Asean's New Dilemma: Burma's Nuclear Ambition
By Kavi Chongkittavorn Sunday, May 30, 2010


The US action was swift following confirmation of a North Korean ship with suspicious arms cargoes docking in Burma last month in violation of the UN Security Council Resolution 1874. A few days later, in the third week of April, the US State Department dispatched an urgent message to the Asean capitals recommending the scheduled Asean-US Economic Ministers' roadshow in Seattle and Washington DC, from May 3-5, proceed without the Burmese representation at "all levels." The drastic move surprised Asean leaders.

The American ultimatum was not a bluff but a genuine show of frustration. This time Washington wanted to send a strong signal to Burma and the rest of Asean that unless something was done about Burma's compliance with the relevant UN resolutions on North Korean sanctions, there would be dire consequences. Political issues aside, Burma's nuclear ambition can further dampen Asean-US relations in the future. Already, there was the first casualty when the US downgraded the high-powered economic roadshow which was meticulously planned months ahead between the Office of US Trade Representatives and Asean economic ministers through the US-Asean Business Council.

Since nearly all Asean countries, except Singapore, decided to dispatch their trade or industry ministers to join the campaign, they agreed the roadshow should continue without the Burmese delegation as requested by the US. After some bargaining, the US softened its position agreeing to accept a representation at the charge d'affaires level from the Burmese Embassy in Washington DC. But Rangoon chose to opt out as it wanted diplomats directly dispatched from Rangoon. Without a consensus in Asean, a new name—absurd as it seemed—was in place, as the Southeast Asia Economic Community Road Show. It would be a one-time only designation.

When Kurt Campbell, assistant state secretary for East Asian and Pacific Affairs returned to Burma for the second time recently, he was blunt in telling the junta leaders to abide and fully comply with the UN Security Council Resolution 1874. That has been Washington's serious concern due to the growing link between North Korea and Burma and their existing transfer of nuclear-related technology. Last June, a North Korean ship, the Kang Nam, was diverted from going to Burma after being trailed by the US navy.

Since 2000, Western intelligence sources have been gathering evidence of North Korea providing assistance to Burma to build a nuclear reactor that can produce graded plutonium that could be used in assembling future weapons of mass destruction. Last year, reports were released using data collected from two defecting Burmese military officers, intercepted calls and messages as well as human intelligence along Thai-Burmese border, all finger-pointing to Burma's nuclear ambitions.

When they came out last fall, skepticism was high among military experts and strategists on the junta's nuclear intentions. Most said there was insufficient evidence. Some viewed them as attempts to further discredit the regime's international standing. As additional interviews were conducted, especially with a former major in the Burmese Army, Sai Thein Win, who was directly involved with the recent secret nuclear program it has become clearer that Burma is investigating nuclear technology. This week, a special report on a huge new body of information, with expert comment from a former official working for the International Atomic Energy Agency, will be released.

As such, it will have far-reaching implications on Asean and its members, who signed the 1995 Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ) and Non-proliferation Treaty. Asean is currently working hard to persuade all major nuclear powers to sign the protocol to the SEANWFZ. The grouping has even delayed China's eagerness to accede to the protocol.

Further complicating the issue, Asean has not reached a consensus on how its members would move forward with a common approach on nuclear energy and security. In general, Asean backs nuclear disarmament, which the Philippines has played a leading role as chair of the just concluded Review Conference of State Parties to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation on Nuclear Weapons. Asean also backs the ongoing efforts of US and Russia over non-proliferation.

One sticky problem is that Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, Burma, and Indonesia have yet to ratify the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. In the case of Indonesia, it is on the Annex 2 list of the treaty which, to enter into force, must be ratified by all 44 states on this list. At the upcoming Asean summit in Hanoi (October), Asean leaders will study a matrix of common positions that have been or could be taken up by Asean. It remains to be seen how Asean would approach some of the sensitive issues such as the South China Sea, climate change and issues related to nuclear technology.

1  |  2 

Salai Lian Wrote:
One could be pessimistic about Burma's ambition of a nuclear program simply due to its long brutal rule, offensive military campaign againse ethnic insurgents and recent development of its relations with N Korea. But, it does not seem that they desire nuclear weapons.
Malaysia,Vietnam, and the Phillipines (Thailand included?) all have nuclear ambitions - to be launched by sometime between 2012 and 2020 (date not exact) for the purpose of domestic supply needs. To be clear, all these countries are not a threat to international security. Instead, it'd be wise for the Burmese regime to use its energy assets for its people - 24 hr electricity distribution can be well enough for many people already.

Sai Lang Kham Wrote:
With regard to '2' below: Past experience suggests that the killing of fellow Burmese does not trouble Than Shwe and his fellow thugs in the least. Indeed, they have shown themselves very happy to kill monks.

Myanmar Patriot 4 UMPF Wrote:
1.Allegations are totally unfounded!
2.One must be absolutely stupid in believing in Burma's nuclear ambition because without the delivery system, it is useless; the nuclear weapon will kill only the Burmese. The junta is not that stupid.
3. Our king HM King Shwebomin II, who had done 'Nuclear Deterrant' as contemporary research for his MA in International Relations, said that even if Burma has the delivery system, the risk of 'low level burst' is so real; in any case it is MAD 'Mutually Assured Destruction'.
4. Is IRRAWADDY indirectly inviting US to invade Burma?
5. Burma's use of nuclear power to meet energy needs is perfectly legitimate, although it is dangerous because of the possibility of Chenobyl. We prefer harnessing solar power and development of industries to produce equipment to harness solar power. We can also make use of wind power. There are many other alternatives, much safer.

More Articles in This Section

bullet Making Sure Burma Doesn't Go Dutch

bullet Corruption Scandal in Burma: The Canadian Connection

bullet Helping Education to Keep Pace with Reform

bullet Resolving Ethnic Conflicts in Burma—Ceasefires to Sustainable Peace

bullet How the Game Was Lost

bullet Karens at the Crossroads

bullet Building Country Ownership in Burma

bullet Donors Rush Where Angels Feared to Tread

bullet Myanmar: On Claiming Success

bullet Ceasefires Won't Bring Peace

Thailand Hotels
Bangkok Hotels
China Hotels
India Hotels


Home |News |Regional |Business |Opinion |Multimedia |Special Feature |Interview |Magazine |Burmese Elections 2010 |Archives |Research
Copyright © 2008 Irrawaddy Publishing Group. All Rights Reserved.