BURMA: A NUCLEAR WANNABE
For several years, suspicions have swirled about the nuclear intentions of Burma’s secretive military dictatorship. Burma is cooperating with North Korea on possible nuclear procurements and appears to be misleading overseas suppliers in obtaining top-of-the-line equipment. Certain equipment, which could be used in a nuclear or missile program, went to isolated Burmese manufacturing compounds of unknown purpose. Although evidence does not exist to make a compelling case that Burma is building secret nuclear reactors or fuel cycle facilities, as has been reported, the information does warrant governments and companies taking extreme caution in any dealings with Burma. The military regime’s suspicious links to North Korea, and apparent willingness to illegally procure high technology goods, make a priority convincing the military government to accept greater transparency.
ISIS - Suspicions about nuclear intentions followed an agreement by Russia to sell Burma a research reactor in 2001 and intensified in 2007 with the resumption of a formal military relationship between North Korea and Burma, known officially as Myanmar (see Nuclear Monitor 657, 21 June 2007: “Myanmar: A new Iran in the making?”). According to U.S. officials, concerns about military cooperation between North Korea and Burma extend to possible nuclear cooperation, but their information is incomplete. The evidence supports that Burma and North Korea have discussed nuclear cooperation, but is not sufficient to establish that North Korea is building nuclear facilities for Burma’s military junta, despite recent reports to the contrary.
Nonetheless, no one can ignore the possibility of significant North Korean nuclear assistance to this enigmatic, military regime. Because North Korea secretly sold a reactor to Syria, a sale which the world’s best intelligence agencies missed until late in the reactor’s construction, no one is willing to turn a blind eye to the possibility of North Korea selling nuclear equipment, materials, or facilities to Burma. North Korea’s past proliferation activities and the failure to promptly detect the Syrian reactor cannot but lead to more scrutiny over whether North Korea might sell Burma a reactor or other nuclear industrial equipment and facilities, or the means and guidance to manufacture nuclear facilities. When one adds Burma’s own efforts to acquire abroad sophisticated dual-use goods that can be used for nuclear purposes, it becomes essential to determine and constrain as necessary the military junta’s nuclear intentions.
Another dimension is whether Burma is helping North Korea obtain items for its nuclear programs. Burma could act as a cooperative transshipment partner for goods ultimately destined for North Korea’s gas centrifuge uranium enrichment program.
The military regime’s lack of transparency and repressive actions complicate any effort to investigate suspicions about its nuclear program. A priority is getting the military government to accept greater transparency of its activities.
Because Burma is buying a wide variety of suspicious dual-use goods internationally, governments and companies need to be more vigilant in examining Burma’s enquiries, or requests for equipment, whether via Burmese governmental entities, Burmese trading companies, or other foreign trading companies. Companies should treat enquiries from Burma no differently than those from Iran, Pakistan, or Syria.
Minimal nuclear Capability
Currently, Burma has little known indigenous nuclear infrastructure to support the construction of nuclear facilities. Nonetheless, it has sought to purchase a nuclear research reactor for about a decade.
In September 2000, Burma asked the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for assistance in acquiring a research reactor. The IAEA said that it would assist in such an endeavor once Burma achieved a set of milestones, including bringing its reactor safety and regulatory infrastructure up to a minimally acceptable standard. Meanwhile, without telling the IAEA, Burma started negotiations with Russia over the supply of a ten megawatt-thermal research reactor. A draft cooperation agreement was approved by Russia in May 2002 for the construction of a nuclear research center that would include a ten megawatt-thermal research reactor, two laboratories (believed to include hot cells for radioisotope production), and facilities for the disposal of nuclear waste. However, the draft agreement did not represent an approved sale. The two countries finally signed a nuclear cooperation agreement in 2007 for the sale of the reactor complex, but no construction of the research center had started as of September 2009. In addition, neither side has publicly announced the planned location of this reactor project. Under the terms of its cooperation, Russia has reportedly conducted training of Burmese in fields related to the building and operation of research reactors.
Burma receives a relatively small level of technical assistance from the IAEA in nuclear medicine, agriculture, and fields related to research reactors. It also receives nuclear energy training in South Korea with other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
According to a European intelligence official, Russia assists Burma’s uranium exploration and mining efforts, but this effort is relatively small-scale and has not extended into the construction of a uranium mill to process uranium ore. The Myanmar Ministry of Energy lists five areas with potential for uranium mining.
