Report Alleges Secret Myanmar Nuclear Work

Peter Crail

Myanmar (Burma) has been carrying out rudimentary steps toward developing nuclear weapons, a documentary released in June by an opposition group alleges. The documentary by the Democratic Voice of Burma featured information provided by Sai Thein Win, a former officer in the Myanmar army. Win claimed to have been deputy manager of special machine tool factories involved in Myanmar’s secret nuclear weapons efforts and ballistic missile development program.

The opposition group also issued a corresponding report June 3 featuring an analysis of Win’s information by former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector Robert Kelley. Kelley claimed in the report that, taken collectively, the technology featured in Win’s information “is only for nuclear weapons and not civilian use or nuclear power.”

Much of the information is based on photographs Win provided, which depict machining tools and machined products produced at two factories believed to be housing key elements of Myanmar’s nuclear and missile programs. Although the tools and machined products were dual use in nature, according to Kelley, many could be used as part of a uranium-enrichment program. Even if they were used for that purpose, the report suggested that Myanmar’s nuclear efforts are at the very early stages, and its capacity to complete such a program is uncertain.

The report and documentary do not indicate any ties between North Korea and Myanmar’s suspected nuclear efforts; however, they do indicate North Korean assistance on ballistic missile development.

Media reports regarding suspicions of Myanmar nuclear activities led Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), who has advocated diplomatic engagement with the country’s military junta, to cancel a scheduled June visit to the country. He said in a June 3 press statement that it would be “unwise and potentially counterproductive” to go there in light of allegations of proliferation activities by Myanmar. He added, however, that “[i]t is unclear whether these allegations have substantive merit.”

Webb noted that Myanmar was suspected also of violating UN proliferation sanctions against North Korea.

In May 11 remarks to the press in Yangon (Rangoon), U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell said that contrary to the Myanmar government’s pledge to uphold the sanctions on North Korea, “recent developments call that commitment into question.” He did not elaborate on what those developments were.

He added, “I have asked the Burmese leadership to work with the United States and others to put into place a transparent process to assure the international community that Burma is abiding by its international commitments.”

Although Myanmar has a comprehensive safeguards agreement in force with the IAEA, it has adopted a small quantities protocol, which holds in abeyance much of the agency’s inspection authority.

Traditionally, countries with little or no nuclear activity may adopt a small quantities protocol as long as their nuclear material holdings do not exceed certain thresholds. In September 2005, the IAEA Board of Governors approved modifications to such protocols to correct what the board believed was “a weakness of the safeguards system.”

The modifications provide for safeguards inspections and require early reporting on decisions to construct nuclear facilities. The final document of the 2010 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty Review Conference encouraged all states with small quantities protocols “to amend or rescind them, as appropriate, as soon as possible.”

According to the state-run New Light of Myanmar newspaper June 18, the IAEA wrote a letter to Myanmar’s permanent representative to the agency, Tin Win, June 14 raising questions about media reports of undeclared nuclear activities in the country. The newspaper report said that Win responded in a letter stating that “no activity related to uranium conversion, enrichment, reactor construction or operation has been carried out in the past, is ongoing or is planned for the future in Myanmar.”

Myanmar is also a member of the Southeast Asia Nuclear-Weapon-Free Zone, a binding arrangement among 10 countries in the region that committed not to develop nuclear weapons or allow such weapons in the region.

The Treaty of Bangkok, which establishes the zone, allows the states of the region to request statements of clarification or conduct fact-finding missions if they suspect a member state has violated the accord.