According to the Oslo-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), which agitates against Burma’s military government, between 600 and 800 underground facilities and tunnels are in various stages of construction, although their exact purpose remains unclear. The photographs and videos show extensive underground tunnel complexes large enough for heavy vehicles to drive through, with built-in ventilation facilities and an independent power supply.
Several Burma military officials are reported to have been detained following the leaking of the photographs, the DVB said, as the government investigates how details of the sensitive project were leaked. It added that among those being questioned are associates of Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, Burma’s former intelligence chief. The tunnel project, reportedly given the codename “Tortoise Shells” by Burma’s military, is believed to have been implemented with North Korean involvement between 1996 and 2006.
‘Foreign aid’ used
Citing what it said were government documents on the construction project, the DVB said the cost of the tunnel scheme “has likely run into the billions”. “Several government budget files also show evidence of foreign aid and loans being used to fund construction work,” the DVB said. According to documents received by DVB, fibre-optic cables link the tunnel network which is believed to be designed to operate as command centres in the event of an emergency. Nearly 40 of the 53 underground stations located at the Thai-Burma border are believed to have been built since 2004. Burma’s military government began investigating the leaked photographs after they were published in Yale Global Online on June 8.
The tunnel network which the DVB says was disguised as a fibre-optic cable installation project had enough food and and room for about 600 people to survive underground for several months. Bertil Lintner, a Swedish Bangkok-based journalist who obtained the first images of the tunnel project, has said evidence points to North Korean officials helping to build the extensive underground installations, with Burma giving payment in gold or barter. Writing in the magazine Yale Global Online, Lintner, a long-time observer of Burma said the tunnels were built near Naypyidaw, the country’s new capital 460km north of Yangon, and was linked to provincial capitals across Burma.
The project apparently underscores shows an increasingly close relationship between two of Asia’s most internationally isolated states. It would also mark a sharp upturn in ties between the two countries after Burma cut off relations with Pyongyang in 1983 following a North Korean bomb attack in Yangon. The bomb, planted by North Korean agents, killed more than a dozen visiting South Koreans, including several top government officials. The agents were reportedly operating on the orders of Kim Jong-il – now North Korea’s leader.
Observers say North Korean and Burma officials began secret talks in 1990 followed by more high-level meetings which led to the re-establishment of trade and eventually diplomatic relations in 2007. News of the secret tunnel project comes as the US navy continues to track a North Korean freighter that reports have said may be carrying weapons, including missiles and missile parts, bound for Burma. The freighter Kang Nam 1, which left port a week ago, is the first North Korean ship to be monitored under new UN sanctions that authorise member states to inspect North Korean sea, air and land cargo.
According to the Thailand-based Irrawaddy magazine, Burma has recently stepped up its interest in North Korean military hardware as its looks to upgrade its armed forces in the face of a UN arms embargo. Impoverished North Korea, itself subject to international sanctions, has long used its arms industry as one of its few sources of income.
According to the Irrawaddy report, a high-level Burma military delegation made a week-long secret visit to North Korea in November 2008, reportedly to see Pyongyang’s underground military installations. The Burma delegation also reportedly inspected North Korean arms factories and later officially formalised military co-operation between the two countries.