NAYPYITAW, Myanmar – Women welcoming world leaders stood in rows, colorfully clad in costumes representing Myanmar's many ethnic groups, some with their hair tied in high knots or wrapped in red headdresses, others donning horizontally striped longyis and silver coin-studded capes.
But none of the ushers belongs to any of the minority groups they represented.
University students bused here from Yangon, they are ethnic Burman, the majority people who have dominated Myanmar's government, military and economy since independence from Britain in 1948.
The nation is sometimes called Burma, a colonial-era name that paid tribute to the elite. It is culturally diverse, with 135 officially recognized ethnic groups making up 40 percent of its 50 million people, from Kachin and Shan to Mon and Kayan Padaung.
After a half-century of military rule, a new nominally civilian government began transitioning the country to democracy three years ago, but its efforts to project ethnic unity can falter, or expose the differences instead.
In Naypyitaw, seat of government for the predominantly Buddhist nation, churches are completely absent — despite 80,000 Christians living among the city's 1.3 million people — and streets and neighborhoods have names based on Buddhist scripture.
There are 58 Christian members of Parliament, but the closest service for them to attend is in an old, rural church 30 kilometers (20 miles) away.
Pastor Tin Maung Aye holds five Masses every Sunday to accommodate his constituents, many of whom are ethnic Karen and Chin who migrated to the area for jobs in construction and hotels.
Naypyitaw was carved from the jungles and purpose-built as the country's new capital. In 2005, then-dictator Gen. Than Shwe announced an overnight transfer of the government from Myanmar's largest city, Yangon, 320 kilometers (200 miles) away. The city is dotted by impressive stadiums, enormous meeting halls and hundreds of villas for visiting VIPs that seem incongruous in one of the world's poorest countries.
Ethnic parliamentarians are given stark, barely furnished rooms in government-style barracks separate from the more luxurious residences of ruling party lawmakers, and they wear traditional attire representing their home communities, bear claws, feathers and all.
When world leaders gathered behind closed doors Thursday to talk about security threats and economics, 30 young women who had greeted them upon arrival took advantage of downtime to snack and rest in their lounge.
When asked their ethnicity, one-by-one each woman said Burmese.
A young woman who wore a long brass neck coil when in the welcoming line was suddenly without her adornment.
Asked where it was, she looked offended: "Oh, that's fake! Did you think I was really Kayan Padaung?"