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By John Helmer in Moscow

MOSCOW – Eric Ambler told the tale of a clapped-out reporter whose near-bankrupt newsletter suddenly starts to make a fortune on its classified advertisements. The journalist couldn’t understand why, but didn’t want to look his gift horse too closely in the mouth.

It turned out that someone was publishing coded intelligence on secret Chinese nuclear missile silos. The Chinese then tried to buy the newsletter at a premium to stop the disclosures.

Mysteries such as these, not all of them fictional, are remembered when phantoms emerge to sign apparently real mining concession agreements with real government officials. Take Pavel Krivoshei, whose name, possibly of Ukrainian ethnicity, suggests in Russian, Krivaya sheya, or “Crooked neck”. Krivoshei was reported by the press in Myanmar on February 16 as having signed on behalf of a Singapore-registered company, Chandwin International, an agreement to prospect for gold and other miners along the River Uru.

Krivoshei signed with U Win Te (also referred to as Win Ti), of the Myanmar Ministry of Mining’s Geological Survey and Mineral Exploration Department. Attending the ceremony was Brigadier General Ohn Myint, the mining minister, and Russian ambassador Mikhail Mgeladze. The news appeared first in New Light of Myanmar, and was then relayed by Reuters and Russian and Chinese wire services. These muddled the corporate details, and some reported that Victorious Glory International, the foreign concessionaire at the signing ceremony, is a Russian company. In Russian records there is no trace.

The reports indicate that Krivoshei controls Victorious Glory International, with an 80% shareholding held by Krivoshei’s Singapore outfit, Chandwin Projects; 20% of Victorious Glory appears to be held by local Burmese.

The Chandwin website reports that it was established in Singapore in March 2007, and has paid up capital of 1 million Singapore dollars (US$711,000). It is said to be owned by a Russian-Swiss company called Benton International. Its business, Chandwin says, is “Geological Consultation, Mining Refinery and Exporting of Platinum Gold”.

About its founder and controlling shareholder, the Chandwin website claims:

Krivoshey Pavel is the Founder of Chandwin Projects Pte Ltd. He is a professional mining engineer with over 20 years of experience in mine development and mine management. His extensive years of experience in trading for Diamond and Platinum Gold Industry with the International Buyers gave Krivoshey Pavel an added advantage and thus he was specially selected by his Russia Government to handle any joint venture contract in South-East Asia in Mining business. He has a good network and is most respectable by his buyers for capable of delivering high quality of diamonds and Platinum Gold.

The website also suggests that Krivoshei trades urea and steel imported from Russia. No recognition of Krivoshei’s name or Chandwin’s has been found among Russia’s leading fertilizer and steel producers and traders.

In its concession announcement, Victorious Glory reportedly said the terms provide for exploration rights along a stretch of the Uru River between the Homalin and Phakant regions of the country. The area, in the northern state of Kachin, lies in the east, near the Chinese border. It is known for gem mining, alluvial gold operations, logging, smuggling, and the Kachin insurgency.

Before Ohn Myint became minister of mining, he was the government’s warlord in the region; that is to say, the Myanmar army commander for Kachin. In response to regional, as well as international concerns for the region’s environment, the general issued a directive in June 2006 prohibiting the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), an ethnic rebel group, from trading gold, jade or logs through its main trading gate with China in the border town of Laiza. The army commander reportedly asked the Chinese government to assist in enforcing this ban.

Men at work

The Kachin information outlet, Kachin News, has also noticed Ohn Myint’s latest Russian deal, reporting after Krivoshei put his pen to paper that Russian mining men had already been seen at work in Kachin. The report this month says:
A team of Russian mineral inspectors are in Phakant (Hpakan) in Kachin State, northern Myanmar since last year much before the two countries signed an agreement last week for exploration of gold and associated minerals in Phakant areas, the state media said.

Eyewitnesses told KNG they have seen several Russian mineral inspectors camping and working in Tarmakhan areas for over a year. Both locals and visitors are strictly forbidden from entering the area. ‘I believe Russians arrived in Tarmakhan for Uranium. Uranium exploration started in the Tarmakhan and Hongpa areas during Prime Minister U Nu’s tenure. But, the exploration was stopped because of civil war between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and successive Burmese ruling juntas,’ a local geologist told KNG. Last year, a Russian mineral inspector in Tarmakhan fell ill and died at the government hospital in Phakant Township, local eyewitnesses and hospital sources said.
The Kachin news agency reinforced the impression that Krivoshei is after uranium. “A spokesperson of the Kachin Development Networking Group (KDNG) based on the Sino-Myanmar border told KNG that ‘the agreement has to do with mining Uranium rather than gold and associated minerals. Chemical agents like mercury used for mining in the areas will threaten and impact daily lives of local residents.’ Phakant is also the biggest jade mining area in Myanmar and these areas are now directly controlled by the ruling junta and pro-junta business companies after the KIA signed a ceasefire agreement with the junta in 1994.”

The Kachins may be repeating an old story that is now out of date. In March 2007, Krivoshei and Victorious Glory made their debut in the Kachin Post, reportedly drilling for uranium. Their location was given artillery coordinates in the Kachin report – “the mining site is located at Hawng Pa village of Hpa Kant Township in Kachin State. The exact site location is between 25°29’43.04″N/96° 6’26.4″E and 25°29’35.2″N/96° 6’35.02″E, according to the document received by The Kachin Post. The area is around 128 kilometers northwest of Kachin State capital Myitkyina.”

