Russian Mine to Supply Uranium to Junta?


The UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s controversial two-day trip to military-ruled Burma to discuss the continued detention of Aung San Suu Kyi and conditions in the country prior to the 2010 elections has been widely criticized as a failure. Eight previous diplomatic visits by UN envoy Ibrahim Gambari also failed to dent the intransigence of the military regime.

However, the reason for the UN’s inability to effect positive change in Burma has less to do with these failed diplomatic visits than with the remaining obstacles at the UN Security Council.

Conventional wisdom suggests that China’s permanent seat on the Security Council and its policy of non-interference in Burma, a policy no doubt underscored by Chinas well-documented interest in maintaining access to Burma’s natural resources, has prevented effective UN action on Burma.

Much less attention, however, has been paid to the obstacle posed by Russia. Like China, Russia has a permanent seat on the Security Council and also blocked a 2007 UN draft resolution that would have applied enormous pressure on the regime. Russia also has interests in Burma’s natural resources, and perhaps in cooperating with the regime’s increasingly public nuclear ambitions.

Since 2006, I have been monitoring an iron ore mining project unfolding around my village in a remote ethnic Pa-O area in war torn Shan State, led by the state-owned Russian company Tyazhpromexport.

The company has invested upwards of US$150 million and is constructing an iron processing plant only 10 kilometers from the Burmese Army’s Eastern Command. This command is responsible for fighting in several areas of Shan State, and Burmese army soldiers have raped, beaten, mutilated, tortured and murdered civilians in their ongoing suppression of ethnic minorities. I, my colleagues, and other organizations have documented these abuses.

The Russian processing plant, which is sited in the Hopone Valley located at the east of the Shan State capital of Taunggyi, is expected to be completed by the end of the year. It is equipped with underground bunkers and is surrounded by two ten-feet-high cement walls and barbed wire.

The direct impact of the project has already been severe: 55 people have been forcibly relocated out of three villages to make way for the factory, and 11,000 acres of farmlands have been confiscated by local authorities on behalf of the company. Complaints by the villagers to local government offices were summarily dismissed.

Preparations for the first of a series of open pit mines in the area by Tyazhpromexport have also begun. Barring a radical change in the way the regime and its corporate partners do business, the forced relocation of approximately 7,000 ethnic Pa-O people living directly around the site is all but certain.

Erosion and the release of mining waste into our main water source, the Thabet Stream, is also a serious concern. This would affect 35,000 people downstream. The company is already diverting the stream to their factory, leading to unusually low water levels this year.

However, there is an even more serious aspect to this operation. In May 2007, one year after Tyazhpromexport declared its involvement in the iron ore project, Russia’s atomic energy agency Rosatom announced that it had reached a deal for cooperation with the Burmese regime on a nuclear program. No further information about this nuclear cooperation has been made public, but suspicions are rife that it is linked to the Hopone Valley mining project.

Local people in my community are worried. Uranium occurs naturally alongside iron ore and the military regime’s Ministry of Energy has acknowledged the existence of uranium deposits in Burma. Extreme travel restrictions have been imposed against local people by the Burma Army around the iron project, and there has been an almost complete lack of public information about the project, to a degree unusual even for the reclusive Burmese regime. Local villagers have quietly heard from staff insiders that the factory will be used to process both iron and uranium.

The Burmese regime’s nuclear ambitions are no secret. For years it has been sending students to Russia to study nuclear technology, and it has normalized relations with North Korea, the world's problem child playing with nuclear arms, despite a problematic history between the two nations. Recently, The US tracked a North Korean ship that was thought to be headed for Burma’s shores with arms and ammunitions, in violation of a UN Security resolution against Pyongyang. The vessel turned around and returned to North Korea.
Japanese authorities arrested three men in June for allegedly attempting to send weapons-making technology to Burma at the behest of North Korean agents, and photos have been distributed showing an intricate tunnel system throughout Burma being constructed with North Korea’s help.

The idea that a Russian firm might be quietly mining uranium in the country is by no means so far-fetched.

Whatever the case, the widespread human rights abuses connected to the project are no less worrying.

We don’t expect Ban Ki-moon’s visit to change our plight in any significant way. What is really needed is a way to subvert the so-called policies of “non-interference” at the UN Security Council so it can do its job to protect against the military regime’s ongoing threats to international peace and security.

Khun Chan Khe is an ethnic Pa-O and the General Secretary of the Thailand-based Pa-O Youth Organization (PYO). Recently the PYO released firsthand documentation on the Russian-led mining project in a report entitled “Robbing the Future.”

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