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Weeks before the contract between the Burmese government and China North Industries Corp (or Norinco) was agreed, senior officials from the ruling State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) travelled to China to “check on the shipments” of SH-1 155mm howitzer cannons, military sources have told DVB.
The hardware was transported to Burma from China via sea-routes, mirroring a similar alleged weapons drop by a North Korean ship to Rangoon in April this year. It appears to corroborate allegations by campaign groups that the copper deal was sweetened by arms sales to Burma.
It is still unclear how the payment was made for the howitzers, which the Burmese army has previously bought from Serbia. China is Burma’s biggest weapons supplier, followed by Russia, Serbia, Singapore, Israel and Ukraine; Norinco has previously sold 150 Type 90 Armoured Personnel Carriers (APCs) to Burma.
Calls for a global UN arms embargo on Burma have so far gone unheeded, and Burma has in recent years found a new arms supplier in North Korea, which has felt the wrath of a UN blockade.
Military analysts speculated that the Burmese government may be bartering copper for the weapons: financial details of the Monywa deal have been vague, but at its peak the mine had been producing some 39,000 tonnes of copper per year, and was among Burma’s most profitable assets.
A statement last week on the website of Norinco, which also bills itself as an engineering company, said that the Monywa deal had been overseen by Burmese prime minister Thein Sein, and was one of around 15 trade agreements struck between the two countries during a top-level Chinese visit to Burma in mid-June.
The Canadian Friends of Burma (CFOB), an Ottawa-based campaigning group, said shortly after the mining contract went public that it appeared to be an “arms-for-copper deal”.
Norinco was sanctioned by the US in 2003 for its ongoing weapons sales to Iran, with the White House calling the company a “serial proliferator”. GlobalSecurity.org claims that Norinco’s “main business is supplying products for the Chinese military”, and has a registered capital of US$30 billion.
But the Monywa deal has attracted other controversies: villages close to the site in Sagaing division in central Burma are rumoured to be set for relocation, with one man claiming that Norinco officials and local Burmese authorities were inspecting the area around Latpadaung mountain, close to Salingyi town, where the mine will be built.
“The villages are located at the foot of the mountain and in the nearby area so they are in the project vicinity,” he said. “[There are rumours] that villagers will be given land elsewhere as compensation, but some say that’s not true and that they will be given around 3.5 million kyat to 4.5 million kyat [US$3,500 to US$4,500] worth to buy a piece of land.”
Additional reporting by Min Lwin