Soldiers Of Fortune

10 minute read
Hannah Beech/Pyin U Lwin

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.

(See TIME’s photo-essay “The Two Burmas.”)

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.”

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.

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

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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