Junta's dream is the world's nightmare
July 19 , 2010
For decades, Burma's ruling regime has been regarded primarily as a menace to its own people. But with recent reports confirming long-held suspicions that the junta aspires to establish Burma as Southeast Asia's first nuclear-armed state, there is now a very real danger that it is emerging as a threat to the rest of the region.
At the moment, the paranoid generals in Naypyidaw are far from realising their dream of developing the ultimate deterrent to foreign invasion. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the regime's determination to acquire some sort of nuclear weapon, no matter how primitive, with which to ward off any threat from countries it regards as hostile to its survival.
Judging from the muted response to recent revelations contained in a report by the Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB), however, it seems that many remain unconvinced that the regime's nuclear ambitions represent a credible threat. Of course, it makes sense to proceed with caution before jumping to any conclusions; but it would also be a mistake to wait until it is too late to deal with the eventuality of a nuclear-armed Burma.
The DVB report is hardly the first to present evidence suggesting that the regime's military ambitions now extend beyond its traditional goal of crushing perceived threats from within, but it is certainly the most thorough. Based largely on the testimony of ex-major Sai Thein Win, a Burmese army defector and weapons expert who smuggled out numerous photographs and documents to back up his accusations, the report leaves little room for doubt about the junta's intentions. According to Robert Kelley, the nuclear scientist and former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency who authored the report for DVB, the evidence "leads to only one conclusion: this technology is only for nuclear weapons and not civilian use or nuclear power".
But even before Sai Thein Win came forward, there was good reason to suspect that the junta was not satisfied with its 400,000-man army and impressive armoury of weapons for suppressing the country's dwindling array of ethnic insurgencies. Indeed, for the past decade at least, it has sought to strengthen its military might in ways that would serve to neutralise external as well as internal challenges to its hold on power.
According to Jane's Defense Weekly, the regime first purchased low-altitude surface-to-air missile systems from Bulgaria and short-range ballistic missile air defence systems from Russia in 2001. The following year, according to Burmese defence analyst Maung Aung Myoe in his 2009 book Building the Tatmadaw, it acquired 36D6 radar from Ukraine, designed to detect air targets at low, medium and high altitudes, and to perform friend-or-foe identification.
Some analysts attribute the regime's sudden interest in upgrading its arsenal to a series of border skirmishes with Thai forces in 2001-02, when Thailand reportedly deployed Suppression of Enemy Air Defence Systems (Seads) before sending its F-16 jet fighters into border air space, severely disrupting communication lines between the Burmese army's command centres and frontline troops.
It is interesting to note how soon the regime's quest for ever more sophisticated weaponry took it in the direction of North Korea. According to Maung Aung Myoe, the Burmese generals began secret talks with the reclusive communist regime to buy Hwasong (Scud-type) missiles as early as 2003. Although it remains unclear if the regime ever actually acquired these missiles, military analysts note that Burma has received a number of suspicious shipments from North Korean vessels over the past few years.
This North Korean connection appears to have done more than just provide the junta with another arms supplier. Increasingly, Naypyidaw seems to be considering Pyongyang's brand of belligerent diplomacy as the basis for its foreign policy, possibly as a backup plan to ensure its survival if the upcoming election and transition to "disciplined democracy" fail to silence its Western critics.
If Burma does take this route, it would certainly present a real dilemma for the West. In the past, the regime has attempted to neutralise its critics by insisting that they choose between supporting the democracy movement led by Aung San Suu Kyi or promoting the well-being of the masses by providing aid and lifting sanctions. In the future, the choice could become even starker: forget Mrs Suu Kyi, or learn to live with a nuclear-armed Burma.
Some have argued that the West bears some responsibility for pushing the regime into the arms of North Korea. They point to the fact that in November 2008, six months after the US, France and Britain sent naval warships close to Burmese waters with offers of emergency assistance for survivors of Cyclone Nargis, the junta sent its highest-level delegation to Pyongyang for secret meetings to discuss a new weapons deal.
But suggestions that the West's actions are the primary inspiration for the junta's efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction are misplaced. The regime has been moving in this direction for years, and it is even arguable that the protracted process of restoring pseudo-civilian rule has become little more than a means of buying time for the generals to realise their grandiose military ambitions.
Seen in this light, the junta's seeming lack of interest in presenting this year's election as a genuine democratic exercise takes on ominous significance. In fact, it could mean one of three things. It's possible that the regime really believes that many in the West are credulous enough to buy the same empty promises of change once again. Or it could signal the junta's confidence that Beijing will continue to watch its back indefinitely, as long as there's something in it for China. Or, most worryingly, it may be an indication that the generals are more interested in following Pyongyang's example than in keeping up the pretense of moving toward democracy.
The first possibility is very real: Many in the West - particularly Europe - seem deluded enough to believe that the generals really mean it this time when they say they want to hand over power. The second is also quite plausible: Beijing continues to offer its staunch support for the regime, and has even played an important role in cultivating the relationship between Naypyidaw and Pyongyang (when the two sides formally restored relations in 2007, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said, "North Korea and Burma are both friendly neighbours of China. We are happy to see and welcome the improvement of their bilateral ties" - giving no hint of any concern about the implications for regional stability).
The third possibility, then, is the least likely, especially given the primitive state of Burma's nuclear programme. At this stage, it is still in the realm of worst-case scenarios, rather than an imminent reality. But even this demands a serious response, lest Burma become the next North Korea.
To ensure that this does not happen, we first need to recognise that despite their geopolitical similarities as international pariahs operating within China's sphere of influence, Burma and North Korea are two very different countries. Although both countries are ruled by ruthless regimes, Burma still possesses a civil society that still survives even after nearly 50 years of military rule. Burmese people also have more contact with the outside world than North Koreans, making them less susceptible to government propaganda. In fact, popular opposition to the Burmese junta is almost universal, and even within the military there are many who would willingly abandon the regime under the right conditions.
It is important for the world to recognise that it cannot allow the Burmese generals to continue down the path they've taken. Burma is not North Korea, but the country's military rulers are no less capable than their fellow despots in Pyongyang of holding their neighbours to ransom if they believe their own survival is at stake. They have taken the first steps toward realising their nuclear dream; now the international community must act to prevent it from becoming a nuclear nightmare for the rest of us.