was part of a military strategy, while rumors persist that the decision was guided by a fortuneteller.

Government offices are spread out across the sprawling, empty city known for its 20-lane highways. Several high-end hotels accommodate government guests and businesspeople, who fly into a modern but little used airport that opened in 2011.

Government officials living there tend to leave their families in Yangon due to the lack of commercial and educational facilities in the capital. Most diplomats and foreign businesses also remain tied to Yangon, although the government of Aung San Suu Kyi is encouraging embassies to move to Naypyidaw. So far, however, only China has opened a liaison office there, with the U.S. to follow next year.

A man raise his hands in the middle of the 20-lane highway leading to Myanmar's Parliament during the 47th ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Naypyidaw, August 9, 2014.   © Reuters

Sejong (South Korea)

In 2002, Democratic Party candidate Roh Moo-hyun, who won the presidential election that year, wooed voters in provinces in central South Korea with a pledge to move some government functions away from Seoul to the region. Seoul had been considered too close to North Korea, and was suffering from congestion.

The city of Sejong was founded in 2007 as the administrative capital. Key offices and ministries gradually moved there, including the prime minister's office, the finance, trade and transport ministries, the Fair Trade Commission and the National Tax Service. South Korea is now considering whether to set up a branch of the National Assembly in Sejong, which is less than an hour by high-speed rail from Seoul.

The relocation has contributed to the development of the region, with the population -- and housing prices -- soaring. But with the presidential Blue House and the National Assembly still in Seoul, it forces many officials to shuffle between the two cities.

South Korea's new President Roh Moo-Hyun and his wife toast to celebrate his inauguration on Feb. 25, 2003. Roh was helped to victory by his pledge to move some government functions to Sejong.   © AP

Putrajaya (Malaysia)

Malaysia's then- (and current) Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad proposed to move the nation's administrative capital from Kuala Lumpur in the 1980s, picking a site just 25 km south of the previous capital. Putrajaya was named after the country's first prime minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj, and the entire project was designed and built by Malaysian companies for an estimated $8.1 billion.

While Kuala Lumpur remained as the country's financial and commercial capital, Putrajaya became the seat of government. Federal ministries and government agencies began moving there in 2003, the same year Mahathir stepped down as prime minister.

Almost all government bodies, including the prime minister's office and official residence, are now in Putrajaya. The city's development also included housing and leisure facilities, and opened up office space while unlocking areas for private-sector development, helping the greater Kuala Lumpur region turn into a hub for global businesses.

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad works at his office in Putrajaya.   © Reuters

Astana/Nur-Sultan (Kazakhstan)

Former President Nursultan Nazarbayev in 1994 pushed a law through parliament to move the capital from Almaty, which had been eclipsed by Uzbekistan's Tashkent as the Soviet Union's unofficial capital of Central Asia, to Akmola. The city was renamed Astana in 1998.

Situated in the center of the country closer to oil production sites, Astana is thought to be have been chosen to increase the number of ethnic Kazakhs in the surrounding region at a time when it was feared that some provinces might break away and join Russia. The once drab provincial town has been transformed into a vibrant modern city and the country's economic center, boasting 79% of the Kakazh population.

All central government bodies have now moved to city, which was again renamed Nur-Sultan when Nazarbayev stepped down in March. The central bank is the only remaining government body in Almaty.

Downtown in Nur-Sultan, Kazakhstan.   © Reuters

Islamabad (Pakistan)

The southern port city of Karachi was named Pakistan's first capital in 1947 after the country gained independence from Britain. But in the 1950s, a group led by Field Marshal Mohammad Ayub Khan took control of the country in coup, and selected Islamabad in the north as the new capital. The site was chosen due to its proximity to the disputed territory of Kashmir and its invulnerability to coastal attacks.

All functions of the federal government were moved to Islamabad, except for the central bank, which remains in Karachi, the country's main business hub. The Karachi Stock Exchange also remains the main bourse, overshadowing its counterpart in Islamabad.

The population of Islamabad has swollen to about one million from less than 100,000 at the time of its creation. Complaints are often heard of higher rents and land prices, as well as the lack of public transport in the city, which was designed for cars.

The parliament building in Islamabad.   © Reuters

Canberra (Australia)

Canberra was established in 1913 as a way of defusing the intense rivalry between Melbourne and Sydney. Situated inland to guard against a possible naval bombardment, Canberra is now home to Parliament House and the High Court of Australia as well as the head offices of all federal government departments and the military.

But when then-Prime Minister John Howard announced in 1996 that Kirribilli House overlooking Sydney Harbor would be his primary residence instead of The Lodge in Canberra, it seemed a tacit acknowledgment of the capital's failure to capture the public's imagination.

Decrying its isolation from ordinary voters, most Australians today equate Canberra with out-of-touch politicians. Former Prime Minister Paul Keating says the city is one of the country's greatest mistakes and should be promptly abandoned.

Tourists walk around the forecourt of Australia's Parliament House in Canberra   © Reuters

New Delhi (India)

India's British occupiers decided to shift the capital in 1911 from Calcutta to Delhi, where they set up a temporary seat of government the following year. Two leading architects, Edward Lutyens and Herbert Baker, took 20 years to build imposing government buildings, bungalows and avenues in the south of what is now called "Old Delhi." The capital city of British India -- which was renamed New Delhi in 1927 -- was formally inaugurated in 1931.

Among reasons cited by the rulers back then to relocate the capital was its position in India's north, which made it more convenient for the British to govern the territories they held. Colonial rule was also facing immense opposition in Calcutta, a literary center where the nationalist movement was growing daily, with calls to boycott British goods and bombings of officials.

New Delhi continued to be the seat of government after the British left India in 1947, housing the country's Parliament, top court and various ministries. Now its population is nearly 20 million as compared to about 400,000 in 1911, with people from all parts of the country migrating to the city in search of a better life. However, rapid urbanization has earned the city the dubious distinction of being one of the most polluted in the world.

A man rides his bicycle in front of the India Gate shrouded in smog in New Delhi   © Reuters

Other plans

The Philippine government is eyeing a new urban area called New Clark City, about 100 km north of Manila, to become an alternative location for businesses and government offices. It is part of President Rodrigo Duterte's plan to spread growth outside the cities, as well as ease overcrowding and commuting times for Manila's travel-weary residents. Government offices are spread across Metro Manila, and it can take more than an hour to travel between them.

While many are skeptical that the plan may turn out to be a white elephant, the country has shuffled the capital in recent times. Quezon City was made the official capital in 1948 and held this status until 1976 when then-President Ferdinand Marcos reinstated Manila. It was incorporated into Metro Manila when the nation's capital region was established in 1978.

Over the years, Japan has also tried to move some national government functions out of Tokyo, notably to relocate the Cultural Affairs Agency to Kyoto and the Consumer Affairs Agency to Tokushima Prefecture. But for various reasons, such as crisis management and from a parliamentary business perspective, the plans have been put on ice.

Nikkei staff writers Kim Jaewon in Seoul, Jason Koutsoukis in Tokyo, Kiran Sharma in New Delhi, P Prem Kumar in Kuala Lumpur, Cliff Venzon in Manila, and Yuichi Nitta in Yangon contributed to this article, as well as contributing writers Naubet Bisenov in Almaty and Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad.

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