Suspicion Hardens over Burma’s Nuclear Ambitions (Article)
May 25, 2007
By Aung Zaw
Burma’s confirmation of plans to build a 10-megawatt nuclear reactor with the help of Russia’s federal atomic energy agency Rosatom is a wake-up call to the international community to pay more attention to the regime in Naypyidaw.
The regime, which faced international isolation and sanctions, claims that the planned nuclear reactor is to be built with a “peaceful purpose,” but that should be viewed with skepticism and not treated lightly.
Before commenting on the bizarre incident of a North Korean ship taking shelter from a storm by docking in Rangoon last week, amid talk of missile technology transfer and a “secret mission” to Burma, we should look at the history of the country’s keen interest in nuclear technology.
Burma’s interest in developing a nuclear research project and reactor dates back to the 1960s, when the late dictator Gen Ne Win authorized Burmese geologists and physicists to look for uranium in upper Burma and Kachin State. A government plane installed with uranium detection equipment combed areas in upper Burma, and promising deposits are believed to have been discovered. The finds were confirmed by geologists writing in Burmese language publications in the 1960s.
Some military documents also indicated that Japanese military research during World War II concluded that Korea and Burma had sufficient uranium to make an atomic bomb.
In early 1940, Gen Takeo Yasuda, director of the Aviation Technology Research Institute of the Imperial Japanese Army, directed his aide, Lt-Col Tatsusaburo Suzuki, to conduct research. Suzuki reported back to his boss in October 1940, saying Japan had access to sufficient uranium in Korea and Burma to make an atomic bomb.
This early research doesn’t indicate that Burma is in any position now to utilize its uranium for any but peaceful purposes, but the country has had its share of nutty professors and military leaders with dreams of establishing a “Fourth Burmese Empire.”
The spotlight falls here on Thein Oo Po Saw, a professor at Rangoon University’s Department of Physics who studied in Moscow in the 1970s and developed close ties with Russian nuclear experts. Later, he helped bring a number of Russian nuclear experts to Burma and developed the idea of a nuclear reactor in the mid-1990s.
Thein Oo Po Saw is retired now, but he’s still a senior member of the Myanmar Academy of Technicians and Scholars, and he continues to play a leading role in the regime-sponsored National Convention, which is drafting a new constitution. Interestingly, he and his intellectual group presented a suggestion in 2005 at the convention when delegates were discussing a chapter dealing with the defense of the Union of Myanmar [Burma].
The discussion included “conventional arms, ammunition and explosives and non-conventional sophisticated strategic arms” as well as “nuclear energy, nuclear fuel and radiation, and mineral resources that produce them, highly classified materials, objects, areas, technologies, researches and information and special security issues, accidents concerning the persons whose works involve highly classified materials, objects, areas, technologies, researches and information, and compensation and insurance cover for them in case of accidents,” according to official The New Light of Myanmar.
Another “nutty professor” behind the nuclear reactor project is U Thaung, Burma’s Minister for Science and Technology, who signed the reactor agreement in Moscow last week with his Russian counterpart Sergei Kiriyenko, the head of Russia’s atomic agency.
U Thaung attended Burma’s Defense Service Academy Intake (1) and was known as one of the brightest students in the class, with in-depth knowledge on Burma’s uranium. He served in successive Ne Win governments.
An extreme nationalist, Col U Thaung didn’t serve long in the army but was given an important position at the Ministry of Mines. He was director general of Burma's Department of Geological Survey and Mineral Exploration, a job he was given because of his extensive knowledge of uranium exploration in Burma.
He continued to serve under the current regime and was appointed Burma’s ambassador to the US. Recalled to Rangoon, he was given a ministerial post at the newly created Ministry of Science and Technology with instructions to deal with the Russians and begin the reactor project. He visited Moscow several times since 2000 in pursuit of the deal.
Long-existing plans to develop a research reactor had been interrupted by the 1988 national uprising, and former intelligence officers who worked under Gen Khin Nyunt told The Irrawaddy in 2006 that it wasn’t until 1996 that Burma’s Office of Strategic Studies, established with Gen Khin Nyunt’s blessing, reactivated the project.
The revival of the plans was unsurprising, and North Korean and Russian technicians and nuclear experts were invited to Burma to give advice.
U Thaung, who is close to Burma’s reclusive leader Snr-Gen Than Shwe, and Thein Oo Po Saw were back in business. Their aim was to build a strong and modern army by 2020 under a “Fourth Burmese Empire,” officials who are close to U Thaung told The Irrawaddy. The search for uranium in Burma intensified.
In the early 2000s, the regime confirmed publicly that uranium deposits had been found in five areas: Magwe, Taungdwingyi, Kyaukphygon and Paongpyin in Mogok, and Kyauksin. Residents of Thabeikkyin township, 60 miles north of Mandalay, said searches were underway in the area. The searches also extended to southern Tenasserim Division.
If one looked at these developments closely, it could be seen that serious preparations were underway.
In 2006, a new Nuclear Physics Department was launched in Rangoon and Mandalay universities, with students enrolled by the government.
Burma also sent several hundred students and army officers to Russia for nuclear research studies. About 300 Burmese military officers have reportedly been studying nuclear science in Russia.
Some students have returned home with their acquired knowledge, and U Thaung and his ministry officials might have thought it now had sufficient human resources to begin the reactor project.
The previous agreement with Moscow was reportedly called off in 2003 because of disputes over terms of payment. Than Shwe and his military leaders might now feel that cash is no longer a problem in view of Burma’s newly-discovered vast natural gas reserves.
