After being closely followed by the U.S.S. John McCain, a vessel on its way to Burma believed to be carrying missile parts turned back to return to North Korea. The ties between the two dictatorships are worrisome, as Burma’s purchases help sustain the DPRK regime and their close military cooperation will make the Southeast Asian country the North Korea of its region.
A secret Burmese government report has leaked out revealing that 17 officials visited North Korea from November 22-29, 2008, including the chief of staff of the armed forces. An agreement for close military cooperation was signed on November 27, which included building tunnels for military purposes, such as housing aircraft. The officials were also shown North Korean air defense systems, radar, underground missile production sites, and a missile launch pad.
This follows the publication of photos and video showing massive construction of an estimated 600-800 underground tunnels and storages being built with assistance from North Korean engineers, with some having begun being built back in 1996. The accompanying report claimed that “billions of U.S. dollars” had been diverted to pay for the projects. Providing photographic proof to rebut the government’s claim that some of the construction is for fiber-optic cables, the report says that the complexes contain roads for trucks and include bunkers that can hold 600 people.
Ballistic missile cooperation has already begun. The Japanese arrested three businessmen at the end of June who used their companies to try to pass equipment for long-range ballistic missiles between North Korea and Burma. This came while the U.S. Navy followed a North Korean ship headed to Burma believed to be carrying missile parts and possibly other material, ultimately forcing it to return home. Burma has also been used by North Korea to transfer illicit material to other countries, such as Iran.
Burma may be embarking on a nuclear weapons project as well, as one of the country’s former ambassadors to North Korea asserts. Thakhin Chan Tun, who served in that capacity from 1974 to 1975, says that Burma has long been sending students of nuclear technology to Russia for education. Russia agreed in May 2007 to build a nuclear research center and train 300-350 of its scientists. Two formerly senior U.S. intelligence officials have substantiated the accusation, telling The Australian in November 2007 that it was believed that Burma had begun such a program with North Korean help. The Chosun Ilbo reported July 7 that several Burmese sources “have claimed direct knowledge of a nuclear weapons program, including a reactor under construction near Maymyo.”
The anti-American dictatorship is also one of the most brutal governments around, causing the State Department to accuse it of murder and torture and describing it as having “failed demonstrably” to fight the growth and sale of opium and heroin, making it the second largest source of drugs after Afghanistan. Approximately 2,100 political dissidents are imprisoned, civilians are deliberately killed, and government personnel and gangs regularly participate in rape, forced marriage, and sex trafficking. Satellite photos indicate the Burmese government is engaging in ethnic cleansing against the Karen minority, a large amount of which are Christian, and Muslims also are targeted. Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country to escape persecution. About 800,000 people are enslaved, forced into doing hard work on orders from the government.
The junta is also acting without any regard for the international community, refusing to allow the Secretary-General of the U.N. to meet with Aung Sang Suu Kyi, a democratic opposition leader currently being held in prison. She was transferred to Insein Prison in May, which is known for having extremely poor living conditions, despite already reporting serious health problems. In response to Burma’s dismissal of the U.N.’s demands, the United Kingdom is threatening new sanctions. However, given opposition to such reprisals by Russia and China, such U.N.-approved sanctions are unlikely to happen.
Burma has not made headlines since the September 2007 crackdown on peaceful protestors, including Buddhist monks, angered by the government’s oppression and decision to end fuel subsidies, causing dire economic conditions. However, former First Lady Laura Bush is comparing the anti-government unrest in Burma to the uprising in Iran, and is trying to bring attention back to the country. She writes that over those living in over 3,000 villages have been forced from their homes, which is a larger number than even in Darfur. Political and religious oppression is increasing, and the “military junta has forced tens of thousands of child soldiers into its army and routinely uses civilians as mine-sweepers and slave laborers.”
With all the crises around the world, it’s easy to forget this country that few have even heard of, and even fewer can even locate. While the U.S. is distracted by hotspots flaring up around the world, North Korea is hard at work creating an evil twin in Southeast Asia.