Krivoshei’s companions at the site were reported as including “Mr Anatoly Bulochnikov [chairman of Myanmar-Russian Friendship Association] and other Russian engineers, businessmen, surveyors and Myanmar interpreters.”

A Russian mining source believes the uranium search came up empty, and gold was this year’s bright idea. The source believes Krivoshei is a quick-turnaround specialist “moving upstream from urea and scrap metal trading”.

The Russian government has not subscribed to sanctions imposed against the Myanmar junta by some Western governments and there are ongoing talks between the Defense ministries of both countries. In the natural resource and energy sector, Atomstroyexport, builder of nuclear reactors in China, India and Iran, has been in talks with Myanmar for a research reactor. But if there is a Russian interest in uranium in Myanmar, sources at Rosatom, the supervising agency for nuclear and uranium projects in Moscow, told Asia Times Online they have not heard of it. Nor, they add, have they heard of Krivoshei.

Russian reports indicate some interest on the part of regional Russian oil companies in pursuing oil and gas prospects in Myanmar. Tyzahpromexport is also building a pig-iron plant there.

History of interest

Faint as Krivoshei’s tracks are, there is a history of interest on the part of Benton International in both gold and oil and gas. According to Swedish economist and businessman Torbjorn Ranta, Benton holds a 6% stake in Central Asia Gold AB, a Swedish listed company that Ranta directs from Sweden. Ranat was trained in Russian by the Swedish military, and is a former diplomat at the Swedish Embassy in Moscow. He has been managing director of Swedish firms investing in Russia, including Vostok Nafta and currently Central Asia Gold.

“Central Asia Gold [CAG] does not own Benton International, it is the other way around. Benton International is one of the five biggest owners of Central Asia Gold holding some 6% of the capital and votes of our company,” Ranta told Asia Times Online. He declined to add information about Krivoshei or Benton without Benton’s permission. This hasn’t been forthcoming. Ranta acknowledges he has met Krivoshei.

CAG reports that it operates an alluvial gold project in the Tuva region of Siberia, which produced about 900,000 ounces in the nine months to September 30 last. Revenues for the period were US$25 million; after-tax income was $1 million.

CAG reports: “The group’s main assets comprise a large number of mineral licenses held by the various subsidiaries. The licenses, as at early January 2007, encompass 747,000 troy ounces (oz) (1 oz = 31.1 g) of gold reserves according to the Russian C1+C2 categories, as well as 1,055,000 oz of P1 gold resources and 5,765,000 oz of P2 gold resources. CAG AB was publicly listed on the Swedish NGM Nordic Growth Market stock exchange on March 29, 2005. The number of shareholders is currently approximately 4,800.”

Early asset claims like these are to be tested this year for formal assessment by the Russian State Reserves Committee (GKZ). Until then, there are no proven gold reserves.

Krivoshei is not identified in any of CAG’s reports. The principal Russian named is Mikhail Malyarenko. Most of Malyarenko’s resource business has involved oil and gas prospecting in his home region of Tomsk. There has been a history of business conflict involving some of the oil companies and projects in which he has been engaged, their Swedish partners, and larger Russian concerns. Several of the Swedes involved, including Ranta, have had embassy appointments in Moscow in the past. Vostok Nafta, Vostok Oil, West Siberian Resources, and CAG appear to share a common pedigree with thee Swedes and Malyarenko.

No response

But Krivoshei is still apparently missing in action. Through the contact details provided on Chandwin’s website, Krivoshei was asked to clarify details of the Myanmar project; of any other mining project in which he has been engaged; and of Russian substantiation of his website claim to reputation and government influence. According to Chandwin, Krivoshei “was specially selected by his Russia Government to handle any joint venture contract in Southeast Asia in Mining business”.

To date, Krivoshei has declined to respond. If he’s the front man for a commercial syndicate, or a Russian government agency, it’s a secret that has been covered up as swiftly as it was revealed on February 15.

It is no secret that the Myanmar military junta, and the country’s regional army commanders, have first tried to shut down existing goldmining concessions, which were aligned with the Kachin movement; and then issued new licenses to collect both the start fees and revenue taxes. There were reports from Kachin state last September suggesting the army had ordered the Jawa goldmine at Phakant closed, and the Kachin Independence Army ordered it re-opened.

A year earlier, after the army had blockaded Kachin-run goldmines to prevent their getting food, fuel and other supplies, the regional and Chinese press reported that the Myanmar government was attempting to sell concessions to foreign mining companies. License payments of around $1,000 were reported for concessions. Foreign miners reported as active at the time in exploration were identified as coming from Australia, China, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand and the United States. No mention of any Russians.

Russian miners in the Russian Far East report some odd coincidences. The biggest is that the name of the man who signed for Chandwin is identical to a character in a story by a well-known Russian writer, Varlam Shalamov. Now dead, Shalamov wrote The Kolyma Tales from his experience as a gulag prisoner between 1937 and 1951. His book was smuggled abroad and first published in translation in 1966. It appeared in Russian in 1978.

The Krivoshei in Shalamov’s story is a convicted fraudster, with a taste for expensive antiques; fluency in English and French; no taste for music or literature; and a wife whose loyalty is rewarded with some regrettable experiences. As word of the Myanmar exploits of the new Pavel Krivoshei has spread among Russian miners this month, Shalamov’s short story is enjoying a revival among an unlikely population of readers, looking for other clues to the future of Victorious Glory.

The Russian Foreign Ministry declines to say why its ambassador to Myanmar attended Krivoshei’s concession agreement earlier this month. The Russian embassy in Yangon didn’t pick up the telephone at its official number.

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