Is Burma Going Nuclear?
covering burma and southeast asia
Saturday, June 15, 2024

Is Burma Going Nuclear?

By DENIS D GRAY / AP WRITER Tuesday, July 21, 2009


BANGKOK — The recent aborted voyage of a North Korean ship, photographs of massive tunnels and a top secret meeting have raised alarm bells that one of the world's poorest nations may be aspiring to join the nuclear club—with help from its friends in Pyongyang. No one expects military-run Burma, also known as Myanmar, to obtain an atomic bomb anytime soon, but experts have the Southeast Asian nation on their radar screen.

"There's suspicion that something is going on, and increasingly that cooperation with North Korea may have a nuclear undercurrent. We are very much looking into it," says David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington DC think tank.

The issue is expected to be discussed, at least on the sidelines, at this week's Asean Regional Forum, a major security conference hosted by Thailand. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, along with representatives from North Korea and Burma, will attend.

Alert signals sounded recently when a North Korean freighter, the Kang Nam I, headed toward Burma with undisclosed cargo. Shadowed by the US Navy, it reversed course and returned home earlier this month.

It is still not clear what was aboard. US and South Korean officials suspected artillery and other non-nuclear arms, but one South Korean intelligence expert, citing satellite imagery, says the ship's mission appeared to be related to a Burma nuclear program and also carried Scud-type missiles.

The expert, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue, said North Korea is helping Burma set up uranium- and nuclear-related facilities, echoing similar reports that have long circulated in Burma's exile community and media.

Meanwhile, Japanese police arrested a North Korean and two Japanese nationals last month for allegedly trying to export a magnetic measuring device to Burma that could be used to develop missiles.

And a recent report from Burmese exile media said senior Burmese military officers made a top secret visit late last year to North Korea, where an agreement was concluded for greatly expanding cooperation to modernize Burma's military muscle, including the construction of underground installations. The military pact report has yet to be confirmed.

In June, photographs, video and reports showed as many as 800 tunnels, some of them vast, dug in Burma with North Korean assistance under an operation code-named "Tortoise Shells." The photos were reportedly taken between 2003 and 2006.

Thailand-based author Bertil Lintner is convinced of the authenticity of the photos, which he was the first to obtain. However, the purpose of the tunnel networks, many near the remote capital of Naypyidaw, remains a question mark.

"There is no doubt that the Burmese generals would like to have a bomb so that they could challenge the Americans and the rest of the world," says Lintner, who has written books on both Burma and North Korea. "But they must be decades away from acquiring anything that would even remotely resemble an atomic bomb."

David Mathieson of the New York-based Human Rights Watch, who monitors developments in Burma, says that while there's no firm evidence the generals are pursuing a nuclear weapons capability, "a swirl of circumstantial trends indicates something in the nuclear field is going on that definitely warrants closer scrutiny by the international community."

Albright says some of the suspicion stems from North Korea's nuclear cooperation with Syria, which now possesses a reactor. Syria had first approached the Russians, just as Burma did earlier, but both countries were rejected, so the Syrians turned to Pyongyang—a step Burma may also be taking.

Since the early 2000s, dissidents and defectors from Burma have talked of a "nuclear battalion," an atomic "Ayelar Project" working out of a disguised flour mill and two Pakistani scientists who fled to Burma following the September 11 World Trade Center attack providing assistance.

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