Burma Plays Nuclear Card
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, June 25, 2019
Magazine

COVER STORY

Burma Plays Nuclear Card


By Aung Zaw JULY, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.7


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Assurances of peaceful intentions arouse o­nly skepticism

Burma’s confirmation of plans to build a 10-megawatt nuclear reactor with the help of Russia’s federal atomic energy agency Rosatom has created nervousness and anxiety among Burma observers.

The regime in Naypyidaw, facing international isolation and sanctions, claims that the planned nuclear reactor is to be built for a “peaceful purpose.” Back in January 2002, then-deputy Foreign Minister Khin Maung Win declared that Burma’s “interest in nuclear energy for peaceful purpose is longstanding.”

Such assurances have met with skepticism o­n the part of the international community and Burmese at home and abroad, however.

Skepticism has also greeted Rosatom’s official statement that the 10-megawatt nuclear reactor, fueled by less than 20 percent uranium-235, will contribute to Burma’s “research in nuclear physics, bio-technology, material science as well as…produce a big variety of medicines.” A first round of talks o­n details of the project has begun and further discussions are scheduled for the second half of this year.

Burma’s interest in developing nuclear energy is not new. It dates back as far as the 1950s, with the creation of the Union of Burma Atomic Energy Center headed by Hla Nyunt, a student of renowned Japanese physicist Hideki Yukawa, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1949.

The UBAEC recruited young and talented physicists and sent them to the US and Britain for further studies. At least six were trained in 1956 at the Argonne National Laboratory, o­ne of the US Department of Energy’s largest research centers.

Burma was well advanced in those days to develop a nuclear project, compared to neighboring countries. In the early 1960s, a site for a nuclear research reactor was designated near the Hlaing Campus in Rangoon.

The UBAEC became inactive after Ne Win staged a military coup in 1962. The general was busy creating his “Burmese Way to Socialism,” placing priority o­n the consolidation of a power base to counter serious threats posed by communist rebels and ethnic insurgents. Above all, the dictator simply did not trust Hla Nyunt.

So the nuclear project fell by the wayside, although in 1984 Ne Win admitted to university professors at a dinner party that he had made a blunder by ending it.

The current regime revitalized the nuclear project. Thein Oo Po Saw, an Arakanese professor who was a student of Hla Nyunt in the 1950s, initiated the revival of the Atomic Energy Committee in 1990 and renewed links with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Since then, Burma has been demonstrating its intention to develop nuclear energy for a “peaceful purpose.”

The regime outwardly supports the concept of nuclear free zones and signed the Treaty o­n the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone, or Bangkok Treaty, in 1995. A year later, Burma signed the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Simultaneously, it was planning to build a nuclear reactor. The Ministry of Science and Technology was created in 1997 and headed by extreme nationalist U Thaung, a graduate of Defense Services Academy Intake 1. Two years later, Burma began negotiations with Russia o­n a nuclear reactor project, and in January 2002 the military government confirmed plans to build a nuclear research reactor for peaceful purposes.

As was to be expected, Burma’s dissidents in exile got busy gathering information o­n these developments, but little hard evidence has yet emerged. The location of the planned nuclear reactor is still unknown, although some dissidents used Google “Earth” to pinpoint some possible sites and even buildings in central Burma. Magwe has been mentioned.

The truth must be faced, however, that if the nuclear reactor is to be built with a military use in mind its location will be a state secret. The possibility of Burma becoming a nuclear power is anyway still very many years off.

At the moment, the spotlight falls o­n Russia’s role in fueling Burma’s nuclear ambitions, but exile groups and regime critics allege that Burma has also been seeking nuclear technology from North Korea. Military missions from North Korea have been seen visiting Burma, and North Korean technicians have been spotted unloading construction materials from trains in central Burma.



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