Burma developing nuclear capabilities: Is US-Burma thaw connected to it?

2012-01-01
Editor News Analysis
Asian Tribune Foreign News Desk

The Obama administration through secretary of state Hillary Clinton has sounded that the United States was willing to lift economic embargoes imposed on Myanmar (widely known as Burma) and has instructed the US Congress to take steps to relax the regulations to renew trade and commerce dealings between the two nations.

The lifting of stringent measures by the ruling military junta on human rights, rule of law and good governance, releasing Democratic Movement leader Aung San suu-ki from a prolonged house arrest and allowing parliamentary elections after many decades resulted in the US-Burma thaw this year.

But Asian Tribune investigations and research have found that the US knowledge of Burma’s ongoing development of nuclear capabilities was the main reason behind the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts to bring Burma out of isolation and establish a dialogue between the two nations.

Of State Clinton’s visit to Burma last November, fifty years after a US secretary of state visited that nation, was interpreted as a significant diplomatic breakthrough of the Obama administration. This progressive diplomatic step was aimed at persuading the Burmese regime to give up its development of nuclear capabilities that the American administration was aware of.

The Asian Tribune investigation and research has revealed the building of this nuclear capabilities and how much the United States was aware of it.

The Institute for Science and International Security in its April 11, 2011 research document stated: “The debate over Burma’s nuclear ambitions continues. At ISIS, we have assessed that Burma’s military regime is a nuclear wannabe. It wants to develop nuclear technologies despite having little apparent civilian requirement for such capabilities. However, sparse information, limited international inspection mechanisms, and regime opacity limit the ability to assess allegations of secret nuclear activities in Burma. The key question remains whether North Korea has sold or will sell Burma’s military regime equipment for a nuclear reactor or a gas centrifuge plant or otherwise will help the regime’s nuclear effort.”

The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS), which works very closely with the American administration and International Atomic Energy Agency, is a non-profit, non-partisan institution dedicated to informing the public about science and policy issues affecting international security. Its primary focus is on stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and related technology to other nations and terrorists, bringing about greater transparency of nuclear activities worldwide, strengthening the international non-proliferation regime, and achieving deep cuts in nuclear arsenals.

The ISIS often complains that in the debate about Iran’s nuclear capabilities, assessments by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and a variety of governments have served to create a more accurate and balanced debate.

However, governments and the IAEA have so far shown little willingness to weigh in publicly on the allegations about alleged Burmese nuclear activities.

The Obama administration has now stepped in to bridge this lacuna in using diplomacy and strategic communication led by Clinton’s state department.

For several years, Burma has pursued uranium mining on at least a small scale. It would be logical that Burma would seek a capability to mill and possibly further process uranium. Burma’s interest in buying a safeguarded research reactor from Russia is also well documented.

In its statement to the IAEA General Conference in September 2009, Burma indicated that such “a research reactor with experimental facilities would be an indispensable tool for education and training, research and other peaceful applications in nuclear science and technology.”

In an important reversal, Burma’s vice president, Thiha Thura U Tin Aung Myint Oo, told a visiting U.S. delegation led by Senator John McCain on June 2 (2011) that the country “has halted [its nuclear research] program as [the] international community may misunderstand Myanmar over the issue.” The vice president said, “Myanmar made arrangements for nuclear research with the assistance of Russia in order that Myanmar will not lag behind other countries in that field and to improve its education and health sectors…,” he continued, “Myanmar is [in] no position to take account of nuclear weapons and does not have enough economic strength to do so.” This statement was followed by the announcement that Myanmar has halted its nuclear research due to the high potential for international confusion.

In early 2010, various Burmese dissident groups and news reports claimed that there were covert nuclear sites in Burma, including reactors and uranium mines and mills. The evidence behind these claims were largely based on defectors or analysis of ground photos and overhead imagery of suspected sites.

The Washington-based ISIS decided to test some of these claims, at least the ones where the actual site could be identified. Two sites were assessed and both appeared non-nuclear. This conclusion followed from a rather straightforward analysis of widely available imagery and relevant open source information.

Many of the claims involve suspect sites without enough information to identify their exact location. ISIS could not evaluate these sites. Nevertheless in the April 2011 document ISIS confirmed, after an extensive investigation, the existence of nuclear knowledge within the Burmese territory.

