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Is Myanmar acquiring nuclear weapons?

August 03, 2009 16:07 IST

Is the military junta in Myanmar trying to acquire a military nuclear capability with North Korean assistance? Or is North Korea trying to shift some of its nuclear facilities to Myanmar to protect them from a possible attack by the US? If either of this scenario is true, is China, which has a strong and active presence in North Korea as well as Myanmar, aware of it? Has it taken up the matter with the two governments? Has it alerted the International Atomic Energy Agency?

These questions, among others, come to one's mind in the wake of a flurry of reports regarding an alleged nuclear relationship between Myanmar and North Korea. These reports hit the international media coinciding with the meeting of the foreign ministers of the ASEAN Regional Forum in Phuket, Thailand on July 23.

The meeting was attended among others by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who had proceeded to Thailand after a high-profile visit to India. She told a Thai TV channel in an interview on July 21: "We worry about the transfer of nuclear technology from North Korea to Myanmar." She subsequently reverted to the subject at Phuket where she spoke to the media of "concerns being expressed about co-operation between North Korea and Burma in the pursuit of offensive weapons, perhaps even including nuclear weapons at some point."

She was not categorical on the question of a possible nuclear relationship between North Korea and Myanmar, but she was on the question of a conventional military relationship between the two countries. Her concerns seemed to be that this might be expanded to cover the military nuclear field, if this has not already happened or is not already happening.

To what extent her concerns were well-founded? Was the reference to this issue by her meant to exercise political pressure on Myanmar and North Korea, both of which attended the ARF meeting -- Myanmar at the level of its foreign minister and North Korea at the level of an official of its foreign office? Was she merely trying to step up the pressure on Myanmar on the question of the release of Aung San Suu Kyi and restoration of democracy and on North Korea on the question of its denuclearisation by using the nuclear co-operation allegations or was there something more to it?

The press release issued by the ASEAN Secretariat on the ARF meeting and the media briefing did not contain any reference to the nuclear allegation. Did she raise it at the ARF foreign ministers' meeting or was it confined to her interactions with the media? It is not clear.

Even though Clinton confined her remarks only to the alleged co-operation between North Korea and Myanmar and did not refer to the on-going civil nuclear co-operation between Myanmar and Russia, Moscow on its own referred to this subject in response to her remarks in Thailand.

The RIA Novosti news agency of Russia disseminated the following report on July 21: "Nuclear cooperation between Russia and Myanmar is not in conflict with the Non-Proliferation Treaty or IAEA requirements, and will move ahead, a foreign ministry spokesman said. Andrei Nesterenko's comment came in response to US concerns over the cooperation. However, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said earlier on Tuesday that Washington was taking concerns about military cooperation between nuclear-armed North Korea and Myanmar "very seriously," but made no mention of Russia. "Our cooperation with Myanmar is absolutely legitimate and in full compliance with our obligations under the NPT and IAEA requirements," Nesterenko said. He added that the IAEA had no problem with Myanmar over its non-proliferation commitments. Russia signed an agreement in 2007 on the construction of a nuclear research centre in Myanmar, and it will stand by this agreement, Nesterenko said. The centre will include a 10 MW light-water research reactor."

Reports of Myanmar's interest in developing a nuclear research capability started circulating after the nuclear tests carried out by India and Pakistan in May 1998. Before 1998, it had an Atomic Energy Committee, which used to be headed by one of its ministers in charge of industries. The military junta introduced an Atomic Energy Law on June 8, 1998, within a fortnight of Pakistan's Chagai nuclear tests.

The interest of the Myanmar military junta in acquiring civil nuclear expertise with Russian assistance came to be known in February, 2001. It has had a long history of conventional military relationship with Russia. This relationship was subsequently expanded to cover the civil nuclear field.

In September 2001, the government of Myanmar reportedly informed the IAEA of its plans to acquire a nuclear research reactor. This was followed by a visit to Myanmar by a team of IAEA experts to study whether Myanmar had the required capability to run a research reactor safely. The team reportedly concluded that Myanmar did not have the required safety standards. Despite its negative report, the Government decided to go ahead with its exploratory talks with Russia on this subject. Moscow, which must have been aware of the negative findings of the IAEA team, had no hesitation in responding positively to the approach for help from the Myanmar junta.

When US troops occupied Afghanistan post-9/11 after expelling the Taliban from power, they reportedly found evidence of contacts between some retired and serving nuclear scientists of Pakistan and Osama bin Laden. They short-listed four names -- retired scientists Sultan Bashiruddin Ahmed Chaudhry and Abdul Majid and serving scientists Sulaiman Assad and Mohammad Mukhtar.

