Are nuclear fears dictating US policy to Burma?

Joseph Allchin

Sept 29, 2009 (DVB), Non-proliferation comments that have surfaced in US-Burma talks at the UN recently may shed light on the true motives for greater US engagement with the regime.

Although the US has remained tentative on the issue, it has not attempted to hide growing fears about Burma's military ambitions, compounded by what appears to be a warming of relations between the generals and North Korea. The revelation of a network of tunnels being built below Burma with North Korean help, coupled with an incident in May when a North Korean ship suspected by the US of carrying arms, or even missile technology, appeared to be heading toward Rangoon before turning around, has added substance to concerns.

This relationship, for many, has risked becoming nuclear. It was telling that on International Peace Day this month, a protesting Burmese monk, Ashin Sopaka, told DVB that "We don't want nuclear weapons". Despite there being no hard evidence to suggest Naypyidaw is moving towards nuclear enrichment, the potential ingredients for such a desire are there. The Burmese military government, notoriously fearful of foreign interference, has been characterized as one determined beyond anything else to cling on to power, with an inordinate amount of into budget channeled into the military.

Obama has talked about containment in the past, and his foreign policy has intended to be more about building alliances and talking than his predecessor's. But the fundamental fears remain the same. "When we think of the major threats to our national security, the first to come to mind are nuclear proliferation, rogue states, and global terrorism," he said in 2005. Two of those three factors ring alarm bells in Burma's relationship with North Korea – could he be 'engaging' with the Burmese dictators to prevent Asia's two great autocracies from jumping in to a radioactively-warmed bed?

These concerns may well be a factor in shaping new US policy to Burma. Senior US official, Kurt Campbell, told a press briefing yesterday that "We will also press Burma to comply with its international obligations, including on nonproliferation, ending any prohibited military or proliferation-related cooperation with North Korea". In the same conference, he mysteriously alluded to the fact that "concerns have emerged in recent days about Burma and North Korea's relationship that require greater focus and dialogue".

Many analysts believe that the US and the military junta has been talking for some time. It was certainly with swift ease that US senator Jim Webb, chairman of the East Asia and Pacific Affairs Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, swooped in to rescue America's lost Mormon swimmer, John Yettaw. Campbell also said yesterday that "For the first time in memory, the Burmese leadership has shown an interest in engaging with the United States, and we intend to explore that interest."

The US has generally taken a fairly apathetic stance towards Burma – a large amount of hot air has been spent by previous regimes, particularly Bush and his wife. Yet the embargoes and military intervention has never materialized as it has with Cuba, North Korea or, of course, Iraq. This may be a result of the incompetence that the military government has displayed in governing their own country, dampening any perceived threat they could hold internationally.

Whether the US government, through engagement, will be able to achieve what many a constituent and lobbyist has clamored for – serious action towards democracy, or to revert to the democratic mandate handed to the NLD in the last election – will remain to be seen. It seems now, however, that the military junta may be wielding a bigger stick. The threat of nuclear armament has suddenly made the West sit up, perhaps no-one more so than Hillary Clinton, who continues to "emphasize the importance of strengthening the nuclear nonproliferation regime" in recent talks on and with Burma.

With isolation Burma threatens to be a nuclear power, able to destabilise a region, and join the gang of pariah states arranged as ideologically opposed to the US. It would remain isolated until the resources run out or the general prefers to spend his plunder on a Swiss mountain slope. Yet with engagement, there is a real danger for the people of Burma that principles of human rights may be sacrificed for sheer desire to prevent the spread of nuclear arms.

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