The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]

Evidence Points to Burma's Nuclear Weapons 'Intent'
By SIMON ROUGHNEEN Friday, June 4, 2010

BANGKOK—There are regional and international security implications arising out of fresh evidence that Burma is seeking nuclear weapons and is in breach of a UN arms embargo on North Korea.

Referencing the nuclear issue, US Sen. Jim Webb on Thursday canceled his scheduled trip to Burma.

Burmese soldiers carry flags as they march during the Armed Forces Day parade in Naypyidaw in March. (Photo: Reuters)
“It would be inappropriate and counter-productive for me to go at this time,” Webb told journalists at a Thursday press conference in Bangkok. While the substance of the nuclear issue and the potential breach of UN Security Council Resolution 1874 remain to be clarified, Webb said, “There is enough for now in these two allegations, which need to be resolved,” before he could reconsider going to Burma.

While allegations about a junta nuclear weapons program have emerged in the past, the latest reports are backed by documentation and photographs supplied by Burmese army defector Maj Sai Thein Win. A news documentary about the issue ran on Al-Jazeera today and is based on work carried out by the Democratic Voice of Burma news agency. Sai Thein Win had to flee Burma after superiors suspected that information about missile-building and uranium enrichment programs were being leaked. He says “that they really want to build a bomb, they want rockets and nuclear warheads.”

American nuclear scientist Robert Kelley, a former director in the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the international nuclear watchdog, said he spent months examining the material supplied by Sai Thein Win and concluded that the projects outlined in the material are “useful only for weapons.”

In an overview published on the DVB website, Kelley said: “The total picture is very compelling. Burma is trying to build pieces of a nuclear program, specifically a nuclear reactor to make plutonium and a uranium enrichment program. Burma has a close partnership with North Korea.”

The seven-member UN panel monitoring the implementation of sanctions against North Korea said in a report last week that Pyongyang is involved in banned nuclear and ballistic activities in Iran, Syria and Burma.

After an early May visit to Burma, US assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs Kurt Campbell, said that the junta leadership had agree to abide by UN Security Council Resolution 1874, but that "recent developments" called into question its commitment. He said he sought the junta's agreement to "a transparent process to assure the international community that Burma is abiding by its international commitments."

"Without such a process, the United States maintains the right to take independent action within the relevant frameworks established by the international community," he said.

Whether or not the Burmese regime has the know-how to actually realize its apparent nuclear ambitions is another issue. According to Kelley, “Nothing we have seen suggests Burma will be successful with the materials and component we have seen.”

Speaking to Al-Jazeera, other nuclear experts such as John Isaacs, who is executive director of the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, said that there is not yet “actual proof” of what the regime is trying to do.

However, the documentation assessed by Kelley suggest intent on the part of the junta. The regime has not signed the IAEA's Additional Protocol, meaning that the agency has not power to set up an inspection of Burma's nuclear facilities under the existing mechanism known as the Small Quantities Protocol.

The hour-long Al-Jazeera/DVB report gave details of a nationwide labyrinth of underground tunnels, believed to be shelters for the military in the event of an attack from outside or demonstrations at home. The total cost of the tunnels, built in collaboration with North Korean military advisers, is estimated in the range of US $3 billion. Reflecting on the documentation and photographs illustrating the extent of the tunneling, long-time Burma watcher and author Bertil Linter said, “I have never seen anything like this come out of Burma before.”

Photo released by the Democratic Voice of Burma, defector Sai Thein Win, second from left in front row, is photographed with others in an undisclosed location in Burma. (Photo: AP/DVB)
Webb believes that the US should maintain its policy of engagement with the junta, even as the new allegations come across as a slap in the face for the Obama administration, which has also sought to promote global nuclear non-proliferation The UN recently wrapped-up a four-week Non-Proliferation Treaty Review Conference, a process largely driven and led by the US. It was attended by 189 countries including representatives from the junta's UN embassy in New York.

Webb's stillborn proposed visit to Burma comes as the junta gets ready for elections scheduled some time this year, which Webb believes will help Burma make a transition toward being “ a more open society.”

However, after his recent visit to Burma, during which he met with Suu Kyi, Campbell said, "What we have seen to date leads us to believe that [upcoming] elections will lack international legitimacy." Asked on Thursday whether or not he would have met with Suu Kyi or the National League for Democracy, if he had gone ahead with the visit, Webb said that there are other opposition parties that he could talk to, adding that “the NLD has ceased to exist.”

Webb arrived in Thailand after visiting South Korea, where tensions are high after the sinking of a South Korean naval ship in March by a North Korean torpedo. Forty-six South Korean sailors were killed in the attack.

Speaking on Friday at the Shangri-La dialogue, a gathering of defense and security officials and experts in Singapore, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak said that because of “the graveness of the North Korean nuclear issue and the Cheonan incident,” the international community needs “to respond firmly to the North's threats to peace and stability of the Korean peninsula and Northeast Asia." A North Korean envoy said in Geneva on Thursday that war could erupt at any time on the Korean peninsula, blaming what Pyongyang believes to be belligerence on the part of South Korea.

In Bangkok, Webb urged China to press North Korea to “come clean” about its role in the sinking of the Cheonan. Lee said, "The Cheonan incident in particular requires the North to admit to its wrongdoing and promise that similar incidents will not be repeated."

However China has remained non-committal despite South Korean and US pressure for it to respond by condemning Pyongyang. "We need to dispel the impact of the Cheonan incident, gradually ease tension and especially avoid a clash," Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao said last week.

Webb said China should do more to persuade countries such as North Korea and Burma to reform, adding that “it is to China's advantage that these countries remain closed off.” Webb added that China's growing economic clout means that it needs to take on a more responsible role in international affairs. Webb denied that he was advocating a US confrontation with China, whose premier has just concluded a two-day visit to Burma where he discussed trade and investment issues, as well as Burma's forthcoming elections and internal ethnic politics.

Photo released by the Democratic Voice of Burma, shows Sai Thein Win at the control panel of an industrial machine at an undisclosed location in Burma. (Photo: AP/DVB)
During the Al-Jazeera report, defectors from the junta said that gas and oil revenue from the Yadana field has given the junta the financial resources necessary to increase military spending. The income available to the ruling generals is set to increase dramatically in the coming years, as the much larger Shwe Gas field comes on stream.

According the Shwe Gas Movement website, “Burma’s military regime would stand to gain $24 billion over the 20-year contract, or $1.2 billion per year,” from the Shwe field, from which gas will be piped to China. A joint Indian-South Korean consortium is involved in the Shwe project.

The Yadana field has generated an estimated $7.5 billion in sales to Thailand, but if the junta is using this money to develop missiles and enrich uranium, it could mark the beginning of a regional arms race, according to author Linter.

Other defectors interviewed for the report said that the junta wants to develop missiles with a 3,000 to 4,000 kilometer range, possibly even able to reach the US military base on Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

Countries closer to Burma might have more reason to be worried however. “Thailand and India will have to counter this,” he said, adding that “this will definitely be seen as a threat in Thailand.”

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