Soldiers Of Fortune

To cement its wealth and power, Burma's junta is prepping the next generation of military and business elites, even as economic disparities grow wider and wider

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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 the elections promised for later this year, Burma will remain one of the most militarized states in the world. No wonder the privileged young men striding 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, I chat with a group of cadets hunched over glasses of strawberry milk. One baby-faced 20-year-old tells me his major is naval architecture and shares his 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 hydroengineering; he plans to build dams, a lucrative new pursuit of Burma's military dictatorship, which sells energy to neighboring nations while leaving two-thirds of local households without access to electricity. Yet another narrow-shouldered cadet, who is studying nuclear chemistry, confides, "My specialty is uranium and plutonium studies." His chosen subject is particularly topical: the U.S. State Department has recently expressed concerns over a possible Burmese nuclear program.

Later, I wander into an Internet café packed with cadets waiting for the electricity to be restored 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 requirements for the DSA but was rejected at the last moment because he has 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."

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