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

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The building boom has surged, even as at least a third of the nation lives on less than $15 a month. On the recently built highway from Rangoon to Naypyidaw, the new capital, I meet a 15-year-old girl who spends her days in the 110°F heat carrying chunks of rock on her head. She has been working on this road since she was 11. Her daily pay: $1.50. But she dreams of one day reaching the end of her road. "I have heard that Naypyidaw has so much electricity that nighttime looks like day," she says. "Can you imagine such a beautiful place?"

Following the Money

By rights, Burma's poor should expect things to get better: for the first time in two decades, a general election is scheduled for later this year--though the regime has not bothered to say exactly when polling will take place. But rather than raise hopes of democracy and reform, the run-up to the polls has sparked a scramble among the elite to strengthen their hold on the nation's wealth and power. The junta ignored the results of Burma's 1990 polls, in which the military's proxy party lost badly to Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. (She remains under house arrest.) This time, top posts like the presidency and key Cabinet seats, as well as a big chunk of parliament, will be reserved for military members. But to maintain the appearance of a transition to civilian government, the junta has in recent months privatized dozens of state-owned (read: military-owned) companies.

Auctioning off these enterprises creates cash to fund the military's proxy Union Solidarity Development Party in the upcoming polls. Control of factories and banks, gas stations and ruby mines has been handed over, without exception, to a select circle of military progeny and favored businessmen. These cronies burnish ties with the junta through directorships, donations and even marriages. "The problem with this system is that these robber barons aren't creating an environment for sustained growth or the building of industry," says economist Turnell. "It's just pure racketeering."

I see how wealthy the Burmese elite have become when I tour the Mindhama Residences, a new housing development in Rangoon: the mansions start at $850,000 and go up to $1.2 million, not counting interior decor. All but one have been sold--this in a nation where per capita GDP is just $442, according to the IMF. Might I be interested in the remaining one? The agent allows me to gawk at the splendor: swirls of gilt and meters of marble, Jacuzzi bathtubs, crystal chandeliers. I ask who have bought the other houses. "Some businessmen," he says. "But mostly ..." He trails off, then taps his fingers to his shoulders, the Burmese code for army stripes.

Hardwired

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