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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 2792

The 4th Burmese Empire with Nuclear Weapon

By Prof. Kanbawza Win

Google Alert Burma duly reported of how Burma is near completion of nuclear weapon on the 18th instant and of how its Defense Minister boasts that by 2020 Burma would be one of the greatest nations in Southeast Asia. Given the economic reality of Burma compounded with its gross mismanagement and human rights violations is it but an empty dream or a reality?

Every body knew that Russia has agreed to build a nuclear research centre in Burma. The centre will comprise a 10MW light-water reactor working on 20%-enriched uranium-235, an activation analysis laboratory, a medical isotope production laboratory, silicon doping system; nuclear waste treatment and burial facilities will be monitored by IAEA as according to Rosatom head, Sergey Kiriyenko and Burma's Science and Technology Minister. Russia has trained Burmese military specialists.

The Background

The story started way back in 1990 when the current Junta christened itself as SLORC (State law and Order Restoration Council); Rangoon University Physics Professor U Po Saw was consulted about developing the technology, and also the selection of candidates to become state scholars. The process of honing cadet officers for training in nuclear technology was begun in 1997, with Defense Services Academy Class 42.

The Junta at first contacted India to obtain nuclear technology. Karla (Indians) agreed to accept state scholars, but India also stipulated that it had to supervise and control the operation of the reactor. The deal did not go through. With the help of China, the Junta succeeded in reaching its agreement with Russia. In addition, the Chinese government has advised the Junta that it should try, by various means, to make nuclear weapons and, if it cannot produce them by its target date of 2020, it should buy them.

The other side of the story is that Burma and North Korea, two of the world's most isolated nations, have agreed to restore diplomatic relations after a break of more than 20 years. At that time having being kicked out of Prime Minister’s Office and interrogated in Insein, I was working with the Korean embassy under ambassador Kae Chu Lee, who was killed instantly when the Pyongyang sent agents to kill President Chun Doo Wan. Self-interest has brought the two countries back together North Korea benefited from Burma's natural resources, such as oil, gas and timber while Burma's rulers need access to military equipment, which has been blocked by US and European sanctions.

In 2003, the regime sent thirty military officers to North Korea to study reactor technology. In 2006, it started buying from the North the machinery necessary for reactor construction. The Junta established its connection with North Korea, so it would not have to stop the program if its relations with Russia turned sour and also want some of Pyongyang's sophisticated tunneling techniques to help further fortify their military complex in the new capital Naypyidaw. The Junta sells natural resources to obtain nuclear technology, including for the costs of educating the state scholars and currently there are over 4,600 in Russia alone.

20,000 tons of iron ore are mined in Ka-thaing Taung, a range in the Hpakan area in Kachin State near the famous jade mines. Even though the program was temporarily suspended in 2005, due to financial reasons the Yadana pipeline provides at least $500,000,000 in annual revenue for the Burmese regime and is now a going process. The Junta also secretly tried to gain assistance from Iran and that is why the two countries relations are so rosy with full diplomatic relations. Further, in 2000, Japan started taking scholars for doctoral level studies, to operate a reactor. With the help of Japan, new departments of nuclear science have been set up at Rangoon University, Mandalay University, and the Defense Services Academy.

Russian Connection

In 2001, the first batch of scholars, 150 military officers, was sent to Russia from Tada U Airport on chartered Aeroflot flights. In Russia, the scholars attend a variety of institutes in Moscow and also St.Petersburg, depending on their subjects of study. The schools includes (MEPHI) Moscow Engineering Physics Institute, (MIET ) Moscow Institute of Electronic Technology, (MATI) Moscow Institute of Aviation Technology, (MAI) Moscow Aviation Institute, (BMSTU) Bauman Moscow State Technical University, (MITT) Moscow Institute of Thermal Technology, (MISI) Moscow Civil Engineering Institute, and (MSMU) Moscow State Mining University

MEPHI teaches nuclear science, MIET rocket guidance, MAI aircraft and space subjects, and MATI the technology for building rockets to carry satellites. There are also course programs in tunneling, uranium mining, and uranium ore refining. Of course many of the scholars are unhappy as their pay is too low and the harsh weather caused them problems with the medical care they receive is inadequate (As an example, in January this year one scholar fled to the border of Finland, but was arrested by Russian intelligence agents when he used his cell phone to call his contact on the other side). In response, the Directorate of Intelligence sent weekly instructions urging them to complete their work and to fulfill the national aim of producing nuclear weapons. At one point former Foreign Minister U Win Aung came in person and told the students to finish their studies. He relayed a message from Vice Chief of Staff Maung Aye that anyone who married a Russian woman scientist and then return home bringing their wives would be rewarded.

Also, in 2002, Quartermaster General Win Myint as well as the Navy Chief, Air Chief and Transport Minister went to Russia and arranged for the training of twenty Air Force pilots, who would then take ten purchased MIG 29s back to Burma. They additionally discussed whether Burma should acquire aircraft carriers and submarines. In July 2002, Science and Technology Minister U Thaung went to Russia and signed the agreement for the acquisition and construction of the nuclear reactor. Now a 10-megawatt reactor was being built in Myaing Township, Magwe Division, and further that it was to use heavy water and, for that reason, that it would be able to produce plutonium (read Bertil Lintner’s Asia Times article of July 2006.)

