Reading Burma’s nuclear dreams

Even as Burma’s military junta prepares to address the issue of the forthcoming elections in October 2010, a documentary aired on Qatar-based TV news channel Al Jazeera, about the possibility of Burma developing a nuclear weapons programme, brings a deafening silence to the voices that were urging engagement with the Burmese junta.
The documentary’s “source” is from within the Burmese military junta and the footage shown on Al Jazeera was acquired from a defector within the military. The documentary, compiled over a period of five years with the help of a Norway-based independent group in exile called the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), had images and documentary proof of tunnels and nuclear facilities — evidence that showed the extent of the development of these facilities being pursued by the junta in connivance with North Korea, which is said to be providing the technology. Speculation suggests that assistance includes both weapons technology and ballistic missile capability.
While the documentary’s source and evidence lends some credibility to the matter, it is still not conclusive enough to say with surety that the Burmese government does intend to acquire nuclear weapons capability.
The news of Burma’s nuclear ambitions is not really new. This issue has been in the public domain for more than a decade. The Burmese search for nuclear capability began as early as 2000 when Russia was engaged to build a 10-megawatt nuclear capable reactor to assist the process of acquiring fuel technology. However, the project did not take off as planned and for nearly seven years the issue was forgotten.
In 2007, news reports alluding to Burma’s nuclear ambitions appeared again, this time in the context of Russia supplying technology and low-grade uranium to assist with research for peaceful uses in the fields of medical and agricultural science.
Though there were some passing references to scientific and technological training being provided by Russia, Burma’s plan to seek assistance from the Russians for a nuclear reactor did not materialise.
However, 2008 onwards there have been several reports about growing ties between North Korea and Burma. Given that the North Korean technology is widely seen as a threat to the entire region, there has been speculation on two parallel lines — one is about Burma actually acquiring the technology for weapons capability, the other is that Burma is being used by the North Korean leadership as a dock for piling its own weapons and using it as an ally. Given that the two regimes have been increasingly isolated, this spectre does not seem very far fetched.
Increasing international condemnation of the Burmese military junta and the growing perception that Burma is being forced to reconsider its approach to a democratic setup are critical issues that may have given the necessary push towards closer ties with states like North Korea.
In fact, Burma’s diplomatic ties with North Korea remained suspended till 2007. In 2008, a defence MoU (Memorandum of Understanding) was signed between the two countries with specific reference to nuclear technology and ballistic missile capabilities.
What needs to be borne in mind is that increased isolation from the international community has only enhanced the threat perceptions of the Burmese leadership. Over the years the leadership has become more and more intransigent and allowed itself little engagement with the rest of the world. This isolation will only push Burma towards greater dependency on countries that have a clear record of proliferation — i.e. China, Pakistan and North Korea.
Support for Burma from within the region has been growing — its integration into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) has been one of the factors that has allowed for the economic gap between Burma and its other Southeast Asian neighbours to be reduced. Also, China has remained Burma’s critical ally, with India and Russia establishing clear ties. This degree of engagement with Burma has in some ways been more effective in bringing more international focus upon Burma. But the engagement policy needs to be nuanced — keep the junta engaged while maintaining a focus on issues of human rights and democracy.
Isolating Burma would push it further towards the North Korea example. Given the political instability within Burma and the fact that their technical know-how for maintenance of nuclear capability is very low, the Burmese leadership would be shortsighted to follow the dangerous example of North Korean. Moreover, as concerns of terrorist related sabotage of nuclear facilities are mounting, Burma should not risk its political survival by following the modus operandi of the North Korean leadership.

