Does Burma Have Nuclear Ambitions? – Analysis

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By Siddharth Ramana

There are increasing demands in Washington for a review of Myanmar’s nuclear programme. Concerns relate to a possible similarity with the militaristic undertones of the North Korean and Iranian nuclear programmes, which threaten Western interests in the region. This article seeks to argue that New Delhi should monitor Myanmar’s nuclear progress because Indian interests would also be affected by its nuclear ambitions.

A rationale for Myanmarese nuclearization lies westwards; with developments in Iraq and Libya indicating that Weapons of Mass Destruction can provide a deterrent capability against Western hegemony. The governing military junta would be concerned about a similar fate, especially owing to continued opposition from Western capitals, and the country’s attractive energy-rich natural resources. Therefore, to establish a military nuclear programme, it would have to emulate other Asian nuclear powers by going for covert militarization vis-à-vis an overt nuclear energy programme.

Burma

Burma

Alternatively, this may be a grander Chinese proliferation ploy by covertly encouraging a nuclear Myanmar as a proliferation surrogate, other examples of which are North Korea, Pakistan and Iran. Such a tactic would be useful in ensuring survivability of regimes which are deemed favourable to Chinese interests. This would further Asia’s negative role in bucking the trend in global nuclear nonproliferation.

According to Myanmarese defectors speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald (1 August 2009), Myanmar is presently developing two nuclear sites, one under international scrutiny, known as the Myaing reactor, located in the Magwe division, and another secret facility inside a mountain at Naung Laing in northern Myanmar. These reports are consistent with other reports revealed in leaked American diplomatic cables dated August 2004, suggesting that nearly 300 North Koreans are facilitating this effort. The latter was established in cooperation with Russia in 2002, while the former, with assistance from North Korea and Iran.

Myanmar, as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, is not allowed to develop nuclear weapons and its nuclear energy ambitions are governed by the ‘Small Quantities Protocol’. Under this treaty, Myanmar is supposed to provide the IAEA with ‘initial reports’ of all relevant nuclear material and to allow the agency to verify those reports via inspections. However, according to the Washington Times (14 January 2011), Myanmar has ignored IAEA letters asking for a review of facilities in the country.

Myanmar’s interest in nuclear proliferation reportedly began with a tryst in 2002, with the Sydney Morning Herald reporting that members of the AQ Khan proliferation network visited the country. According to Western diplomats, former deputy foreign minister Kyaw Thu had visited Iran in 2007 to pursue nuclear cooperation in an effort however to bolster Myanmar’s nuclear capability (Asia Times, 24 May 2007). It was in the same year that diplomatic ties with North Korea were restored. This is significant since both Iran and North Korea have advanced their nuclear enrichment programmes and also have the ability to launch nuclear-capable vectors.

What works in Myanmar’s favour is that it may not need to rely on international nuclear fuel supplies, with the country’s Ministry of Energy having identified five areas with confirmed deposits of low-grade uranium. These are at Magway, Taungdwingyi, Kyaukphygon (Mogok), Kyauksin and Paongpyin (Mogok). Additionally, reactor-grade uranium was being mined near Lashio in northern Shan State. It is argued by Desmond Ball, a regional security expert at the Australian National University, and Phil Thornton, a Thailand-based Australian journalist, that cooperation with North Korea and Iran is being pursued under a ‘fuel for technology’ programme.

A common argument given by countries which seek nuclear reactors is that they need to address their domestic energy demands. Myanmar is entitled to civil nuclear cooperation under its international treaties; however, the energy situation in Myanmar does not make for a compelling case. Myanmar is an energy-rich state, which exports natural gas and allied products. According to the US Energy and Information Administration, Myanmar produces about 1.792 million short tones of coal, of which it used 0.322 for domestic use, and its gas production stood at 408 billion cubic ft, while it used only 115 billion cubic ft of gas. Other reports indicate that the percentage loss of electricity in distribution stood at an alarming 30 percent, with almost no use of coal in their energy sector.

These figures suggest that instead of investing in nuclear technology which carries significant capital investment costs and operating charges, the Myanmarese government would be well-advised to improve its distribution network and invest in traditional energy resources, both of which have been largely overlooked. It is for these reasons that Myanmar’s quest for nuclear energy and its evasion of IAEA inspections raise questions about its nuclear intentions.

Neighbouring states will be concerned about these developments, which would entail complications in trade and bilateral relations arising from resulting international sanctions. This directly concerns India, since its energy interests are in competition with China. A comparable equation is seen in China’s gains as a result of India’s response to Iran’s nuclear programme. Consequently, Chinese opposition to Western interests also impinges on extended Indian interests. For these reasons, Myanmar’s nuclear ambitions need to be closely followed by New Delhi.

Siddharth Ramana
Research Officer, IPCS
email: [email protected]

IPCS

IPCS (Institute for Peace and Conflict Studies) conducts independent research on conventional and non-conventional security issues in the region and shares its findings with policy makers and the public. It provides a forum for discussion with the strategic community on strategic issues and strives to explore alternatives. Moreover, it works towards building capacity among young scholars for greater refinement of their analyses of South Asian security.

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