From Hunter to Hunted

In his quest to free slaves around the world, Aaron Cohen thought hed seen it all. Then he went to Myanmar

"Drugs are harvested in Shan State, produced in mobile labs [along with meth], and brought down either by sea or along the eastern side of the Salween Delta to Pattani, Thailand—where terrorism is beginning to threaten the tourism industry," Cohen says. "These triangles you see on the map are the places where Thai police have been cracking down on traffickers."

He describes the historic path of poppy seeds and traders along the silk route—from Afghanistan across the Himalayas to Myanmar. As in Afghanistan, the drug behemoth fuels a not-so-hidden trade in arms and humans, all of which Cohen says are exploited by mafias with links to terrorist groups like Jemaah Islamiyah and Abu Sayyaf.

"The Thai interrogation of Hambali [the 'Osama bin Laden of Southeast Asia'] proved there is a clear link between Afghan freedom fighters and Southeast Asian terror groups via the heroin trade out of Myanmar," Cohen continues excitedly. "So that's how I ended up in the Golden Triangle. General Pichai Chinasotti [consulting general to the ruling Thai government] asked if I'd be interested in checking out some rumors they'd heard." He was.

Click photo to go to slideshow.
Click photo to go to slideshow.

Donning black military fatigues and helmet, Cohen went on "the wildest ride of my life"—a winding, midnight motorcycle trek across a porous section of the 1,500-mile mountainous border Thailand shares with Myanmar. Traveling with military escorts, the Shan intelligence minister and two other men—a two-star Thai police general and a special-ops commando known as "The Scorpion"—Cohen felt "there were literally eyes everywhere." Somewhere along the way, his Shan driver became separated from the Thais. Three hours later, he says, they found themselves in a war zone.

"On one side of the ridge, the Burmese army was firing, and on the other, the Shan State Army was firing back," he says. Cohen rapidly understood that he had been brought in to document something more complicated than slave labor. He was being used, in fact, but there was little he could do about it.

"That is something I had not considered," reads his journal. "'I never signed up for this,' I tell the overweight intelligence minister when we arrive at base camp . . . but since I am in their hands anyhow, I don't see what choice I have."

Later that day, Cohen was taken to see the area's uranium mines—where the Shans told him soil samples had been extracted by the Russians as well as A.Q. Khan, the well-known Pakistani nuclear-weapons-scientist-turned-dealer: "These mounds are everywhere, where samples were being unearthed by other partners as well, including the Iranians and the North Koreans. . . . I am the only Westerner [to see this]," Cohen wrote.

The intelligence minister then handed Cohen documentation of Khan's entries into Myanmar and told him that the SPDC was selling Shan uranium to the Iranians, who were processing it into material for nuclear weapons. The route from Myanmar, the minister showed him, led straight through China to Natanz, Iran. "I'm no expert on weapons-grade uranium," Cohen admits. "But they wanted me to leave with samples of what I saw." Restating his human-rights mission, Cohen refused to discuss transport of the nuclear material. ("It's a death wish to have that kind of stuff on you," he says.) But he agreed to put a stack of evidence, including photographs of the Burmese and Iranian facilities, in the right hands when he returned to Thailand and the U.S.

A.Q. Khan, the founder of Pakistan's nuclear-weapons program, confessed in 2004 to having been the mastermind behind a clandestine network of nuclear-arms proliferation that stretched from Pakistan through Europe, the Middle East and Asia. His network sold blueprints for centrifuges to enrich uranium as well as illicit uranium centrifuges and uranium hexafluoride—the gas that can be transformed into enriched uranium for nuclear bombs.

Khan is already known to have provided complete centrifuge systems to Libya, Iran and North Korea. He was pardoned by Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf and sentenced to house arrest after declaring on television that Musharraf's government had not played a role in his schemes. Western governments have been denied access to Khan, but the British think tank International Institute for Strategic Studies recently published a report indicating that Khan's network is very much alive, even without its decapitated head.

Eerily, the Pakistan-Myanmar link is backed up by a 2002 Wall Street Journal article detailing Myanmar's nuclear ambitions: "The program drew scrutiny recently after two Pakistani nuclear scientists, with long experience at two of their country's most secret nuclear installations, showed up in Myanmar after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S. Asian and European intelligence officials say Suleiman Asad and Muhammed Ali Mukhtar left Pakistan for Myanmar when the U.S. grew interested in interrogating them about their alleged links to suspected terrorist mastermind Osama bin Laden, who Washington believes wants to develop a nuclear weapon."

Burmese exile magazines, blogs and websites are rife with alleged wicked SPDC plots. But one question pops up over and over: Is there a link between Myanmar, which mines and refines uranium ore, and Iran, which requires uranium for its own nuclear projects? And specifically, is Burmese yellowcake finding its way to uranium centrifuges in Natanz, Iran?

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