Becoming a Member of Burma's 'Triumphant Elite'
covering burma and southeast asia
Saturday, December 09, 2023

Becoming a Member of Burma's 'Triumphant Elite'

By SAI ZOM HSENG Saturday, February 26, 2011

Burmese army cadets relax in a small cafe in Maymyo on their day off. (Photo: Getty Images)

One of the first lessons I learned after entering the Defense Services Academy (DSA) in Maymyo was what it means to belong to an institution often described as “Burma's West Point.”

After passing a series of medical examinations during our first week at the DSA, my intake, or class, of freshmen cadets was ordered to go to a hall to attend a “fresher welcoming party”. The first thing I noticed when I entered was how dark it was. We could hardly see each other, but after several minutes of waiting, we saw more people enter the hall—a lot of them. Then, before we could even guess what was going on, the punching started.

We were punched in the stomach, chest and back, but not in the face. As hard as we tried to protect ourselves from the savage blows that our unknown assailants were raining down on us, there was nothing we could do to stop the barrage. We couldn't even think of helping each other: we were all completely on our own. Finally, after about 30 minutes of this, it was all over except for the pain.

The next day, our attackers—who turned out to be second- and third-year students of the three-year academy—explained that this ordeal was part of what they called our “brainwashing,” which was a necessary step before we began formal training. The idea was to make us more obedient to senior students, who played an important role in maintaining discipline. This “senior-junior” system helped to establish a hierarchy that would govern our lives for the duration of our stay at the DSA and beyond in our careers as military officers.

The “welcoming party” was just an introduction to the routine of physical abuse that was a major feature of life at the DSA, where thousands of young men aged 16 to 18 were trained each year to become “the triumphant elites of the future”.

Some time after I graduated, the rules changed and physical assault was deemed an “illegal punishment”. Even then, beatings were only prohibited in halls and barracks, but not on the assembly ground. And despite the official stance, physical abuse continues to be part of the culture of the DSA, where a punch can serve as either a friendly greeting between equals or as weapon to keep inferiors in their place.

I heard that the reason the academy no longer officially sanctions beatings as a means of maintaining control and instilling unquestioning obedience is that a third-year cadet from the 45th Intake named Yin Htwe killed a junior cadet from the 47th Intake several years ago. Yin Htwe went to prison for three years for this incident, which also forced the authorities to distance themselves from the longstanding practice of hazing.

Whatever the policy on beatings, however, one things remains unchanged, and that is the “no complaints, no democracy” rule, which made it an absolute taboo to complain about anything—from bad food to brutal beatings by fellow cadets. 

The DSA is just one of three military academies in Burma, and is generally regarded as the toughest. The other two—the Defense Services Medical Academy (DSMA) and the Defense Services Technological Academy (DSTA) are also governed by the senior-junior system, but rely less on violence as a tool to maintain control.

Of course, discipline is also taken very seriously at the other two academies, where cadets are often forced to do pushups, frog jumps or other exercises as a form of punishment if they fail to follow orders to the satisfaction of their seniors. We also did this at the DSA, but were pushed much harder than cadets at the other academies.

One time, a visiting cadet from the DSMA told me he heard some people counting—“1,414, 1,415, 1,416, 1,417 …”—so he asked me what they were doing. I told him that some cadets were being forced to do frog jumps. He was shocked, because he said DSMA cadets were never expected to do more than 50 repetitions of any exercise.

At the DSA, we did countless frog jumps, pushups, handstands and somersaults. But if we were too pressed for time—as we almost always were—we also had the option of being punched. Since doing exercises always took a minimum of 30 minutes, and getting punched rarely lasted more than 10, most cadets chose the latter.

Another problem with doing exercises is that we often ended up completely filthy by the time we were done. Sometimes we had to roll around on the ground for an hour, and when we were finished, we were covered with dust and vomit.

1  |  2  next page »

Please read our policy before you post comments. Click here
E-mail:   (Your e-mail will not be published.)
You have characters left.
Word Verification: captcha Type the characters you see in the picture.

Saw Dennis Wrote:
That is the way of the Nazis and other ruthless dictators, to ensure total top-down control of their subordinates. Junta supremo Than Shwe, and previously Ne Win, have done the same with multi-ethnic popupation of Burma. No wonder the country has gone to the dogs. Than Shwe still does not have the sense to realize that he will be cast into the deepest hell he does not mend his way in time. He is driving the country down into a man-made hell long enough. We, the people of Burma, must stop that as the people of Egypt, Libya, Yemen etc, are doing. "No Pain, No Gain" should be our watch word. We have nothing to lose but the oppressive dictator and his henchmen.

PB Publico Wrote:
No wonder these innocent youngsters grow up into monsters the way they are.

Kyaw Wrote:
Wrong wrong, because army is a child of the Japanese Imperial Army. Degrade the human status does not mean to become a good army officer.

Tettoe Aung Wrote:
What they actually turn human beings into 'Pavlov's dogs' conditioned and trained to kill and kill only. They have become 'desensitized' to 'brutalization and killing'. Countless push-ups, endless hours at attention or running with heavy loads while being abused physically and verbally to become 'mindless killers'. I hope they are proud of it. I don't think that they have learnt anything more than 'obedience'. If that's what we called 'training for leadership' then Burma's future will be as bleak as ever.

Jamy xoe Wrote:
I kind of doubt your article as a truth. It is based on the bias view of a person and I believe that your article is very exaggerated.

don'tknow Wrote:
what does he want to say? a complaint?

timothy Wrote:
Dear oppressed,

Please watch Libya Revolution at

The Libya condition is the mirror image of what would be and had been in Burma. You will appreciate the supreme importance of people power.

timothy Wrote:
It does not include the atrocities committed by these cadets after becoming the officials in the Burma army.The punishment how inhumane it may be, it reminds the cadets to brought up the attitudes of cruel irrational behaviours towards the world. Further more, if a woman dare to become a companion of the cadet, she will become a life-long servant of the senior`s companion. The senior`s family own the lives of Junior`s family.
I am saying that it is very easy to break this hugely malfunctioned unit of Burma`s notorious "thut-ma-daw". The people power will easily break the morale of these guys. Watch out how Qaddafi of Libya has been cornering to his death by the largely disenchanted army officers` defection to the people power.People power is supreme.

shwe moe Wrote:
you should at least give 'TIMES' magazine credit for using the photo.

kerry Wrote:
Sounds like training to be a political prisoner. Sad. For what? Hitler youth? Killing monks?

So sad that Burmese people are missing out on all the good things of 21st century life, including ordinary human basics, like freedom, education and health care. Why? Who made these oppressive and ridiculous and tragic human rules?

This is not a colonial situation, unless China, Singapore, oil and gas co's and Thailand are the (uncaring, economic) colonisers.

Meanwhile, 'finger-wagging' China and all the other corrupt and ruthless dealers are living it up, at your expense. Absurd.

If it was any more ghastly in Burma it would be supremely tragic. Luckily the people of Burma are intelligent, and have enormous integrity and capacity. Freedom from it all, and soon!

Focus on what is possible, bit by bit, not the stupidity and automatic movements of the 'walking dead people' and their greedy counterparts. The lady is so extraordinarily committed to you all. Freedom is long overdue.

more articles in this section