Burma’s alleged nuclear weapons program

Author: Trevor Wilson, ANU

Claims that Burma is planning a nuclear weapons program have been circulating ever since Burma began a nuclear science training program with Russia in 2002, but until recently there was little hard evidence to back up these claims. A detailed report published in June from a Burmese Army defector and commissioned by the democracy advocacy broadcasting network, Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) finally provided some evidence for the claims.

The June report was scrutinised by  former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector, Robert Kelley, an American. Kelley found no evidence that weapons production was close at hand but found the allegations to be serious. Viewing the physical evidence item-by-item in his report for DVB, Kelley suggested that, although the main source on the ‘intentions’ of the military regime was an army defector, it merely ‘implied an intention’ to acquire nuclear weapons.

This and similar media reports prompted a public denial by the Burmese regime, which rejected the claims as ‘groundless’ and ‘unfounded’. An additional press statement published by the regime referred to Burma’s record of supporting non-proliferation and cooperation with the IAEA, including hosting an IAEA inspection visit in 2002. In a subsequent Jakarta Post opinion piece on 25 June, Kelley wrote that ‘taken altogether…, in Myanmar’s covert program (has)…but one use, nuclear weapons’. But is this unequivocally the case?

What has been the response of the international community?

Western Governments, generally hyper-sensitive about any potential ‘rogue’ nuclear development, have been forced by media publicity to declare ‘concern’ about such reports, but have strikingly not confirmed the content of the claims. This low-key reaction may be explained by the lack of conclusive evidence of a Burmese nuclear weapons program. A US State Department report, Adherence to and Compliance with Arms Control, Nonproliferation, and Disarmament Agreements published in July stated that Washington ‘lacks evidence to support a conclusion that Burma has violated its NPT obligations or IAEA safeguards’.

This Western ‘concern’ is not shared by other members of the international community. Burma’s Asian neighbours have shown no signs of alarm. At the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi on 22 July, Burma’s UN Security Council ally Russia was able to allay EU concerns by reportedly saying that firm evidence was still lacking and more investigations were needed.

So far other ASEAN members have only issued mild public statements on the subject. None have criticised the Burmese regime, which until now was following several other ASEAN members in its quest for nuclear science capabilities for peaceful uses.

The issue has also not yet been taken up in the UN Security Council or by the UN Secretary-General, suggesting that it may be premature to accuse Burma of breaching any international rules.

But the IAEA has been rather tardy in responding to these potentially worrying developments.

In its only statement to date, the IAEA said it had looked into the reports and it is interested in receiving further information from the Burmese regime. Yet the IAEA’s hands are somewhat tied by its own procedures, under which NPT signatories are permitted small quantities of nuclear material without disclosure.  There is now pressure on the regime to sign an Additional Protocol, which would allow the IAEA to carry out unannounced inspections of Burma’s nuclear facilities.

What, then, should be done?

Some of the reporting about Burma’s nuclear ambitions is exaggerated and misleading, which is probably inevitable given the military regime’s obsessive secrecy regarding defence and security matters. Most media reporting comes from sources associated with the Burmese opposition and is not necessarily impartial, which is why the independent assessment of ex-IAEA director Kelley is significant. While there is considerable physical evidence about its nuclear activities, insights into the intentions of the regime’s leadership still depend on uncorroborated statements by defectors.

Despite this, there is now an urgent need to get to the bottom of the speculation and, if necessary, stop Burma’s nuclear program from moving in unacceptable directions. If the regime’s denial is true, they have nothing to lose by inviting IAEA inspectors to confirm it. IAEA Inspections would reassure Burma’s neighbours and the international community, and would generate greater confidence in the regime’s own statements.

For its part, the IAEA should seize the opportunity to take firm preventative action without infringing Burma’s formal rights. Although the scope for effective action is restricted, the IAEA has a working relationship with Burma and can determine if there is a legitimate case for concern. Burma generally observes international requirements, with the notable exception of human rights, where its performance has long been widely condemned. On the whole, the military regime is likely to respect the authority of the IAEA rather than run the risk of incurring UN Security Council sanctions for the first time.

Trevor Wilson is Visiting Fellow in Political and Social Change at the Australian National University and former Australian Ambassador to Burma.

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