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Burma and the KGB

By Bertil Lintner

Defector describes Rangoon's role in Moscow's strategy for Asia

In 1992, the British Secret Intelligence Service--MI6 in everyday speech--pulled off one of the biggest coups in the history of espionage. Vasili Mitrokhin, who was responsible for moving the KGB's archives to new headquarters outside Moscow, defected to Britain. Unknown to his superiors, he had spent over a decade making notes and transcripts of highly classified foreign intelligence files, which he kept beneath the floor of his dacha near the Russian capital. He arrived in London with all those documents in his possession.

Mitrokhin's presence in Britain remained a secret until the publication in 1999 of The Mitrokhin Archive: The KGB in Europe and the West--which the FBI described as "the most complete and extensive intelligence ever achieved from any source." He wrote it together with Christopher Andrew, professor of modern and contemporary history at Cambridge University, and the duo have now written a sequel, which deals with the KGB in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America and Africa.

According to Andrew and Mitrokhin, the KGB believed that the Third World was the key to winning the Cold War, and The World Was Going Our Way reveals the Soviet Union's dealings with countries and leaders in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Especially damning--and controversial--are the chapters about India, the Soviet Union's closest and most faithful, non-communist ally in the Third World. A spokesman for India's Congress Party has described the book as "sensational and vague," while A B Bardhan, general secretary of the Communist Party of India, has called it a "money-spinning spy thriller" designed to hurt the Indian Left at a time when it is represented in the government.

However, no one has managed to refute any of the well-documented revelations that the book contains. The greatest success in India, the authors state, was the "exploitation of the susceptibility of Indira Gandhi and her advisers to bogus CIA conspiracies against them. Mrs Gandhi herself repeatedly referred to the 'foreign hand' behind...outbreaks of domestic unrest. Though she rarely identified the 'foreign hand' in public, it was clear that she meant the CIA."

India's friendship was crucial for the Soviet Union's attempts to isolate its main rival in the communist camp, China. Moscow's strong presence in Burma during the Cold War served the same purpose. China supported the insurgent Communist Party of Burma, which was seen as the first stepping-stone in a broader Chinese strategy to spread its influence down to Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, and, eventually, Australia. As Andrew and Mitrokhin document, the KGB's budget for its operations in Rangoon was higher than in seemingly more important Asian countries such as Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia--and lower only than the budgets allotted to the stations in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

But the "friends" the Soviets made in Burma were of questionable quality, as former Rangoon-based diplomat Aleksandr Kaznacheev explained in his book Inside a Soviet Embassy, which refers to the mission in Burma and was written after he defected to the West in 1959, bringing with him the first insider's account of the KGB's activities in the Third World. One of the "intelligence assets" was called Ba Tin, who lived in a house full of a "weird blend of Buddhist and communist bric-a-brac...a big golden image of Gautama on a fancy throne...opposite...two small Soviet-made busts of Lenin and Stalin." Ba Tin once showed a diplomat a poem he had written in praise of the Soviet Union. It lauded the sputniks as stars that were leading the Burmese to communism. The theme was coupled with the idea of the man's own wedding; he likened the young village girl he had just married to a sputnik, who would lead him to a similar paradise.

Soviet intelligence may not have been much better elsewhere in the Third World, as the fiasco in Afghanistan proved. In October 1989, only a few weeks before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze formally acknowledged that the intervention in Afghanistan had "violated accepted norms of international relations and human behaviour." The withdrawal from Afghanistan became the most striking example of a more general Soviet retreat from the Third World, and, eventually, led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself.

Kaznacheev's book may have been the first exposé of the Soviet schemes in Asia, but Andrew's and Mitrokhin's study is far more detailed and densely documented. No other book can match it when it comes to the secret history of the Cold War, or the assumption by the KGB that the world was going their way.

This review first appeared in The Irrawaddy, February, 2006

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