US Court Witnesses Spine-Chilling Story – OpEd


A Japanese crime lord has been charged with smuggling weapons- grade nuclear material sourced to Myanmar, raising questions how such material was available in a non-nuclear nation on the vortex of a bleeding civil war.

US federal prosecutors on Wednesday unsealed an indictment against Takeshi Ebisawa, alleging he was a leader of the Japanese organized crime syndicate Yakuza and charging him with offering to weapons-grade nuclear materials to someone he thought was an Iranian general but one who turned out to be an US federal agent.  

Ebisawa, 60, was already charged with drug and weapons trafficking by the US, in April 2022. He was expected to face an American judge on Thursday, alongside his alleged co-conspirator, 61-year-old Somphop Singhasiri.

According to prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, Ebisawa was a “leader within the Yakuza transnational organized crime syndicate” and contacted a person he believed to be an Iranian general in early 2020, with an offer to sell him nuclear weapons components. In return, he sought to buy weapons for an “ethnic insurgent group” in Myanmar.

The Iranian general was actually a US Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) undercover agent, however. According to DEA Administrator Anne Milgram, Ebisawa offered to sell him “uranium and weapons-grade plutonium fully expecting that Iran would use it for nuclear weapons.”

During a video conference in February 2022, one of Ebisawa’s co-conspirators said they had over two tons of Thorium-232 and more than 100 kilograms of “yellowcake” uranium and that they could produce as much as five tons of nuclear materials in Myanmar.

About a week later, Ebisawa and two others met with the DEA agent and showed him “two plastic containers, each holding a powdery yellow substance… described as ‘yellowcake’,” the indictment said. Prosecutors showed photos labeled “nuclear samples,” taken by the DEA agent. 

Thai authorities seized the samples and sent them to the US for analysis, which determined that “both samples contain detectable quantities of uranium, thorium and plutonium,” the latter of which was weapons-grade, the US Department of Justice said. 

If convicted, Ebisawa faces up to 30 years behind bars for nuclear trafficking and conspiracy charges, but life in prison for conspiracy to traffic narcotics and “conspiracy to possess firearms, including machine guns and destructive devices.”

The DEA’s offices in Japan, Thailand, Indonesia, Denmark, and India have also been involved in investigating the case, along with the DOJ’s Office of International Affairs and the National Security Division’s Counterterrorism Section. The US has thanked Indonesia, Japan and Thailand for their cooperation with the prosecution.

The story first surfaced in April 2022, when the US Attorney’s Office announced the arrest of alleged senior Yakuza figure Takeshi Ebisawa and three Thai co-conspirators on narcotics trafficking and firearms offences. However, the nuclear element of the story was not announced until the US Attorney’s Office’s Wednesday press release. 

On February 4, 2022, one of Ebisawa’s alleged co-conspirators told an undercover Drug Enforcement Administration agent that the Japanese had more than two tonnes of thorium and more than 100 kilograms of uranium in a concentrate powder commonly referred to as “yellowcake”.

Ebisawa allegedly suggested to the undercover agent that a Myanmar insurgent leader might consider cutting a deal wherein an Iranian general – in reality another undercover DEA agent – could supply weapons in return for nuclear materials. The insurgent leader is Restoration Council of Shan State chairman Yawd Serk. In a meeting near the Thai-Myanmar border in August 2021, Yawd Serk reportedly told Ebisawa he had been “mining uranium” in his territory.

The story raises more questions than answers – particularly given Yawd Serk’s chummy visits to Nay Pyi Taw since the coup – the most pressing of which is where the nuclear materials came from. The episode also marks the emphatic return of the nuclear spectre to Myanmar, following on from last year’s announcement that Russia would help the junta to build a nuclear power plant. But how so much weapons-grade nuclear material would be available in Myanmar now that the yakuza boss was intending to sell to Iran remains in mystery.

Subir Bhaumik

Subir Bhaumik is a former BBC and Reuters correspondent and author of books on South Asian conflicts.

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