At the request of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence took into custody the two retired scientists who where interrogated by the FBI. They reportedly admitted having met Laden at Kandahar before 9/11, but asserted that their meeting with him was in connection with the work of a humanitarian relief organisation which they had founded after retirement. They were released as no evidence of their involvement in any activity relating to the supply of nuclear material or expertise to Al Qaeda was found. However, as a safety measure, the ISI, at the request of the FBI, imposed restrictions on their movement outside their home town. The FBI got the bank accounts of their supposedly humanitarian relief organisation frozen by taking up the matter with the anti-terrorism sanctions committee of the UN Security Council.

Sulaiman Assad and Mohammad Mukhtar managed to flee to Myanmar before they could be detained for questioning by the ISI. There was uncorroborated speculation that the ISI did not want them to be questioned by the FBI as they had knowledge of the proliferation activities of Pakistan, particularly about its nuclear and missile supply relationship with North Korea. It was alleged by some in Pakistan that the Myanmar military junta gave them sanctuary at the request of the ISI. There has been no further reliable news about them.

The Wall Street Journal in an article by Bertil Lintner, its staff reporter, on January 3, 2002, stated as follows: "Myanmar is embarking on a nuclear-research project with the help of Russian and, possibly, Pakistani scientists. Diplomats say the development has upset China, which has heavily courted Myanmar in recent years and resents Moscow for muscling in on its turf. Believed by Western diplomats to be the brainchild of Science and Technology Minister U Thaung, the project was initiated by Russia's atomic energy ministry, which in February announced plans to build a 10-megawatt research reactor in central Myanmar. In July, Myanmar Foreign Minister Win Aung, accompanied by the military-ruled country's ministers of defence, energy, industry and railways, traveled to Moscow to finalise the deal. Western diplomats in Myanmar say the groundbreaking ceremony is scheduled to take place at a secret location near the town of Magway in January. The equipment and reactor will be delivered in 2003. Russian diplomats say more than 300 Myanmar nationals have received nuclear technical training in Russia during the past year."

On January 22, 2002, Khin Maung Win, Myanmar's deputy foreign minister, announced that the Myanmar government was planning to build a nuclear research reactor and had entered into talks with Russia on this subject. In his statement, he also said that his government had informed the IAEA of its intention to construct the reactor which would be used "for peaceful purposes".

His statement further said: "The Myanmar government is striving to acquire modern technology in all fields, including maritime, aerospace, medical and nuclear. It is in the light of these considerations that Myanmar made enquiries for the possibility of setting up a nuclear research reactor. A proposal has since been received from the Russian Federation. Under the NPT which Myanmar signed in 1992, it had the right to pursue the peaceful use and application of nuclear technology. All our neighbouring countries, with the exception of Laos, are already reaping the benefits from nuclear research reactors operating in their countries. In this age of globalisation it is imperative that developing countries such as Myanmar actively seek to narrow the development gap so as not to be marginalised."

Khin Maung Win denied media reports that Myanmar had secretly brought two Pakistani nuclear scientists into the country to help it fulfil its nuclear ambitions. He said: "The Myanmar government categorically states once again that no nuclear scientists from Pakistan have been given sanctuary in Myanmar. However, Myanmar scientists had been trained by the IAEA in the application of nuclear technology for peaceful purposes."

The same day, the US reacted by warning Myanmar that it must honour its obligations under the NPT. An unidentified official of the State Department was quoted by the media as saying: "We expect the government of Burma to live up to its obligations and to not pursue production of weapons grade fissile material."

There was no further development with regard to the Russian project for five years. This was attributed to the difficulties faced by the junta in raising the money for it and the Russian reluctance to finalise the deal till Myanmar reached a safeguards agreement with the IAEA. It was only by April 2007 that the junta found the money. It is not clear whether the junta signed a safeguards agreement with the IAEA. In May, the conclusion of a contract between the governments of Myanmar and Russia was announced.

On May 16, 2007, the US expressed concern over the agreement between Myanmar and Russia. US State Department spokesman Tom Casey said he had "no idea" what Russia's motivation was for the agreement. "Burma has neither the regulatory nor the legal framework or safeguard provisions or other kinds of things that you would expect or want to see for a country to be able to handle successfully a nuclear program of this type. It's not a good idea."

