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US diplomats in Rangoon were approached in 2008 by a Burmese civilian offering to sell a sample of uranium, which was then sent to a US testing centre, leaked cables reveal.
It comes as part of a massive disclosure of US diplomatic cables published by Wikileaks that suggest the US was concerned about Burma’s potential to develop a nuclear weapon long before DVB unearthed evidence of a proliferation programme.
The unnamed person had contacted the US Defence Attaché Office (USDAO) in Rangoon eight days prior to the meeting, said the 23 September 2008 cable sent to Washington by US Chargé d’Affaires in Burma, Larry Dinger. No date of for the meeting is given, but the cable says that US officials interviewed the individual “at the U.S. Embassy Rangoon”.
It says that the “individual provided a small bottle half-filled with metallic powder and a photocopied certificate of testing from a Chinese university dated 1992 as verification of the radioactive nature of the powder”. He claimed the bottle contained Uranium-238, which is used in most modern nuclear weapons, as well as for nuclear energy.
The civilian reportedly told US diplomats that he could “provide up to 2000 kg of uranium-bearing rock” mined from a location in eastern Burma’s Karenni state. He claimed he had 50 kilograms of uranium-containing rock or ore stored in a protected barrel at an undisclosed Rangoon location. If the US declined the offer, then the individual would approach Thailand and China before moving on to other countries.
What happened next is unclear, but at the time the cable was sent, a sample bottle was “in transit” to a US testing site known as the Aberdeen Proving Grounds in Maryland, Virginia. It was sent “by commercial air via Diplomatic Pouch”.
“The sample was wrapped in several layers and placed inside multiple containers, including glass, lead, and wooden boxes/crates”, the cable said, adding that the package was marked ‘Secret’.
As far as the USDAO knew, the Burmese junta was unaware that it had received the alleged uranium. “However, the possibility cannot be dismissed that rather than a sale for profit, the seller is attempting to assist in executing a government entrapment scheme,” it said.
Burmese analyst Aung Thu Nyein said that it is likely the individual had been paid by the US embassy to provide information about uranium deposits in Burma, in order that Washington could gauge the potential for the junta to develop a nuclear weapon.
Another cable sent on 30 January 2007 speaks of US suspicions about a shipment of 112 metric tonnes of uranium ore “shipped on January 25 from BURMA to China via Singapore”. It said that “security was tighter than usual, surveillance was heavier, and officials paid closer attention to the movement of the shipment and activity at the port”.
When approached by DVB, an official at the US embassy in Rangoon said that the US state department “does not comment on classified documents or allegedly classified documents that may have been leaked”.