As North Korea's recent nuclear test raises tensions in Asia, rogue state Myanmar's nuclear program is ringing alarm bells in the Western world, say Greenpeace and a local expert.
Myanmar's notorious junta, which has been subject to Western economic sanctions because of its poor human rights record, has attracted criticism over its plan to develop nuclear reactors. In 2002 it was reported that the Russian government had agreed to help the military junta build a nuclear research facility that would be used to develop reactors for medical and electricity resources.
The US has shunned Myanmar's nuclear plans, saying Yangon has neither the legal framework nor the provisions that would safeguard its nuclear program from posing a security threat.
"Nuclear power and nuclear arms are different sides of the same coin. Every nuclear-power-wielding state can turn into a nuclear-armed nation," said Tessa de Ryck, an anti- nuclear campaigner from Greenpeace Southeast Asia.
"North Korea is an example. Once a country possesses a nuclear power plant, it is hard for the international community to restrict ambitions to develop nuclear weapons."
The global community failed to persuade North Korea from conducting another nuclear test last week after the collapse of six-party talks last year. The United States is yet to determine how it will respond to the North test, which has provoked more hostilities with neighboring South Korea and Japan.
Japan is reported likely to persuade China, who has provided economic support for Pyongyang, to take a tougher stance to the North regime. China has also ensured economic support for Myanmar, undermining economic sanctions imposed by the West.
Ten ASEAN members signed the 1995 Bangkok Treaty that outlined a nuclear-weapon-free zone and an agreement not to abuse nuclear technology. However, precedents have shown the bloc has no leverage in meddling in the domestic affairs of member countries in case of any standoffs.
ASEAN consists of Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philip-pines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.
Myanmar has become the center of attention recently over the fresh trial of opposition leader and Nobel Peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been under house arrest for 13 out of the 19 years since her party won a landslide victory in 1990. ASEAN leaders have come under fire for their leniency toward Myanmar at a time when the West has been considering imposing yet more sanctions on Myanmar.
"No one can ask Myanmar to adhere to the human rights commitment they have made under the ASEAN Charter that entered into force last year," said Bantarto Bandoro, the chairman of the Indonesian Institution for Strategic Studies. "If Myanmar later abuses the nuclear plant to produce arms, there would be no one that could ask them to stop."
Greenpeace has predicted that nuclear power plants in the ASEAN region would be able to produce up to 200 nuclear bombs a year, considering it takes only 5 kilograms of plutonium to make a nuclear warhead.
Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines have already notified the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) of their intention to operate nuclear power plants in the near future as an alternative to non-renewable energy resources.
Indonesia relies on coal, oil and gas to generate electricity for its population of 240 million. Along with the rise in industrial production, the government has sought to develop four nuclear plants that could support 10 percent of its electricity demands by 2025.
Similarly, Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam all aim to either build or operate nuclear power plants by 2020, while the Philippines has plans to revive its closed Bataan nuclear power plant.
Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Myanmar and Malaysia have signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty.