U.S. officials are warning that another new concern may be emerging in the clandestine world of proliferation: Burma.
During a March 25 House International Relations Committee hearing, Assistant Secretary of State Matthew Daley testified that the United States has “reason to believe” North Korea has offered surface-to-surface missiles to Burma (called “Myanmar” by the current regime). Daley said Washington has expressed concerns to Rangoon about possible transfers and said the United States would deal with such activity “vigorously and rapidly.” There is no indication, however, that Burma’s attempts have yielded any significant progress and Burmese officials deny accepting such offers.
Responding to questioning from the committee’s chairman, Rep. James Leach (R-Iowa), Daley confirmed that North Korea has provided some military hardware to Burma, but was unable to provide details about what had actually been transferred.
Daley also said that “the Burmese remain interested in acquiring a nuclear research reactor, [but] we believe that news reports of construction activities are not well founded.” Burma’s Deputy Foreign Minister U Khin Maung Win acknowledged in January 2002 that Burma had received “a proposal” from Russia to build a nuclear research reactor. A Burmese embassy official told Arms Control Today April 22 that Burma continues to receive “assistance…from Russia to construct a nuclear research reactor and trainees have been sent to Russia.”
Concerns that Burma is attempting to acquire missile and nuclear technology have surfaced before. In a September 2003 Washington Post op-ed, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) called Burma’s attempts to acquire a nuclear reactor “troubling,” arguing that even a civilian reactor poses “an unnecessary proliferation risk” because terrorists could steal nuclear material from it.
Keith Luse, a senior aide to Lugar on the Foreign Relations Committee, also expressed concern about Rangoon’s possible weapons activities during an April 9 speech at the Heritage Foundation. Asserting that “special attention must be provided to the growing relationship between Burma and North Korea,” Luse argued that the charge that Pyongyang may have transferred both nuclear technology and Scud missiles to Rangoon requires further investigation.
But the Burmese embassy official denied Luse’s charges, saying “there is no truth in statements indicating Myanmar is acquiring assistance in nuclear technology” from North Korea and pointing out that Rangoon does not have diplomatic relations with Pyongyang.
According to a Feb. 13 statement from the Myanmar Information Committee web site, Rangoon “has no desire” to develop nuclear weapons, but “has the right to develop nuclear facilities for peaceful purposes.” In his 2002 statement, Win indicated that Burma is pursuing a nuclear research reactor to produce radioisotopes for medical purposes and to “train our young scientists and engineers.” Additionally, a Burmese Atomic Energy Department employee’s presentation to a 2003 conference in Japan states that “nuclear power introduction [is] desirable for [the] long term” and Rangoon “should consider small” 100-400 megawatt reactors, perhaps to be introduced around 2025.
As a party to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT), Burma is prohibited from developing nuclear weapons, but is allowed to have civilian nuclear facilities. Daley told the House International Relations Committee in October that Washington wants to be “absolutely certain” that any Burmese nuclear facility “not be directly usable for nuclear weapons and that it would be subject to the full panoply of international atomic energy safeguards.” Burma has a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. Such agreements allow the agency to ensure that parties to the NPT do not divert civilian nuclear programs for military purposes. Burma has also signed the Treaty of Bangkok, which established a nuclear-weapons free zone in Southeast Asia when it entered into force in 1997.
The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) has not publicly expressed any concerns about Burma and nuclear or missile-related activities. A November CIA report to Congress regarding weapons proliferation does not mention Burma, and an agency spokesperson interviewed April 12 declined to comment on Daley’s testimony. The CIA report does mention North Korea’s exports of ballistic missiles and related components to other countries—a longstanding U.S. concern.