Casey further said that Myanmar did not have a nuclear regulatory commission or safeguards in place to prevent accidents, environmental damage or proliferation. According to him, one risk was that nuclear fuel could be diverted, stolen or otherwise removed because of a lack of accounting or other procedures in place to prevent this.

He added: "There certainly would have to be a heck of a lot more work done by the Burmese before I think we would feel comfortable that they could safely deal with having a nuclear facility of this type on their soil."

Myanmar is a signatory of the NPT and, according to some reports, has since signed a safeguards agreement with the IAEA. However, it has not yet accepted the Additional Protocol, which would allow the UN nuclear watchdog to conduct more intrusive monitoring of any nuclear operations.

Myanmar broke off diplomatic relations with Pyongyang in 1983, after alleged North Korean agents bombed the Martyr's mausoleum in Yangon in an attempt to assassinate the visiting South Korean President, Chun Doo-hwan. The explosion killed more than 20 persons, including the deputy prime minister and the foreign minister, and the South Korean Ambassador to Myanmar. The relations were re-established only in April 2007.

The re-establishment of diplomatic ties led to the beginning of a military-supply relationship between the two countries and the exchange of visits of military delegations. In 2007 and 2008, there were reports of the receipt of a number of military consignments by Myanmar from North Korea by sea -- mostly consisting of conventional infantry weapons. Following the resumption of diplomatic relations, the Myanmar military junta also started allowing North Korean transport planes going to Pakistan and Iran to re-fuel at the Yangon airport.

North Korean engineers were reported to have helped Myanmar military engineers in the construction of a number of tunnels in the newly-constructed capital at Naypyidaw. They were also reported to be helping the Myanmar engineers in the construction of similar tunnels at a place called Yadanapon, where the junta is planning to have its summer capital. It was presumed by analysts that the North Korean assistance in tunnel construction had the purpose of providing shelter to the members of the junta and other senior military officers in case of an attack by the US Air Force. It was the fear of an US attack which made the junta shift the capital from Yangon to Naypyidaw and it was the same fear which motivated it to seek North Korean assistance in tunnel construction.

What set off an alarm was reports from Myanmar political exiles that North Koreans were helping in tunnel construction not only in the capital and the proposed summer capital, but also in certain other remote areas. Myanmar political exiles close to Aung San Suu Kyi have been linking the construction of tunnels at a place called Naung Laing in North Myanmar to possible North Korean assistance in the construction of a secret nuclear facility. What kind of a facility it could be is not clear. Western and Australian analysts and journalists seem to be particularly relying on claims made by two defectors. One claims to have been an officer in the Myanmar army who was allegedly sent to Moscow for two years' training. The other claims to have been a former executive in a company called Htoo Trading, which, according to him, handled nuclear contracts with Russia and North Korea. There has so far been no independent corroboration of their claims.

The suspicions regarding a possible nuclear supply relationship have been strengthened following a recent incident in which a North Korean ship called Nam Kam 1, which was reportedly bound for a Myanmar port turned back on being shadowed by US vessels. It is not clear what prevented the US vessels from surrounding and searching it. Without searching it, it seems to have been presumed that the cargo on board the ship must have been nuclear-related.

Political exiles can be sometimes good sources and sometimes unreliable and even dangerous. The information about Iran's clandestine uranium enrichment plant initially came from political exiles, who were found to have been accurate. The false information about Saddam Hussein's nuclear arsenal came from political exiles who made a fortune from the US intelligence by planting a series of false reports. In the 1980s, when Rajiv Gandhi was prime minister, Indian analysts had over-estimated Chinese military deployments in Tibet on the basis of reports from Tibetan political exiles. These reports were subsequently found to have been highly exaggerated.

One has, therefore, to be cautious in assessing the reports, claims and allegations from political exiles and army defectors from Myanmar. Their reports must be carefully verified. All one can say with some confidence at present is: firstly, that the Myanmar military junta's interest in acquiring a civil nuclear capability dates back to 1998 when India and Pakistan carried out their nuclear tests; secondly, that since 2001 Myanmar has been in negotiations with Russia for the acquisition of a research reactor; thirdly, that there has been a long delay in the implementation of this project due to Myanmar's lack of funds and the time taken to negotiate a safeguards agreement with the IAEA; and fourthly, that there has been an increase in North Korea's military supply relationship with Myanmar since the two countries re-established diplomatic relations in April,2007.

Has the military supply relationship been expanded now to cover nuclear supply relationship? The evidence on this not yet strong enough to permit a categorical answer.

B Raman