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

Cohen's testimony suggests that the answer may be yes. From the mining sites, he was taken to meet several Shan men who said they worked as drivers for the SPDC at clandestine nuclear-processing facilities near Taungdwingyi, Chauk and Lanwya. These men swore to Cohen that the SPDC was overseeing the production of yellowcake there and in several other locations, then transporting it on North Korean and Iranian ships as well as over land through China and Afghanistan, via a courier network, to the (then-secret) underground Iranian plant in Natanz. They handed Cohen the coordinates for the facilities, saying that as ethnic Shans they could no longer do this work for a regime that was systematically attempting to wipe out their people. They had thrown their support behind the Shan State Army, they said, and wished him luck.

A few weeks later, Cohen hand-delivered that information to a source at the Pentagon. The following day (April 19), the International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed that Iran was running more than 1,300 centrifuges at its underground plant in Natanz (the latest estimates put it closer to 3,000). Iran's plan to install 50,000 centrifuges there to enrich uranium made headlines, with the BBC running satellite photographs of the facility. But no major media outlet noted the Myanmar connection, and the story was soon buried in the subsequent frenzy over the Virginia Tech massacre.

The U.N.'s nuclear watchdog has recently expressed concern over its own "deteriorating" understanding of Iran's supposedly peaceful nuclear-enrichment activities. Add to that last month's (May 15) news that Russia, which has given technical nuclear training to hundreds of Myanmar nationals since at least 2001, is setting up a nuclear research reactor in Myanmar. With Russo-American relations at a virtual freezing point, a State Department official could only say he had "no idea" why Russia would make such a move.

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

A passage from George Tenet's new autobiography mentions a pattern the CIA has been tracking that may apply: "In the new world of proliferation, nation states have been replaced by shadowy networks like Khan's, capable of selling turnkey nuclear weapons programs to the highest bidders. . . . With Khan's assistance, small, backward countries could shave years off the time it takes to make nuclear weapons."

Which could mean that secretive, backward Myanmar is closer than we think to developing one. Junta watchers know better than to trust the claims of the oxymoronically named State Peace and Development Council, particularly when it comes to the "peaceful" nuclear weapons it seeks.

"After the drama of visiting the uranium mines, the poppy fields and slavery evidence seem rather ordinary," reads Cohen's journal. "But I've traveled perilously close to the edge of the Burmese army. I can see the Special Forces just on the other ridge looking at me through the binoculars on the thermo viewer and know my time has come. The shots are ringing out. I'm leaving on the dirt bike traveling up and down the jungle passes again for a few hours of holding onto the back handles for dear life."

Cohen's entourage finally came upon a clearing and a large cave opening, which they descended before crawling into a system of Shan Army tunnels, where Cohen began to realize "[the fact] that the Burmese were mining the uranium had terrible confirmation. There are those who will come shooting or seducing now that I have seen for myself and uploaded the evidence."

As they entered the tunnels, he watched the Shan intelligence minister bow to the presiding cave monk, who immediately asked Cohen if he could bring them arms. Still thinking he was there to document slave labor and possibly offer aid in the form of food and medicine, according to his diary, Cohen responded:

"'No! Your eminence, I am looking to fund human rights only. Umm, excuse me . . . I have come all this way to receive the evidence about human-rights abuses, sir, and now you are asking me again for arms I will not deliver. May I remind you that you are a Buddhist monk, your eminence.'

"'It's a simple twist of fate,' [the monk] says to me. 'The best way to help the people is to protect them from those human-rights abuses with guns, my friend.'"

After 36 hours in the tunnel, Cohen's handlers took him back out to the surface, where they continued to bombard him with evidence against the SPDC, filling his pack with maps, photographs, tapes and stories confirming for Cohen that "anything I could do would never be good enough to help them."

Cohen's mental burden had become too much to bear, as described in this last passage from his journal: "After another morning of interviewing soldiers, officials and former slaves, I realized that I must tell their story to someone or break down completely. I had been invited into this to bring the truth forward, but I felt like burning all these bridges I crossed. I had already decided that I did not know where to go now. For in my rash ignorance, it seemed that uncertainty now about the fate of the likes of Kao was worse than the optimistic and enlightening promises that I could actually do something to be useful, to feel up to knowing what to do."

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