Burma's ruling generals have decided to build a nuclear reactor. What for? "Medical purposes," says Burma's foreign minister, yet the country doesn't have the technology to make radioactive isotopes used in medicine. It does, however, have a shady history regarding weapons of mass destruction. In the mid-1990s, the respected arms control group International Peace Research Institute, as well as American intelligence, accused Burma of possessing a chemical-weapons program. Burma's neighbors --- and the U.S.--- certainly can't be reassured by the fact that two Pakistani nuclear scientists whom the CIA reportedly wanted to question about potential ties to Al Qaeda were sent to Burma shortly after Sept. 11 on an unknown research project, and allegedly haven't returned. [...]Why couldn't Kurlantzick publish his eye-opening report in a major press outlet? Because Burma wasn't on anybody's list at the time -- at least, not in the West.
The junta plans to build the reactor even though its power grid has collapsed. When I was in Burma last year, my hotel's electricity failed roughly every fifteen minutes. Much of Burma's gas is sold abroad, and provides little benefit to ordinary Burmese. Security at Rangoon's atomic energy department is so bad that foreign journalists have walked right in past sleeping guards. More than 300 Burmese technicians have received training at a Moscow nuclear laboratory over the past year, and Russia plans to provide more technical and financial help to the reactor project.
And who knows what other countries are contributing to Burma's nuclear know-how? According to William Ashton, a Southeast Asian security expert, since the early 1990s, the Burmese military service has developed a close relationship with Pakistan, which has sold large amounts of weaponry to Rangoon. Were the Pakistani nuclear scientists in town to assist Rangoon in making fissile material? If not, Burma might turn to the North Koreans. In the past year, Pyongyang has drastically boosted its ties to the junta, selling Burma weapons and sending its second highest-ranking leader on visits to Rangoon.
In January 2002, the US Department of State fielded questions about Burma's planned nuke research center by mildly observing that they expected Burma and Russia to live up to their obligations as parties to the Nonproliferation Treaty. They also said that Burma had "accepted International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards on the totality of its nuclear projects (that is, "full-scope" safeguards), which would include this research reactor."
By May of this year, when the Russia deal with Burma had ground forward and it was clear that Burma's economy was on the verge of collapse, State sounded more alarmed:
State Department spokesman Tom Casey said the Asian state had neither the "legal frame" nor the "safeguard provisions" for a nuclear programme. "We would be concerned about the possibility for accidents, for environmental damage, or for proliferation simply by the possibility of fuel being diverted, stolen or otherwise removed," he said.Burma's nuke angle throws light on China's about-face in signing up for a tough UN statement on Burma's regime. And the angle suggests that China had more than the obvious reasons to pressure North Korea at the Six-Party Talks. A nuclear-armed Burma would be a nightmare for China -- and for all Burma's neighbors.
The angle also might explain the rumor that Than Shwe moved the capital to the jungle because he was scared the US would bomb his headquarters. He should have no worries on that score, but he might worry about some of his neighbors getting worried about his nuke program.
Say, whatever did happen to those two Pakistani nuclear scientists?