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International Action Needed to Halt Burma’s Nuclear Efforts

By Burma Partnership  •  July 5, 2010

In early June, we wrote about a shocking documentary by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) and aired on Al-Jazeera that revealed the military regime’s attempts to develop a nuclear program. Based on the testimony of high-ranking defectors and photographic evidence verified by a number of nuclear experts, the report revealed the junta’s extensive network of military bunkers throughout the country, factories containing machines to build missiles and nuclear weapons, and North Korea’s cooperation and mentorship on the project.

While such projects have been suspected for the past decade, the reporting of the evidence was enough for US Senator Jim Webb, a vocal supporter of engagement with the regime, to cancel his scheduled trip to Burma.

On 14 June, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) wrote to Burma’s representative questioning whether the DVB’s report was true. The regime responded in an 18 June report in the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper that the allegations were “groundless and unfounded,” denying that such programs were even being planned. However, the documentary has reportedly left Senior General Than Shwe quite angry with the officials responsible for the nuclear program for leaving him out in dark. Apparently, Than Shwe was under the impression the program was close to being completed.

Following the airing of the report, intelligence agents swarmed Major Sai Thein Win’s hometown of Kyaukme in Shan State, interrogating family members. Top military leaders are reportedly worried about “internal unity” in the army, especially following the desertion of two Air Defense captains.

Further reports have emerged illustrating the regime’s military relationship with both North Korea and China. As recently as April 2010, North Korean-made truck-mounted multiple launch rocket systems have been delivered to Burma and set up at new radar and missile bases throughout the country. Burma’s air force recently procured 50 jet trainer aircraft from China. Chinese company Norinco also reportedly supplied Burma’s military with heavy artillery prior to being awarded a contract to mine the lucrative Monywa copper mine in Sagaing Division.

With mounting evidence of the serious and troubling developments in Burma’s nuclear program, the international community must take concrete steps before it is too late. The IAEA has so far failed to disclose how the agency plans to deal with the military regime’s disregard for international agreements. Former Los Alamos analyst and IAEA director, Robert Kelley, has argued that the agency is limited in its leverage over Burma because the country has failed to upgrade existing IAEA agreements and execute the new “Additional Protocol” agreement. However, in an op-ed in the Nation, Kelley suggested that the IAEA could “unilaterally cut off all aid to Burma in improving its nuclear infrastructure through expert visits, grants and equipment purchases.”

Additionally, ASEAN must hold Burma accountable to the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon Free Zone Treaty of which it is a signatory. The ASEAN Ministerial Meeting beginning on 19 July in Hanoi, Vietnam, is a crucial opportunity for regional governments to discuss Burma’s violation of the bloc’s nuclear agreement. As an issue of security for the people of Burma, ASEAN, and the world, Burma’s nuclear program must also be placed on the agenda for the subsequent ASEAN Summit.

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