Uranium ore that is commercially exploitable exists in the Kyauk Pyon, Paungpyin and Kyauk Sin areas. In addition, uranium prospecting has occurred or is underway in southern Tenasserim, Karenni State (the Loikaw area), Moehnyin in Kachin State, and in areas west of Taunggyi. Uranium milling is in progress at Tha Beik Kyin, an enrich milled uranium (yellowcake) to U-235. This yellowcake was sold to North Korea and in return the regime purchased nuclear activation equipment for use in uranium enrichment in July 2006, and also for the production of plutonium and now North Korean nuclear experts are now working in Tha Beik Kyin. The related Military Research Center was built in the Setkhya range (aka Sa Kyin) near Lun Kyaw, which area is a Nuclear Battalion, and that there is a Civilian Research Center in Kyaukse Township. There are also Russian nuclear experts in Pyin U Lwin, who give refresher courses to the state scholars after they return home.

In return for the reactor and other services, a Russian government mining company has received concessions to mine gold, titanium and uranium. There are two gold mining sites: in Kyauk Pa Toe; and in the mountains to the right of the Thazi-Shwe Nyaung railway line. Titanium is also being mined, or derived from the same ore, at Kyauk Pa Toe. Uranium is being mined at three locations: in the Pegu-Yoma Mountain range in Pauk Kaung Township of Prome District (aka Pyi); in the Paing Ngort area in Mo Meik Township in Shan State; and at Kyauk Pa Toe.

Disturbing Factor

What is perhaps most disturbing about Russia’s program with the Burmese Junta is that it is identical to the Soviet Union’s assistance that propelled North Korea to become a nuclear power. Why, with the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, is Russia still helping rogue regimes proliferate? The surface answer of course is money, in this case in the form of natural resources, but the deeper question remains. Russia is against democracy.

In 1965, the Soviet Union gave North Korea a 2 MW reactor, which was upgraded in 1973 to 8 MW. It also supplied fuel through at least this period. North Korea then went on to construct a much larger reactor, and in the 1980s began weapons development. This included building separation facilities to obtain plutonium, and high explosives detonation tests. The Junta has already conducted such tests, in the Setkhya Mountains, aka Sa Kyin Mountains, southeast of Mandalay.

At some point North Korea also began its own uranium enrichment program, to produce weapons grade material, and the U.S. confronted the country about this in 2002. This means that the North has two different sources of fissile material for weapons, reactor plutonium and enriched uranium. North Korea detonated a small atomic weapon, with a yield of less than one kiloton, in October 2006, using some of its plutonium. It is now reportedly about to disclose its nuclear assets, and also destroy its plutonium producing reactor with the US bowing to the demand that DPRK be taken off from the black list of rogue states. But the sticking point has been the enriched uranium. The North appears unwilling to discuss this because it will disclose its weapons cache, which means that even with the destruction of the reactor and the plutonium stockpile (for the latter the size of which is subject to serious dispute), the North would retain the ability to produce weapons with the uranium. At the moment the U.S. appears willing to accept partial disclosure, i.e., of only the plutonium.

Both Russia, North Korean technicians have been helping Burma with its nuclear ambitions (and other weapons programs), This is all very disturbing, all the more so because of the apparent weakness of the Bush Administration, which has been unwilling to press the North, and which refuses even to mention Burma and its nuclear program. It took North Korea forty years before it detonated a weapon. It will likely take the Burmese dictatorship only a fraction of this period. Once the Burmese Junta has atomic weapons, its rule will be entrenched.

Precision Weapons

Burma now possessed a wide variety of missile installations, including large quantities of land-based SAMs; ship-launched missiles, both surface to air and surface to surface; weapons for its MIG 29s; and even short range ballistic missiles. While the Junta bought anti-aircraft weapons from the Ukraine, in 2007 it has now purchased four shiploads of such weapons from Russia and multi-tube mechanized rocket launchers from North Korea can be used with the ballistic missiles. Moreover, Burma is researching the production of guided missiles, and with Russian assistance intends to build a rocket factory in Thazi Township. This will mark the latest step in a well-recognized proliferation of Russian precision-guided munitions in the Asia Pacific region. The only thing that PGMs factory produce will be medium range guided rockets and that production is scheduled to begin within five years. It is clear that the Generals are intent on developing a strong defense against an international intervention, including foreign jets, helicopters and ships. Perhaps this is the main reason of why the U.S. and the French balked at dropping relief supplies following Cyclone Nargis was the risk of missile attack on their helicopters and ships.

