Burma's obfuscation hides a nuclear secret

Burma recently told visiting US Senator John McCain that it has halted a peaceful nuclear program supported by Russia. This is an inconsequential event designed to obscure the ongoing military nuclear program that is being carried out in secret.

Burma has been flirting with Russia for about a decade over plans to buy a small nuclear research reactor. The intention was announced but no reactor or research laboratory was ever sold. The alleged “Russian support” was simply a commercial agreement to sell facilities to Burma, but Russia made it clear that Burma had to sign modern agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to provide adequate safeguards. Burma has not done so because it is probably already in violation of its old safeguards agreements.

Giving up this “peaceful program” that only existed on paper is obfuscation. The purpose of the reactor was allegedly for basic nuclear industrial research and the production of medical isotopes. This kind of reactor is common in the developing world and has no military significance. But when you consider that Burma is among the world’s lowest countries when it comes to per capita spending on healthcare, it makes no sense that they would be suddenly planning an expensive and complex nuclear medicine project, unless it is for a few elite.

So Burma has given up nothing but a plan. What are they not giving up?  Several thousand young Burmese have been sent to Russia since 2001 for training in all manner of engineering subjects: nuclear, missile, chemical and civil. Many of the subjects studied are for military purposes. Is this going to stop? Defectors have identified uranium mining and chemical processing sites, and factories have been built under false pretences to produce chemical equipment.

The man in charge of building the factories used to head Burma’s Department of Atomic Energy; the Burmese engineers building this equipment were told it was part of the military nuclear program. A comprehensive assessment of each of the pieces of equipment shows their possible uses, and when you assemble the known pieces in a step-by-step process it all fits into an industrial uranium production program. The end result of the step-by-step uranium production has nothing whatsoever to do with the “abandoned Russian program”. The factories are also working on missiles which are not peaceful. Will all of these activities stop?

The announcement to Senator McCain was facile on the surface and has no value.  Giving up a non-existent program is a shallow gesture. Now Burma needs to get serious about declaring what it has been doing. It needs to disclose all of its arms deals with North Korea. There are many areas of cooperation between Burma and North Korea in the fields of ballistic missiles and small military hardware=, and although no nuclear connection between the two has been proven, the US believes it may exist. It is time for Burma to stop wasting its peoples’ resources on military adventures that are unlikely to even be successful, given the backward state of technology. Burma must allow verifiable inspections from ASEAN and the IAEA to reveal what it has been doing and to prove that it has stopped.

Robert Kelley is a former director at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

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