A very British row has broken out in Burma over plans to recover 20 buried Second World War Spitfires.
David Cundall, a farmer from Lincolnshire, says he was pressured into giving up his claim on the 67-year-old fighters by a millionaire property developer who was part of David Cameron’s business delegation to Burma two weeks ago.
Mr Cundall says he has spent 15 years working to find the aircraft, but was surprised when the Prime Minister announced during the visit that the Government intended to repatriate them.
Mr Cundall claimed that Steve Boultbee Brooks, a wealthy properly developer, used the visit to Burma with the PM as leverage to try and take ownership of the project. He argues that the Burmese President, Thein Sein, told him the government in Rangoon would abide by the commitments it made a year ago to continue to work with him. “We were issued a permit to dig, which is still a valid and exclusive agreement,” he said.
A law passed by the British when they granted Burma independence in 1948 meant that anything left behind automatically becomes property of the Burmese government. Mr Cundall argues that he struck a deal with Thein Sein, offering the Burmese 40 per cent of all profits before Mr Cameron ever arrived in the country.
“The President of Burma wants to do business with me. He doesn’t trust Cameron because when he visited they talked for two hours – 10 minutes on removing sanctions and one hour and 50 minutes about the Spitfires,” alleged Mr Cundall.
A team funded by Mr Boultbee Brooks, who flew back to the UK on the same flight as the PM, is already in place and is expecting to begin the excavation, which is estimated to cost £500,000. But Mr Cundall says he has not ruled out the possibility of selling the entire fleet to American or Israeli investors, from whom he says he has received offers.
He told The Independent he would not sign the contract offered to him by Mr Boultbee Brooks “at any cost”.
He added: “Mr [Boultbee] Brooks wants all rights handed over to him, including media rights, and if there’s any money over he says he might pay me something. It’s appalling.”
Mr Boultbee Brooks, an avid plane enthusiast, says his Chichester-based Boultbee Flight Academy, is still leading the British recovery party.
“We would very much like [Mr Cundall] on board,” he said. “It would be most unfortunate if he decided not to proceed with a British team.”
During his visit to Burma, which also included a meeting with the democracy activist Aung San Suu Kyi at her house in Rangoon, the Prime Minister called for the lifting of sanctions which had previously banned trade with Burma.
Mr Boultbee Brooks said he met the PM for the first time as part of the trade delegation.
A spokeswoman from 10 Downing Street said: “Following the agreement discussed with President Thein Sein, we hope this will be an opportunity to work with the reforming Burmese government to uncover, restore and display these fighter planes and have them grace the skies of Britain once again.”
The Government said it had nothing to do with any commercial arrangements around the project.