Is Burma going to be the ninth nuclear-weapon state after the P5 and the India, Pakistan and Israel trio? Does today's most notorious military dictatorship pose a third potential nuclear threat after North Korea and Iran?
The questions are intriguing. Even more intriguing, however, is the fact that they are not being asked. The South East Asian country, notorious for its military junta that refuses to allow citizens the least civil or political liberty, did not figure as a "rogue state" at the May nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference in New York. That issue was conspicuously off agenda, despite all the anti-proliferation rhetoric spewed at this forum.
The questions are not being raised even after reports have appeared that provide a basis for apprehensions about a Burmese nuclear-weapon program in the offing. Grounds exist, by some expert calculations, for fear that the Rangoon regime may have a handful of nuclear bombs to back its brazen defiance of world opinion and of domestic demands for democracy.
If the reported program is not ruled out, other implications are cause for international concern as well. Burma would then be the first nation in South East Asia to entertain nuclear ambitions. This, observers agree, would change the geopolitical situation
radically in a region with more than its share of close US allies and base keepers, such as Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia.
Burma is also too close to South Asia for India and Pakistan, the two nuclear-armed neighbors in this never-quiet region, to be indifferent to the emergence of a contender. In New Delhi, in particular, security analysts have already gotten busy speculating about what a Burmese nuclear capacity will mean in view of the "strategic relations" between Rangoon and Beijing.
The first story about Burma's ticking bomb, the cause of all this concern, came in February 2009, from Australia's strategic expert Professor Desmond Ball and journalist Phil Thornton. Evidence presented by an ex-officer of the Burmese Army provides the latest exposé. United Nations nuclear weapons inspector Robert E. Kelley examined that evidence in June 2010 and found it credible.
The Australian duo came out with their findings after a two-year-long investigation, consisting mostly of "clandestine meetings" with two Burmese defectors conducted "in dingy rooms and safe-houses," from June 2007. The first of the unnamed defectors was an ex-Army officer with ten years' experience. The other was a former bookkeeper for business baron Tay Za, a close associate of senior Burmese Army generals, including dictator Gen. Than Swe. Za's company, Htoo Trading Company, is reported to have arranged the nuclear contracts with Russia and North Korea.
The "essence" of the defectors' testimonies, according to a report of the investigation, was that Burma had "key parts of the nuclear fuel cycle" already in place. The ex-officer told Ball and Thornton that the Army ''planned'' to build a plutonium reprocessing plant at Naung Laing in Burma's north, and that Russian experts were already ''teaching plutonium reprocessing'' at the site.
A ''nuclear battalion'' was set up in 2000 to work on the ''weaponization'' aspects of the nuclear program. By 2012, according to the former soldier, Burma was to have 1,000 people trained, obviously not just for running a nuclear reactor. "Much more is going on," as he put it.
The civilian defector, with his high-level connections, was even more certain about the junta's nuclear plans. He scoffed at Rangoon's claims of the peaceful purposes of the program. "They say it's to produce medical isotopes for health purposes in hospitals. How many hospitals in Burma have nuclear science? Burma can barely get electricity up and running."
The defectors' more interesting claim concerned the program's North Korean connection. This was a result of a dramatic reversal in relations between the two countries distinguished by their international isolation.
Burma had cut off diplomatic relations with North Korea way back in 1983 after a bombing incident in Rangoon, when a South Korean delegation was targeted and several lives lost. In the nineties, however, ties between the two pariah countries were secretly resumed behind Burma's heavy teak curtain, with significant progress in nuclear cooperation, according to several sources.
The cooperation is thought to have taken serious shape in September 2000, when a memorandum of understanding on the subject was signed. Four more detailed contracts followed in 2001-02. All this, according to some unofficial reports, led to the installation of two nuclear reactors, in Naung Laing and Myaing (in central Burma). Some other accounts, however, say that the Naung Laing site is only "a decoy," designed to deflect attention from Myaing. Some other stories report still more reactors.
The agreements between the two countries covered nuclear-related activities at the two sites and involved North Korea's assistance to help install and maintain a uranium refining and enrichment plant. Two years ago, there were reports of uranium being mined at about ten locations in Burma.
The investigation by Ball and Thornton yielded the estimate that Burma could produce at least one nuclear bomb a year from 2014 on and conceivably have a handful of nukes by 2020.
It is not only North Korea that reports have linked to Burma's nuclear program. When US troops occupied Afghanistan post-9/11, they reportedly found evidence of contacts among al-Qaeda and some retired as well as serving Pakistani nuclear scientists. They were said to have short-listed four names - retired scientists Sultan Bashiruddin Ahmed Chaudhry and Abdul Majid, and serving scientists Sulaiman Assad and Mohammad Mukhtar.
Under pressure from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) was said to have taken the two retired scientists into custody, and then released them. Assad and Mukhtar, however, reportedly managed to flee to Burma. There was uncorroborated speculation that the ISI did not want them to be questioned by the FBI, as they had knowledge of the proliferation activities conducted from Pakistan.
The story of June 2010 broke when former Burmese Army Maj. Sai Thein Win delivered a cache of color photographs and personal recollections concerning the junta's nuclear quest to the dissident Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB).
On examination of the evidence, retired UN weapons inspector Kelley wrote:
"Photographs could be faked, but there are so many and they are so consistent with other information and within themselves that they lead to a high degree of confidence that Burma is pursuing nuclear technology." He described the evidence presented in the DVB documentary, "Myanmar's Nuclear Ambitions" as "thorough, compelling, and alarming."
Kelley added: "The evidence includes chemical processing equipment for converting uranium compounds into forms for enrichment, reactors and bombs. Taken altogether in Myanmar's covert program, they have but one use - nuclear weapons."
The response from those who have been denouncing the junta's murder of democracy has been strangely muted. Doug Bandow, a former special assistant to President Ronald Reagan, writes: "... Burmese interest in nuclear power runs back decades. That does not, however, mean the regime has an interest in developing nuclear weapons."
Bandow argues: "Burma is a most unlikely nuclear weapons state. It has only about half of North Korea's per capita GDP. Lack of funds is thought to have held up planned Russian construction of a nuclear research reactor - which would operate under international safeguards." He adds: "The regime must spend heavily on the army to suppress domestic protest and ethnic resistance, purposes for which atomic weapons would be useless. And the regime faces no serious outside threats."
Earth Rights International's Paul Donowitz supplies a contrary view: Burma, he says, has been able to finance its nuclear program through natural gas sales to Thailand from the Yadana and Yetagun projects. Investigations show that billions in gas sales revenues to the junta never enters Burma, remaining instead in off-shore accounts in Singapore, Dubai, and possibly elsewhere. These foreign exchange reserves provide the generals with the US dollars to purchase nuclear technology.
Donowitz talks of recent efforts to persuade foreign oil companies operating in Burma - including Chevron (US), Total (France) and PTTEP (Thailand) - to disclose their payments to the junta. The companies have refused to disclose this information.
On July 5, 2010, in Paris, Earth Rights International released an explosive, 49-page report titled "Energy Insecurity: How Total, Chevron, and PTTEP Contribute to Human Rights Violations, Financial Secrecy, and Nuclear Proliferation in Burma." The report describes how the oil companies Total (France), Chevron (US) and PTTEP (Thailand) have generated over 9 billion US dollars, nearly US $5 billion of which has gone directly to the junta.
Obviously, corporate profit-seeking and crusades for democracy and against nuclear proliferation go ill together.