Interestingly, Burma implemented the nuclear reactor project in the regime’s typically low key manner without arousing any international outcry or serious monitoring.
Former military intelligence officers who have seen classified documents claimed that the regime’s aim in developing a nuclear reactor is to arm the country with nuclear weapons. They say facilities have been prepared at Defense Industry No. 16 and No. 19, located in Prome, Pegu division.
Reports inside Burma say the reactor is to be built in Magwe, north of Prome, but the regime has not disclosed the exact location.
Burma’s development of its defense capability goes back to the early 1950s, when the country drew on German, Italian, Russian and Israeli assistance to give the country’s armed forces the muscle they needed to deal with insurgency and civil war.
Over the decades, Burma has built nearly 20 defense industries and factories in secure locations within and outside Rangoon. Arms factories manufactured conventional weapons, including automatic rifles, light machine guns and landmines. But two are believed to be involved in refining uranium¬ defense industries No.16 and No.19, established in Pauk Khaung in Prome, Ne Win’s birthplace, where he ordered the construction of the country’s second arms factory in the 1960s. This claim came from former intelligence officers and needs verification.
While it is hard to gauge Burma’s real nuclear ambitions, its shady relationship with North Korea has fuelled speculation and growing skepticism.
Last Sunday, a cargo ship from North Korea docked in Burma in what was believed to be the first port call by a North Korean ship since the two countries agreed last month to resume diplomatic relations. The Kang Nam I docked at Thilawa port, 30 km south of Rangoon, seeking shelter from a storm¬or so ran the official explanation for its presence.
By a strange coincidence, a North Korean cargo ship in distress anchored at a Burmese port last November, and the government reported that an on-board inspection had "found no suspicious material or military equipment." But journalists and embassies in Rangoon were skeptical.
Early last July, a dissident source told The Irrawaddy that a North Korean ship carrying a senior Korean nuclear technology expert, Maj Hon Kil Dong, arrived in Rangoon with a biological and nuclear package. Western analysts and intelligence sources quickly dismissed this report, however, but conceded it was possible that Burma would seek conventional arms and technology rather than high-tech long-rang missiles from Pyongyang.
Burma and North Korea last month resumed the diplomatic ties that had been broken in 1983 after a bomb attack in Rangoon by North Korean terrorists on a visiting South Korean delegation headed by then-President Chun Doo-hwan.
Clandestine contacts between the two countries were re-established several years ago as Burma stepped up its search for sources conventional weapons. But the question remains: why North Korea?
It is easy to speculate that Burma may be seeking nuclear technology from Pyongyang, although no solid evidence has emerged so far. It is legitimate, however, to raise the issue and to inquire into the regime’s intentions, in the interests of keeping nuclear technology out of the hands of irresponsible governments.
Although it is perhaps premature to conclude that Burma intends to undertake the complicated and perilous process of reprocessing uranium to get weapons-grade plutonium, as things stand at the moment, strong suspicions will continue to grow. In the US, for instance, officials have long been expressing concern about the likely transfer of nuclear technology to Burma from North Korea.
The go-ahead for the nuclear reactor project and the arrival of that North Korean ship are two developments that can hardly be coincidental. If the ship¬and the freighter that arrived last November¬carried not only conventional weapons but plutonium and processing materials to Burma, then it can indeed be suspected that Burma plans to skip the messy process of obtaining plutonium and move straight to the production of weapons.
The presence of such a suspicion presents a security concern for regional governments and the international community at large. Developments here have to be watched very closely indeed.
|Burma’s Nuclear Ambition
Burma’s nuclear ambitions, spotlighted by last month’s announcement that Russia hsa agreed to help the regime build a nuclear research facility, date back at least seven years. In December 1995, the junta signed the Bangkok Treaty, banning the development, manufacture, possession, control, stationing, transport, testing or use of nuclear weapons under the terms of the international Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Five years later, after a visit to Moscow by Burma’s minister for science and technology, U Thaung, the junta’s nuclear plans became clearer.
The Burmese government confirms plans to build a nuclear research reactor “for peaceful purposes.”
Russia’s Atomic Energy Ministry, known as Minatom, agrees to help Burma build a nuclear studies center, to include a 10-megawatt nuclear reactor and two laboratories in Magwe Division, central Burma. The agreement includes the construction of facilities for disposing of nuclear waste and Russian training for Burmese technicians.
Russia and Burma sign an agreement in Moscow on construction of the proposed nuclear research center in Burma.
April 9, 2004
Keith Luse, an aide to US Senator Richard Lugar, asks whether North Korea is providing nuclear technology to Burma during a Washington seminar organized by the Heritage Foundation, the conservative think-tank.
February 13, 2004
The Burmese government declares that it has “no desire” to develop nuclear weapons, but “has the right to develop nuclear facilities for peaceful purposes.”
September 14, 2004
About 400 young military officers from Burma leave for Russia, amid reports that some of them will study nuclear engineering.
August 3, 2006
Burma’s deputy ambassador to the UN Nyunt Swe tells the UN Conference on Disarmament in Geneva that Burma is opposed to nuclear weapons.
May 15, 2007
Russia’s federal atomic energy agency Rosatom announces it will help Burma build the proposed nuclear facility. The agency says the 10-megawatt nuclear reactor, fueled by less than 20 percent uranium-235, will contribute to Burma’s “research in nuclear physics, bio-technology, material science as well as…produce a big variety of medicines.” A first round of talks on details of the project began and further discussions are scheduled for the second half of this year.
May 16, 2007
The US condemns the project, while Thailand says it has no worries because the facility will be closely supervised by the International Atomic Energy Agency.