Burma going down the nuclear road has several wide-ranging implications. For the Asean there is likely to be a serious imbalance given that the 10-member regional grouping clearly endorses the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ). This was the outcome of deliberations that emerged as early as 1995 and was called the Bangkok Treaty. The Asean has been trying to reign in its dialogue partners to come on board this treaty. Both China and India have endorsed it, but the US has used its presence in the Korean peninsula to remain outside the SEANWFZ.
During the Monks’ Revolution in 2007, the Asean voiced its concerns over the deteriorating political conditions within Burma but stopped short of suspending it. But now, considering that Burma is a signatory to the SEANWFZ and its intent to acquire nuclear weapons technology will impact the regional security order, the Asean cannot use the non-interference provision. It must be more concerted in its action against Burma.
A three-pronged strategy could be followed to deal with Burma — First, push the agenda on a special international forum on Burma; the forum must include the Asean, China, India, Russia and the US. Second, clearly set aside the non-intervention in domestic affairs clause which Asean follows and ask Burma for transparency as a signatory to the SEANWFZ. And finally, let there be clear incentives in place for moving forward with the process of national reconciliation and elections.
A country that has been isolated for nearly 60 years and has been consistently testing the patience of the international community, is now on the verge of pushing those limits again, this time by acquiring nuclear capability. Under these circumstances the Asean and its partners in the wider region, including both India and China, cannot remain mute spectators.

Dr Shankari Sundararaman is an associate professor of Southeast Asian Studies at the School of International Studies, JNU

Post new comment

<form action="/comment/reply/17851" accept-charset="UTF-8" method="post" id="comment-form"> <div><div class="form-item" id="edit-name-wrapper"> <label for="edit-name">Your name: <span class="form-required" title="This field is required.">*</span></label> <input type="text" maxlength="60" name="name" id="edit-name" size="30" value="Reader" class="form-text required" /> </div> <div class="form-item" id="edit-mail-wrapper"> <label for="edit-mail">E-Mail Address: <span class="form-required" title="This field is required.">*</span></label> <input type="text" maxlength="64" name="mail" id="edit-mail" size="30" value="" class="form-text required" /> <div class="description">The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.</div> </div> <div class="form-item" id="edit-comment-wrapper"> <label for="edit-comment">Comment: <span class="form-required" title="This field is required.">*</span></label> <textarea cols="60" rows="15" name="comment" id="edit-comment" class="form-textarea resizable required"></textarea> </div> <fieldset class=" collapsible collapsed"><legend>Input format</legend><div class="form-item" id="edit-format-1-wrapper"> <label class="option" for="edit-format-1"><input type="radio" id="edit-format-1" name="format" value="1" class="form-radio" /> Filtered HTML</label> <div class="description"><ul class="tips"><li>Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.</li><li>Allowed HTML tags: &lt;a&gt; &lt;em&gt; &lt;strong&gt; &lt;cite&gt; &lt;code&gt; &lt;ul&gt; &lt;ol&gt; &lt;li&gt; &lt;dl&gt; &lt;dt&gt; &lt;dd&gt;</li><li>Lines and paragraphs break automatically.</li></ul></div> </div> <div class="form-item" id="edit-format-2-wrapper"> <label class="option" for="edit-format-2"><input type="radio" id="edit-format-2" name="format" value="2" checked="checked" class="form-radio" /> Full HTML</label> <div class="description"><ul class="tips"><li>Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.</li><li>Lines and paragraphs break automatically.</li></ul></div> </div> </fieldset> <input type="hidden" name="form_build_id" id="form-7fcb78483bc0272cc4118e5d0379320a" value="form-7fcb78483bc0272cc4118e5d0379320a" /> <input type="hidden" name="form_id" id="edit-comment-form" value="comment_form" /> <fieldset class="captcha"><legend>CAPTCHA</legend><div class="description">This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.</div><input type="hidden" name="captcha_sid" id="edit-captcha-sid" value="62931830" /> <input type="hidden" name="captcha_response" id="edit-captcha-response" value="NLPCaptcha" /> <div class="form-item"> <div id="nlpcaptcha_ajax_api_container"><script type="text/javascript"> var NLPOptions = {key:'c4823cf77a2526b0fba265e2af75c1b5'};</script><script type="text/javascript" src="" ></script></div> </div> </fieldset> <span class="btn-left"><span class="btn-right"><input type="submit" name="op" id="edit-submit" value="Save" class="form-submit" /></span></span> </div></form>

No Articles Found

No Articles Found

No Articles Found

I want to begin with a little story that was told to me by a leading executive at Aptech. He was exercising in a gym with a lot of younger people.

Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen didn’t make the cut. Neither did Shaji Karun’s Piravi, which bagged 31 international awards.