Soldiers Of Fortune

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Reportage / Getty Images for TIME

Ruling class Army cadets at ease in a juice bar in Pyin U Lwin, home to top military academies for training officers

The weekend invasion begins with the click-clack of thumbtack-adorned shoes. For four hours, senior cadets from Burma's Defense Services Academy (DSA) and its sister technological institute march through the streets of Pyin U Lwin, briefcases in hand, maroon berets perched on proudly angled heads. Most are preoccupied with securing the rations of daily life: soap, socks, kung fu DVDs. But even as the stern-faced students contribute to the local economy, shopkeepers whisper about the arrogance of kids who are indoctrinated to believe they are, as the massive English sign in front of the DSA campus proclaims, the "triumphant elite of the future." Even after promised elections later this year, Burma, known by the ruling junta as Myanmar, will remain one of the most militarized states in the world. No wonder the privileged young men marching through this central Burmese town expect nothing less than to one day rule their cowed nation.

At a juice bar in this agreeable former British hill station once known as Maymyo, I chat with a group of cadets hunched over glasses of strawberry milk. Their attitude toward locals notwithstanding, the cadets are polite and surprisingly willing to speak to a foreigner. One baby-faced 20-year-old tells me his major is naval architecture, sharing dreams of designing warships for a nation that boasts 450,000 soldiers and dedicates 21% of its spending to the military, according to lowball official statistics. Another student is focusing on hydro-engineering; he plans to build dams, a lucrative new pursuit of Burma's military dictatorship, which sells plentiful energy to neighboring nations while leaving two-thirds of local households without access to any electricity. Yet another narrow-shouldered cadet is studying nuclear chemistry and confides, "my specialty is uranium and plutonium studies." His chosen subject is particularly topical given the U.S. State Department's recently stated concerns over a possible Burmese nuclear program — a project that a DSA graduate turned defecting army major tells exile media has its headquarters at the Defense Services Technological Academy's fortified campus in Pyin U Lwin.

Later, I wander into an Internet café packed with cadets waiting for the electricity to be restored — a constant waiting game in Burma — so they can play World of Warcraft. I ask if they are skilled at the computer game. "Of course, we are good," says an English-speaking nuclear-physics major, his tone factual, not boastful. "We are students at the DSA. We are very superior." A Burmese friend, who passed all the academic and psychological requirements for the DSA but was rejected at the last moment because he had flat feet, fills me in on the cadets' mentality. "The point of going to the DSA is so you can become a rich and powerful person," he says, relating the trajectory of a schoolmate who attended Burma's West Point. His childhood buddy is now a rising star at a northern regional command, which means he can profit from government timber and mining businesses. "He is rich, his parents are rich, his brothers and sisters are rich, his children will be rich," says my friend. "They don't worry about anything."

Burma may be one of the poorest and most isolated nations on earth, but an emerging elite — a burgeoning officer class, attendant business cronies and the coddled offspring of both groups — is only getting richer, more powerful and less accountable. Over the past few years, the Burmese economy has been transformed as the junta has auctioned off the nation's plentiful natural resources to the highest foreign bidder, Western sanctions notwithstanding. The influx of cash has been reserved for the razor-thin top stratum of Burmese society, whose ostentatious displays of wealth shock a citizenry struggling just to survive. "For a long time, as the regime ran the economy into the ground, there was a feeling that most everyone was growing poor equally," says Sean Turnell, an economist at Macquarie University in Sydney who studies Burma. "But now tensions are growing because you see a small elite growing immeasurably richer while others are getting poorer. It's all about relative position, and in Burma today, the inequalities are growing faster than just about anything."

Poor Little Rich Country
Burma, which has been run by a military regime since an army coup in 1962, is no tropical North Korea. Amid the crumbling colonial buildings, Rangoon, the country's largest city, boasts glittering nightclubs, day spas and even espresso bars. In fact, because of mushrooming foreign direct investment (FDI) in the country's natural bounty — in 2009, 100% of implemented FDI was from the resource-extraction business — the government has more than $5 billion in foreign-currency reserves at its disposal, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Financial chicanery, however, keeps most money flows obscure. For instance, Burma converts revenues from its lucrative natural-gas sector at an official exchange rate of $1 to 6 kyat, though the market exchange rate is roughly $1 to 1,000 kyat. That means of every $1,000 in energy earnings, just $6 goes into national coffers. Where the rest goes is a mystery. Global watchdog Transparency International ranks Burma as the third most corrupt nation in its survey of 180 nations, outdone only by Afghanistan and Somalia.

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