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Myanmar's mysterious nuclear ambitions

June 7, 2010

Speculation has been mounting since last week that Myanmar is pursuing a nuclear program. A probe by the Democratic Voice of Burma concluded that it has been conducting experiments aimed at developing nuclear weapons.

Myanmar has been ruled by the army for decades
Myanmar has been ruled by the army for decadesImage: AP

Myanmar - also known as Burma - has been accused of working on a clandestine nuclear weapons program before, and suggestions have also been made that the DPRK or North Korea is also involved in this program.

"In the early stages"

Robert Kelley is an American nuclear scientist and former director in the IAEA
Robert Kelley is an American nuclear scientist and former director in the IAEAImage: AP

Robert Kelley, a former director in the International Atomic Energy Agency or IAEA, is the main author of the latest report, which claims that Myanmar has been trying to enrich uranium to build a nuclear reactor and to develop ballistic missiles. Ali Fowle, who assisted Kelley on the report, summarizes the findings:

"They haven't developed any weapons, they are just in very early stages of a program that aims to develop weapons. It is just the fact that we know that that is their intent now. We can see that they have been experimenting with uranium."

The researchers base their case on revelations by a Burmese army major, Sai Thein Win, who fled the country and revealed that he used to work on the secret nuclear program.

Sai Thein Win was an army major who was trained in Russia as a missile expert
Sai Thein Win was an army major who was trained in Russia as a missile expertImage: AP

More compelling than previous reports

Robert Kelley acknowledges in his analysis that it is problematic to base his findings on a single source, although he thinks Sai Thein Win is absolutely credible. Shannon Kile, the Head of the Nuclear Arms Project at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, says the information is more compelling than earlier reports.

"We need to be cautious because there have been a number of similar reports in recent years. Last summer, an Australian newspaper reported there was a secret nuclear reactor project under way in Myanmar that was being constructed with DPRK assistance. I think the IAEA and other countries have pretty much dismissed the concerns about those reports. This set of information is interesting, though, because it involves a senior level defector from Myanmar. And the evidence he has brought along is a lot more compelling this time. It is including both a large number of photographs as well as authoritative documentation from the Myanmar nuclear program."

Sai Thein Win has described several sites in remote areas of the country where the experiments are being conducted. German companies such as Trumpf have delivered machines to these sites. A spokesperson for Trumpf told Deutsche Welle that they had been told that the machines would be used for technical training in Myanmar.

Going it alone

But beyond the use of these machines that Myanmar couldn't manufacture itself, Kelley's report does not contain any indication that Myanmar is getting external help - for example from North Korea. Kile explains, "the Myanmar government appears to be doing this using indigenous technology rather than, say, going the route that Libya did and purchasing large quantities of foreign technology and foreign assistance."

However, Kile does not believe that Myanmar has the capability to build a nuclear bomb on its own for the time being.

At the recent UN conference on nuclear proliferation in New York, Myanmar was not discussed
At the recent UN conference on nuclear proliferation, Myanmar was not discussedImage: picture alliance/dpa

"I think the likelihood of that is very, very small. It will certainly take them a very long time given their current technology base. But of course what we can't rule out is the possibility that Myanmar might acquire or will be offered foreign technology and foreign expertise down the road. And so I think we should take this very seriously now."

The German Ministry of Economics and Technology has confirmed to Deutsche Welle that there have been several so-called "post-shipment" controls to make sure that the German machines are not used for military purposes, and that these controls will be continued.

Author: Thomas Baerthlein
Editor: Grahame Lucas