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

  • Share
  • Read Later
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

(2 of 4)

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 you see a small elite growing immeasurably richer while others are getting poorer."

Western sanctions were supposed to choke off Burma's military regime, which has ruled since 1962 and turned what was once one of Asia's rice bowls into a byword for backwardness. Former First Lady Laura Bush made a rare venture into foreign policy when she argued for the need to strengthen U.S. economic penalties against the regime and its cronies. But high-minded principles have meant little as countries like China have used the Western absence in Burma to their economic advantage. The West's helplessness was only underlined when burgundy-robed monks took to Burmese streets in 2007 to march for universal values: freedom, democracy, food to fill bellies. The junta responded with machine-gun fire. Burma's populace is cowed still, and the nation's elite has taken the opportunity to pillage the economy with ever more abandon.

Poor Little Rich Country

Burma 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 went into resource extraction--the government has more than $5 billion in foreign-currency reserves at its disposal, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

The revenue from natural gas, oil, timber, gems and other commodities hasn't been used for the betterment of the Burmese. Instead, over the past two decades, the regime has doubled the number of soldiers in the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese armed forces are called. Billions are spent on massive vanity projects. Five years ago, the country's military rulers built a sprawling new capital out of scrubland. Tens of thousands of people were forced to move there, while Rangoon remains as densely populated as ever. On the outskirts of Pyin U Lwin, another costly megaproject is materializing: a cybercity whose vastness belies the fact that Burma is one of the least wired nations on earth. In the big cities and beyond, construction crews are busy outfitting Burma's upper classes with marble-lined mansions, fancy vacation homes and towering Buddhist pagodas chiseled with the names of generals and their cronies.

  1. 1
  2. 2
  3. 3
  4. 4