The Burmese government has refuted allegations that it continues to enjoy a military relationship with North Korea, despite news that the US government has blacklisted a top general for dealing arms with the Asian pariah.
A spokesperson for the president told DVB that it is “strictly abiding” by the UN resolution on North Korea, which imposes an arms embargo on the military regime in Pyongyang.
But he denied any knowledge of the US Treasury’s decision to place sanctions on Lt. General Thein Htay, the head of Burma’s Directorate of Defence Industries (DDI), for allegedly “purchasing military goods” from their former military ally.
“We don’t know the motive behind [their decision],” Ye Htut said, quickly distancing the government from the affair. “Lt-gen Thein Htay is not a member of the government – he is just an army official. And the US statement said the [blacklisting] was only targeting him individually, so I don’t see how it could affect US-Burma relations.”
But military analyst and Burma expert, Bertil Lintner, says it would be “absolutely impossible” for the former Border Affairs Minister to have carried out any arms deals without state authorisation. “He would have to answer to the commander-in-chief Sr Gen Min Aung Hlaing and President Thein Sein.”
The DDI is a military agency, which carries out missile research and development projects, and reportedly has a memorandum of understanding to build ballistic missiles in partnership with North Korea. The agency was already slapped with US sanctions in July 2012 for their continued engagement with the dictatorship.
According to Lintner, North Korea is helping Burma develop a SCUD-type missile, most likely based on the Nodong model, which has a range of up to 900 kilometres, but is known for its poor accuracy. These allegations fall in stark contrast with repeated government pledges to severe ties with the pariah state.
In November 2012, the quasi-civilian regime agreed to abide by the UN’s arms embargo on North Korea, and to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) full access to its own suspected nuclear facilities – also linked to Pyongyang. But the government has yet to take any steps towards fulfilling this pledge, which would include signing the IAEA’s additional protocol, granting inspectors wider discretion to inspect sites at short notice.
“I know for a fact that the Americans are upset with the Burmese government for not severing ties, despite all the support and kudos it is getting from Washington,” Lintner said.
“Now, apparently, the US doesn’t want to embarrass the government, just scare it into severing ties with North Korea by targeting an individual serving under the commander-in-chief of the armed forces and the president.”
Military cooperation with North Korea has been a key sticking point in US-Burma relations for decades. But as bilateral relations continue to warm, the US has become increasingly reluctant to publicly criticise Burma.
Despite blacklisting Thein Htay on Tuesday, the US took great care to avoid reprimanding the Burmese government, which it said “has continued to take positive steps” to distance itself from the Asian pariah.
Lintner believes it reveals their geopolitical motives for reengaging with Burma, which is slowly emerging from nearly five decades of military rule, as directly linked to concerns over its diplomatic relationships with China and North Korea.
-Additional reporting provided by Ko Htwe