Cash-strapped Burma 'cannot afford nukes'

Burma’s ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) has told a gathering of the organisation that his country cannot afford to develop nuclear weapons, but admitted that atomic research was being done.

Tin Win told a recent gathering in Vienna, Austria, that the government “would like to restate that Myanmar [Burma] is in no position to consider the production and use of nuclear weapons and does not have enough economic strength to do so,” according to Reuters. He added that Burma abided by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

It mirrors comments made in June by Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo, who told visiting US senator John McCain that the country was “too poor” for a nuclear weapons programme.

The US has persistently voiced concerns about Burma’s nuclear ambitions, which can be traced back to a US$150 million deal in 2001 with Russia for a 10 megawatt research reactor.

That deal seemingly ended when the Burmese were either unwilling to conclude or unable to pay, but concerns again grew when Burma resumed diplomatic relations with North Korea in 2007. Last year the IAEA questioned Tin Win on the issue of nuclear cooperation with North Korea, allegations which the government labeled as “groundless”.

Speculation about the shift towards North Korea centred on Burma’s unwillingness to succumb to the legal requirements of a Russian reactor and the necessary IAEA inspections, which presumably would not be present with a North Korea-purchased reactor.

Tin Win, apparently responding to such concerns, claimed that dealings with Russia had lead to a “misunderstanding” within the international community.

This contrasts however with claims made by a Ministry of Foreign Affairs Official who is quoted in a leaked US cable as telling Australian diplomats that the “Burma-DPRK connection is not just about conventional weapons. There is a peaceful nuclear component intended to address Burma’s chronic lack of electrical power generation.” The perennial issue of electricity availability in Burma was raised last week by electricity minister Zaw Min, who told journalists that the controversy surrounding the Myitsone Dam, whose output will be sold to China, must be contrasted against what he claimed was the inability of Burmese to use up current quotas for power.

A former director in the IAEA, Robert Kelley, alleged in an article for DVB in June that the cessation of the Russian project was “designed to obscure the ongoing military nuclear program that is being carried out in secret.”

The government has publicly claimed that the Russian project, as Tin Win put it yesterday in Vienna, was to ensure that the country would “not lag behind other countries in that field and to improve the applications of nuclear technology in its education and health sectors.”

Kelley pointed out however in June that Burma’s health sector was so underfunded that the use of nuclear technology in the sector was inconceivable.

In terms of current budget, government revenues are buoyant, with the Economist Intelligence Unit noting recently that, “Central government tax revenue jumped by 260% year on year in April.”

Despite this the government appears to still have a growing deficit, with the military still accounting for some 40 percent of the government’s spending.

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