However the American authorities were aware of nuclear activity with Burma.
A series of State Department diplomatic cables released in early December 2010 reveal that the United States government closely tracks rumors of North Korean-Burmese nuclear, missile, and military cooperation. Included in these cables is information relating to: Rumors of a Secret Nuclear Reactor Project with the Assistance of North Korea.

The diplomatic cable dated January 20, 2004, a U.S. diplomat discusses an expatriate businessman from Burma’s conversation with another officer about rumors he heard about the government’s construction of a secret nuclear reactor near Minbu, Magwe Division, near the Irrawaddy River. The source spoke of weekly visits by a huge barge delivering rebar, which he was told was for “the construction of unnamed/unidentified factories.” He said that the materials appeared to be useful in the construction of projects larger than factories. The diplomat notes that rumors about a secret nuclear reactor in Burma date to 2002, when Russia and Burma discussed joint cooperation on a research reactor project, which ultimately fell through.

She writes that the rumors are now “sans the ‘Russia’ angle,” and have circulated with greater frequency since an article was published by the Far Eastern Economic Review which discussed growing military cooperation between Burma and North Korea. She notes that the rumors are yet without evidence, but reports about the construction of a nuclear reactor are “surprisingly consistent,” and “appear to be increasing, as are alleged sightings of North Korean ‘technicians’ inside Burma.”

Rumors about a secret reactor project in Burma have existed since Burma attempted to purchase a research reactor from Russia in 2001. Defectors have reported that the government is building or has built secret reactors with North Korean assistance, but these reports remain unconfirmed.

General Reports of North Korean-Burmese Nuclear Cooperation:

The cable, dated August 7, 2009, the Chargé d’Affaires (CDA) of the U.S. embassy in Rangoon reports about the Australian ambassador to Burma’s troubling conversation with a source (name redacted, but likely a Burmese government official) during which he told her “the Burma-DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] connection is not just about conventional weapons.”

“There is a peaceful nuclear component intended to address Burma’s chronic lack of electrical power generation.” The ambassador referenced reports about Burma’s agreement with Russia to buy a nuclear reactor, to which the source replied that the Russia agreement was for “software, training,” and the DPRK agreement was for “hardware.” The source confirmed that the third highest ranking junta official visited North Korea in November 2008 possibly to discuss military cooperation. The source concluded by expressing surprise that the West would be concerned about cooperation with North Korea, since given the sanctions on Burma it has “no other options.”

Another State Department cable, dated November 10, 2009, the CDA of the U.S. embassy in Rangoon recounts how the (name redacted) likely Burmese government official told the Australian ambassador that Burma and North Korea were engaged in “peaceful nuclear cooperation,” but then later changed his story and said there was a “misunderstanding.” The Australian ambassador had reacted initially with “incredulity” that “the GOB [Government of Burma] might consider nuclear cooperation of any sort with the DPRK to be acceptable.” The source later said that “GOB-DPRK conversations were merely ‘exploratory.’”

He did not confirm any direct nuclear cooperation, and said that the Kang Nam 1 affair (in which the U.S. Navy in the summer of 2009 succeeded in turning back to North Korea a cargo ship suspected to contain military equipment destined for Burma), and Secretary Hillary Clinton’s remarks about the incident “put everything on hold.” The source questioned why anyone should worry about Burma having relations with North Korea because many countries do. The U.S. official concludes by saying that the remark about everything being put on hold “leave[s] room for concern,” but that the source may not in fact be “well plugged in” on the nuclear issue. “GOB-DPRK cooperation remains opaque. Something is certainly happening; whether that something includes ‘nukes’ is a very open question…” The U.S. official’s concerns correlate with public U.S. government statements about nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Burma. There are rumors and suspicions that something is taking place, but no smoking gun to prove it.

Nevertheless, the likely Burmese official’s account provides additional reasons for apprehension. The cables show that U.S. officials in Burma continue to be vigilant about reporting back to the Secretary of State and U.S. intelligence and defense agencies about such accounts.

