Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Burma’s military regime: Digging the tunnels - Part I

June 24, 2009 (DVB)–New images have emerged that show North Korean and other foreign advisers in Burma consulting with officials on what now appears to be an extensive network of some 800 underground tunnels across much of the country.

While rife government corruption and uneven development in Burma yesterday awarded Burma a spot at the bottom of Foreign Policy magazine’s Failed States Index, billions of US dollars are now known to have been channeled by the Burmese government into building the tunnels.

DVB has been tracking the development of the tunnels and underground installations in Burma for a number of years. This is the first in a series of DVB stories revealing the secretive tunnel project.

Evidence has been obtained that shows between 600 and 800 tunnels in various stages of construction, with work on some sections dating as far back as 1996.

Photographs of a number of tunnel sites clearly show North Korean advisers present. In one photograph of a work site at Pyinmanar Taung Nyo, dated 29 May 2006, North Korean advisers are seen training Burmese soldiers and technicians in tunnel construction.

Several government budget files also show evidence of foreign aid and loans being used to fund construction work.

A number of senior Burmese officials have been dismissed in recent days following the first publication of DVB’s tunnel photographs in the Yale Global Online on 8 June.

The military government has launched an investigation into how details of such a sensitive project were leaked, with associates of former intelligence chief Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt being questioned by police.

Further intelligence documents obtained by DVB show that the tunnel system is being disguised by the government as a fibre optic cable installation project.

Leaked engineering designs show, however, that some sections of the tunnels are wide enough to allow trucks to enter and leave. There is also storage space for food and weaponry, and separate rooms that would hold around 600 personnel for several months.

The documents also reveal plans to hold large rockets and satellite communication command centers inside the tunnels.

Although the financially weak Burmese government is thought to allocate some 40 per cent of its budget for military purposes, the tunnel project over the course of 13 years has likely run into the billions.

Some observers have speculated that the abrupt hike in fuel prices that sparked the September 2007 protests may have been a prelude to securing extra capital for the project.

Likewise, Burma struck a deal with China in April this year to siphon its vast offshore natural gas reserves to China’s energy hungry population, a venture that will have given the tunnel project an important boost.

Speculation that Burma is trading in military hardware with North Korea was reinforced on Monday with reports that a North Korean freighter ship believed to be carrying arms was headed in the direction of Burma.

Despite only reestablishing diplomatic ties in 2007, following North Korea’s bombing of a South Korean delegation in Rangoon in 1983, the two countries share characteristics that make them obvious allies.

According to journalist and expert on North Korea-Burma relations, Bertil Lintner, both countries have “absolutely no interest” in supporting respective UN arms embargoes.

Indeed, North Korea is one of the few countries willing to continue military trade with the pariah state, with “even China…reluctant to sell certain types of equipment to Burma”, according to Lintner.

Perhaps most worryingly for countries outside of Burma’s friendship group, it has renewed an alliance with a country that is rapidly becoming the icon of a new generation of ‘rogue states’ threatening nuclear warfare.

With this in mind, speculation will likely start to circulate as to whether the tunnel network could be linked to rumours that Burma is mining uranium ore, a key ingredient for nuclear fission. No evidence has yet appeared to verify this, however.

In our next story we will reveal the purpose of these tunnels, foreign involvement in the project and what is inside the tunnels.

Read Part II...
Part III

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