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Myanmar's nuclear ambition is apparently real and alarming

  • Robert Kelley

Jakarta | Fri, June 25 2010 | 11:38 am

Less than two months after the conclusion of President Obama's Nuclear Security Summit in Washington, DC, a recently-released documentary exposed the nuclear ambitions of Myanmar, a deeply troubled and highly repressive state in Southeast Asia.

The evidence presented in the Democratic Voice of Myanmar's documentary, "Myanmar's Nuclear Ambitions", is thorough, compelling, and alarming.

Although Myanmar's pursuit of nuclear weapons has long been rumored, the DVB's documentary contains new information from a recent defector who provided the DVB with hundreds of photographs, documents, and a view from inside the highly secretive military that should finally put to rest any doubt about Myanmar's nuclear ambition.

The evidence includes chemical processing equipment for converting uranium compounds into forms for enrichment, reactors and bombs. Taken altogether in Myanmar's covert program, they have but one use - nuclear weapons.

Prior to the airing of the documentary, the DVB, a Burmese-language shortwave radio and satellite TV news organization, invited a team of leading international experts, including individuals with experience in military tunneling, missiles, nuclear proliferation, and weapons inspections protocol to review its information and assess its conclusions.

The evidence was so consistent - from satellite images to blue prints to color photographic evidence to insider accounts to detailed budgets - and so copious that I agreed to appear in the documentary to offer my expert advice concerning Myanmar's nuclear ambitions.

As a former Los Alamos analyst and a director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), I have spent the better part of 30 years investigating allegations of this nature. After a careful review of the information, I became convinced that Myanmar's pursuit of nuclear technology violates the limits imposed on it by its agreements with the IAEA.

I authored a report on the findings, "Nuclear Activities in Myanmar," which explains the evidence and concludes that Myanmar is probably in violation of several international agreements concerning nuclear proliferation.

However, the IAEA is limited in its leverage over Myanmar. Myanmar has failed to upgrade its two obsolete IAEA agreements and has failed to execute a new agreement with the IAEA called the "Additional Protocol", which would give the IAEA greater powers to question Myanmar's leaders and to demand inspections in the country. The Additional Protocol was a priority of former IAEA director general and Nobel Peace Prize winner Mohamed ElBaradei.

In May, Chad became the 100th country to have signed the Additional Protocol, while only a few remain outside its reach, including Iran and Syria.

Myanmar also shields itself from questions and inspections using another out-of-date agreement called a "Small Quantities Protocol". This protocol exempts states that only have small amounts of nuclear materials and no nuclear facilities from IAEA inspections and close oversight.

The new evidence presented in the DVB documentary makes a compelling case that Myanmar's pursuit of nuclear weapons now places it in the category of countries where the "Small Quantities Protocol" would no longer apply.

With out-dated protocols governing its participation with the IAEA, Myanmar may believe that it can resist IAEA demands. However, given the serious and troubling nature of the allegations of Myanmar's nuclear ambitions, the IAEA and the international community must vigorously pursue all of the tools at their disposal to compel the State Peace and Development Council's cooperation.

For starters, the IAEA can unilaterally cut off all aid to Myanmar in improving its nuclear infrastructure through expert visits, grants and equipment purchases, and to any other state that has not signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty or agreed to the Additional Protocol.

While these new agreements are voluntary, the provision of so-called technical cooperation funds is a voluntary act on the part of the IAEA as well. It would send a clear message to Myanmar that the IAEA and the international community takes this issue seriously and that it will no longer tolerate anything less than Myanmar's full cooperation with the international community on the monitoring of Myanmar's nascent nuclear program.

Although some of the aid (US$1.3 million in 2008-2009) goes for medical and humanitarian assistance, other programs support training nuclear experts and professionals in Myanmar, which is clearly inconsistent with the IAEA's interest in trying to nip a covert nuclear program in the bud.

The new information on Myanmar's nuclear ambitions is now available to experts and governments around the world. Yet, even before the IAEA has even officially enquired about it, the Burmese government has denied it. Given Myanmar's track record in working with the international community on issues much less threatening than proliferation, there is little doubt what Myanmar's answer will be when they are formally asked.

DVB's reportage brought to light Myanmar's nuclear ambition; it is also a call to anyone in Myanmar who knows more about covert programs in nuclear, missile technology, and other weapons of mass destruction to come forward. Other defectors, such as Major Sai Thein Win, are likely to come forward. Many people know the truth and it will take only a few more brave souls to expose the program for the world to see.

Too many states have proliferated while the world stood back and watched year after year. The A. Q. Khan network sold nuclear weapons technology from Pakistan and operated observed but untouched for possibly twenty years. The possibility that Myanmar is trying to build nuclear weapons has been a suspicion for the last decade but now the evidence is much clearer. The world needs to get serious about choking off Myanmar's covert program through export controls via the Nuclear Suppliers Group and strengthening the hand of the IAEA.

Myanmar is one of the world's most repressive and secretive regimes. Its ample natural wealth, including gas and oil reserves that will bring in billions of dollars annually in hard currency, make it a natural buyer for North Korea and other countries with nuclear know-how to sell.

Last month the UN Security Council received a 47-page report issued by a seven-member panel of experts on North Korea's exporting nuclear technology. The UN experts noted "suspicious activity in Myanmar".

Myanmar's pursuit of nuclear weapons requires immediate international attention. Allowing yet another dictatorship to acquire the world's most powerful weapons is not an option.

The writer is a former director of the IAEA.

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