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As poll looms, Myanmar still building parliament

By Aung Hla Tun

NAYPYITAW, Myanmar (Reuters) - Military-ruled Myanmar's first parliamentary elections in 20 years are set for this year, yet construction on its parliament is not yet complete -- suggesting little chance of a poll in the next few months.

The military junta has yet to set a date for the election. Some speculate it could take place in October or earlier.

A rare glimpse of the planned parliament in Myanmar's remote new capital Naypyitaw shows much work to be done -- from unfinished roads to painting many of the parliamentary complex's 31 buildings, with pagoda-style roofs sheathed in scaffolding.

A Reuters correspondent who viewed the construction could not determine how much work if any was finished inside the buildings.

But the huge development underscores the rapid expansion of Naypyitaw, a sprawling city built from scratch just four years ago, where the reclusive military rulers of the former Burma have isolated themselves, some 320 km (200 miles) from the largest city and former capital, Yangon.

Naypyitaw -- the name translates as "Abode of Kings" -- is a maze of ministry buildings, government mansions, civil servants' quarters and unfinished presidential palaces complete with grand Roman-style pillars -- all rising from dusty, arid scrubland.

Bestowed with manicured, heavily watered lawns and forbidding stone walls, it bears no resemblance to the rest of Myanmar, one of Asia's poorest countries, or even to nearby villages, where many people live in thatched wooden huts.

Attractions include five golf courses, seven resort-style hotels, drinkable tap water, a Western-style shopping mall, a large zoo, a sprawling "water fountain garden," lavish mansions and 24-hour electricity in a nation beset by power outages.

A sleek new cinema is in the works along with dozens of buildings in a frenzy of construction carried out mostly by workers toiling in searing heat without modern equipment.

Women haul stacks of bricks balanced upon their head at one construction site, while men clear land with wooden-handled scythes at another. Ox-drawn carts transport wood on the new military-built highway from Yangon.

The government declines to disclose Naypyitaw's cost but analysts and diplomatic sources say it must have cost billions of dollars, drawing criticism from aid groups over the priorities of a country facing chronic poverty and crumbling infrastructure.

But its rise reflects the strengthening diplomatic and financial muscle of Myanmar's rulers as Southeast Asia and China tap its rich natural resources, from timber and natural gas to precious Burmese gems, despite Western sanctions imposed in response to rights abuses.

MISSING PULSE

A Western diplomat in Yangon expressed amazement at the scale of Naypyitaw, questioning how the government would occupy parliament's 31 buildings, which are in addition to ministerial offices and three presidential palaces spread around the city.

"It's astonishing how fast it is being built," he said.

But one critical element is missing -- a pulse. There's no lively city center thronged with people, even four years after the government moved nearly all its workers there.

Though officials put its population at about 1 million, this is ballooned by four surrounding townships. And while a ban on foreigners has lifted and tourists are welcome, Naypyitaw itself feels like a high-end ghost town.

Its roads are puzzlingly wide, including one 20-lane boulevard, but they are largely empty. Civilian cars are rare. Its city center, a roundabout where five roads meet, is populated only by palm trees and potted flowers.

Restaurants are busy at night, but the city's amenities -- from parks to a double-tiered, fully lit golf driving range -- are eerily empty. It's possible to drive hours on the new highway from Yangon and see just a half a dozen cars.

One person they're surely happy to leave in Yangon is opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, a Nobel laureate whose house arrest was extended in August.

Some experts say she may be released ahead of elections, but even then she is not expected to be allowed to play a significant role in politics after leading her National League for Democracy to a landslide victory in the last election in 1990, a poll the junta never recognized.

(Editing by Bill Tarrant)

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