General Reports of North Korean-Burmese Nuclear Cooperation:

In the cable, dated August 7, 2009, the Chargé d’Affaires (CDA) of the U.S. embassy in Rangoon reports about the Australian ambassador to Burma’s troubling conversation with a source (name redacted, but likely a Burmese government official) during which he told her “the Burma-DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] connection is not just about conventional weapons.” “There is a peaceful nuclear component intended to address Burma’s chronic lack of electrical power generation.” The ambassador referenced reports about Burma’s agreement with Russia to buy a nuclear reactor, to which the source replied that the Russia agreement was for “software, training,” and the DPRK agreement was for “hardware.” The source confirmed that the third highest ranking junta official visited North Korea in November 2008 possibly to discuss military cooperation. The source concluded by expressing surprise that the West would be concerned about cooperation with North Korea, since given the sanctions on Burma it has “no other options.”

Another State Department cable dated November 10, 2009, the CDA (deputy ambassador) of the U.S. embassy in Rangoon recounts how the (name redacted) likely Burmese government official told the Australian ambassador that Burma and North Korea were engaged in “peaceful nuclear cooperation,” but then later changed his story and said there was a “misunderstanding.” The Australian ambassador had reacted initially with “incredulity” that “the GOB [Government of Burma] might consider nuclear cooperation of any sort with the DPRK to be acceptable.” The source later said that “GOB-DPRK conversations were merely ‘exploratory.’” He did not confirm any direct nuclear cooperation, and said that the Kang Nam 1 affair (in which the U.S. Navy in the summer of 2009 succeeded in turning back to North Korea a cargo ship suspected to contain military equipment destined for Burma), and Secretary Hillary Clinton’s remarks about the incident “put everything on hold.”

The source questioned why anyone should worry about Burma having relations with North Korea because many countries do. The U.S. official concludes by saying that the remark about everything being put on hold “leave[s] room for concern,” but that the source may not in fact be “well plugged in” on the nuclear issue. “GOB-DPRK cooperation remains opaque. Something is certainly happening; whether that something includes ‘nukes’ is a very open question…” The U.S. official’s concerns correlate with public U.S. government statements about nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Burma. There are rumors and suspicions that something is taking place, but no smoking gun to prove it.

Nevertheless, the likely Burmese official’s account provides additional reasons for apprehension. The cables show that U.S. officials in Burma continue to be vigilant about reporting back to the Secretary of State and U.S. intelligence and defense agencies about such accounts.

Reports about North Korean Cooperation on Military Installations and Missiles:

In the diplomatic cable, dated August 27, 2004, a U.S. diplomat discusses reports from a source (whose name has been redacted) that North Korea is helping Burma on the development of military related installations, including constructing a “concrete-reinforced underground facility” in Magwe division and working on surface-to-air missiles (SAMs). The source says “some 300 North Koreans are working at a secret construction site.” The diplomat notes that this number seems “improbably high,” “much higher than our best estimates of North Koreans in Burma.”

The source says he has personally seen North Koreans coming and going, and that outsiders are prohibited from entering the area. North Korea is supposedly constructing some 20 military related buildings for the Burmese army, including for artillery and infantry. The diplomat cautions, “…Readers should not consider this report alone to be definitive proof or evidence of sizeable North Korean military involvement with the Burmese regime.” The diplomat notes there have been reports that North Korea is involved in developing SAMs in Burma, or something else “of a covert or military-industrial nature.” He concludes, “Exactly what, and on what scale, remains to be determined.”

The rumors discussed in this cable indicate the U.S. government has kept tabs on public rumors of missile and military related cooperation between Burma and North Korea, including the construction of underground military facilities. While several news publications and groups have published photographs taken by defectors which purport to be underground military related installations built with the help of North Korea, their true purposes have not yet been fully born out. Burma has been implicated in several cases involving North Korea and the possible transshipment and illicit procurement of nuclear or missile related goods. It is known to have procured suspicious dual-use industrial equipment from European countries in 2006 and 2007, which intelligence agencies assessed went to two identical, heavily secured buildings located in remote parts of the country.

It is this scenario that pushed the United States toward Burma while diplomatic overtures were underway for about two years to make the military junta to open up and take moves toward a slow process of democratization. The U.S. Congress is soon to address the issue when it returns from the recess late January to lift economic embargoes and provide economic and other assistance to Burma (Myanmar).

-Asian Tribune –

About Tara Buakamsri

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