The fact that the Burmese Junta is aggressively seeking nuclear weapons (not to mention all of its other programs) should make the leaders of Thailand, and the world, extremely concerned. The appeasement policy of the successive Thai administrations (including ASEAN) and the International Community towards the Junta should have second thought. The Burmese Military Junta is a threat of the greatest severity. It should be stopped. Since the Security Council, with Russian and Chinese vetoes, is unable to act, there must be an alternative solution. The only real options are for the U.S., either alone or with other concerned nations (including Thailand), to assist the people of the country to free themselves, using whatever means are required. This should be the crux of the Thai policy instead of bullying the refugees and the migrant workers. At the moment, though, there is a conspiracy of silence even to acknowledge this threat. Thailand, the U.S. and other nations are preoccupied with their internal and other problems that there is no desire to recognize publicly another new crisis.

We also understand that there is such a thing as investigative journalism or media outlet as far as Burma’s nuclear program is concerned. This lack of coverage means that political leaders, in Thailand, the U.S., at the U.N., etc., will continue to act as if there is not a problem.

International Community

What is the U.S. doing? Under geopolitical realism, the only concerns are national interests. On a superficial level, for the U.S. and Burma, these are limited to Chevron’s investment in Burma’s natural gas production and pipelines. A secondary interest is the concern of U.S. citizens of Burmese origin as most of the Myanmar tribe will side with the Junta once the 4th Burmese empire is established but not the ethnic tribe, but since this group is small it can effectively be ignored. It would seem, therefore, that all the Administration bluster notwithstanding, its only real policy objective for Burma is to protect Chevron, which corporation to bolster its case also makes large campaign donations.

The real direct national interest of the United States is to deny Burma nuclear weapons. It is not only North Korea, Iran and Syria that America (and the world) must contain. Having a nuclear-armed Burmese Military Junta is an unacceptable risk. This trumps the need to assist a domestic corporation. Further, since Chevron is also a major cash source for the Junta, which uses money as well as the direct transfer of natural resources to pay its weapons suppliers, it demands that the company be forced to divest.

US intelligence believes Burma is seeking to develop nuclear weapons from technology provided by North Korea, according to two former senior US government officials. An article in one of the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, Michael Green, formerly with the National Security Council, and Derek Mitchell, formerly with the Pentagon, write: "Western intelligence officials have suspected for several years that the regime has had an interest in following the model of North Korea and achieving military autarky by developing ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons." The article confirms the thrust of a story in The Australian last year that Burma was seeking to acquire missile and nuclear weapons technology from North Korea.

Green and Mitchell argue that Burma is a much more urgent problem for the international community than is commonly realized. This is because of the humanitarian catastrophe that Burma has become as well as the human and strategic fallout of its activities. Its many illegal immigrants are spreading the HIV-AIDS virus, in part because of the primitive quality of the Burmese health system. It produces the vast majority of Asian heroin and is intimately involved in drug and other smuggling across most of its borders. And its regime is increasingly erratic.

Green and Mitchell evaluate the approaches taken to Burma is that Burma’s neighbors especially in the Association of South-East Asian Nations, of which it is a member, have tried to engage it economically and politically while urging it to embrace political reform. Its closest trade partner and political patron is China which, along with Russia, makes sure the UN takes no effective action. India has also become an important player in Burma and has tried to match China with technology, weapons sales, diplomatic engagement and trade. While the US and the European Union have taken the opposite tack, resolutely condemning Burma's internal oppression and imposing severe trade and investment sanctions but Japan and Australia have taken a middle path.

Neither engagement nor the isolation strategies has had the slightest effect in moderating the Burmese Government's behavior. Engagement by Asian neighbors and isolation by the West have tended to cancel each other out. They propose a new strategy, basically of lining up all the key players - the US, the EU, China, India, ASEAN and Japan - in a new multilateral approach following the model of the six-party talks that have had some success with North Korea. This new multilateral framework would offer Burma security and territorial guarantees, and moderate the US ban on dealing with high-level Burmese officials, but would maintain Western sanctions until Burma made solid progress on minimum benchmarks of behavior that the multilateral process would define. But Burma has rejected this approach. Isolation and sanctions work only when a regime is about to collapse and Burma is not at that point. It's incredibly unsatisfactory and morally very complex also.

But the key to the policy working would be to convince China to exert real pressure on Burma; even then it's not guaranteed. However, China gets too much strategic pay-off from Burma: military listening posts, natural resources, access to the Indian Ocean and much else.

The other aspect that once the Junta became weak it will lead to Balkanization of Burma with disastrous consequences among it neighbors. The imperialist China and the cut throat India will stalk their share, only then the ethnics and the pro democratic groups will realized their folly and it will be too late.

The Burmese generals are not buffoons as the media portrayed. Working at the Prime Minister’s Office I have deal with a lot of them even though at that time they are junior officers. They are crafty, deceptive, and sly and could cleverly trick its people and the international community to swallow their lie as the various UN’s representative including Ban Ki Moon trips demonstrates. Than Shwe himself is a skilled if not a slippery debater and a natural politician gifted in the art of spin and misdirection. If the world, particularly the next American President doesn’t act now we should let the Burmese Junta established their 4th Burmese empire with nuclear weapons and add another giant stature in Naypyidaw for the Burmese has already established three empires, the Pagan Dynasty 1044, the Taungoo dynasty1550 and the Konbaung dynasty 1776.

- Asian Tribune -

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