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 red sign blocking the main entrance to the half-built Yadanabon Cybercity advertises menace: "This area is under military order 144," it says in Burmese. "Shoot to capture." It's a measure of Burma's peculiar mix of isolationist paranoia and technological ambition that its future Silicon Valley has been declared a military zone inaccessible to civilians. Inside the 10,000-acre construction site, I drive along empty stretches of tarmac, past plots of land that will soon boast offices for Burma's biggest crony companies. Thai, Malaysian, Russian and Chinese firms have staked their ground too. State media report that foreign companies have so far invested $22 million in the first phase of Yadanabon.

Ever since images of protesting monks were leaked from Burma during the soon-to-be-crushed demonstrations of 2007, the regime has been scrambling to centralize control over the Internet. Thousands of websites have been blocked, cyberdissidents jailed and debilitating strikes launched against exile-media websites. Yadanabon will be the nerve center of Burma's Internet operations.

Near one construction site, a farmer toils on a sliver of land that has belonged to her family for at least three generations. Soon the cybercity will eat up this tiny plot too. The woman doesn't expect any compensation, since she received nothing when the rest of her fields were confiscated a year ago. "We are little people, so we cannot complain," she says. "All we can do is concentrate on feeding ourselves."

The man entrusted to oversee Yadanabon is not a businessman. But being the grandson of junta leader Than Shwe brings perks. A scrawny soccer fan with no discernible skills on the pitch, Nay Shwe Thway Aung was once added to the Burmese national team when prominent Japanese player Hidetoshi Nakata went to Rangoon for an exhibition match. Other privileged Burmese youths have made an impression off the field. The most notorious among them was an informal collective of military offspring called Scorpion, which was forced to disband after two members spooked the junta's No. 2, General Maung Aye, by riding up to his car on motorcycles and making menacing gestures. Maung Aye responded by outlawing most motorcycles in Rangoon, a ban that holds today.

Even beyond Scorpion, there are plenty of other rich kids roaming Rangoon. At the packed JJ nightclub--where the bidding at "model shows," as prostitute auctions are called, reaches $2,500 for a comely maiden--one manager complains about the impunity with which military officers and their sons operate. "They drink for free and can pick girls for free," he says. "Nobody dares say no. Otherwise we will be finished."

Inside Burma

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