Minimal nuclear transparency
Burma joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1992. It insists it is in compliance with all its obligations under the NPT. Evidently in reaction to published reports in the summer of 2009, and in August 2009, a Burmese official denied seeking nuclear weapons.
Burma has a traditional INFCIRC 153 comprehensive safeguards agreement with the IAEA supplemented by a Small Quantities Protocol (SQP) that it signed in 1995. The SQP is in effect since Burma has declared it has no major nuclear facilities and only small quantities of nuclear material. Under the SQP, the IAEA has agreed not to implement safeguards with a few exceptions, mainly conditions aimed at determining when to implement the safeguards procedures in the comprehensive agreement. These conditions include Burma agreeing to report if it imports or exports nuclear material, acquires more than a minimal amount of nuclear material, or has built a new nuclear facility that is within six months of receiving nuclear material. In the case of the reactor from Russia, Burma would implement the full safeguards agreement, no later than six months before receiving nuclear reactor fuel.
Burma has discussed improving safeguards with the IAEA in the context of the reactor purchase. However, Burma has not agreed to update its commitments under the SQP. In particular, it has not agreed to report a nuclear facility when it decides or authorizes its construction rather than six months before Burma introduces nuclear material in the facility. Moreover, it has not agreed to the Additional Protocol, which would obligate Burma to provide far greater information about its nuclear activities and plans and allow the IAEA much greater access to Burmese sites. Implementation of the Additional Protocol could go far in reducing suspicions about reports of undeclared nuclear facilities or materials.
In a new development, it is understood that Burma has indicated an interest in joining the Asia/Pacific Safeguards Network, an Australian initiative which came into operation in October 2009. This network, which comprises authorities and agencies working in safeguards, has yet to consider if Burma should be invited to join.
A new constraint on Burma’s cooperation with North Korea is United Nations Security Council Resolution 1874, which was passed in mid-2009. It prohibits member states from engaging in trade with North Korea in almost all conventional weapons and in sensitive areas, including those related to ballistic missiles and nuclear. Although the Burmese leadership has stated its commitment to fully comply with UNSC Resolution 1874, U.S. officials have expressed worries about the “nature and extent” of Burma’s ties with North Korea.
Conclusion and policy recommendations
There remain sound reasons to suspect that the military regime in Burma might be pursuing a long-term strategy to make nuclear weapons. Despite the public reports to the contrary, the military junta does not appear to be close to establishing a significant nuclear capability. Information suggesting the construction of major nuclear facilities appears unreliable or inconclusive.
Assigning a purpose to suspicious procurements likewise remains uncertain. The procurements are multi-purpose and difficult to correlate conclusively with a secret missile or nuclear program. Although Burma and North Korea appear to be cooperating on illegal procurements, who is helping who cannot be determined with the available information. Is North Korea helping Burma acquire nuclear, conventional weapon, or missile capabilities or is Burma assisting North Korea acquiring this equipment?
Nonetheless, the evidence supports that the regime wants to develop a nuclear capability of some type, but whether its ultimate purpose is peaceful or military remains a mystery. The outstanding questions about the regime’s activities require that there be more scrutiny of Burma to ascertain if there is an underlying secret nuclear program. Because Burma’s known nuclear program is so small, the opportunity exists to both engage and pressure the military regime in a manner that would make it extremely difficult for Burma to acquire a nuclear weapons capability, let alone nuclear weapons.
A priority is to establish greater transparency over Burma’s and North Korea’s activities and inhibit any nuclear or nuclear dual-use transfers to Burma. A related problem is ensuring that Burma is not helping North Korea acquire nuclear and other military goods illegally. Vigorous implementation of the recent U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874 on North Korea is helpful to these goals. Governments should continue to press Burma’s military regime to abide by this resolution. To reinforce this message, Burma should be made more aware of the penalties of being labeled a pariah state.
Russia should be privately encouraged that before it provides Burma with a research reactor, the regime needs to meet a set of specific conditions. More effective safeguards would be the principal condition, including the Additional Protocol along with upgraded safety and security infrastructure. Also necessary are verifiable commitments by the Burmese regime to not procure equipment illicitly and to abide by U.N. Security Council Resolution 1874, which would mean Burma would not buy any nuclear facilities, equipment, or materials from North Korea.
Burma’s suspicious procurements as well as its cooperation with North Korea should cause suppliers to be more vigilant. Suppliers need to exercise greater caution about enquiries from Burmese entities or companies in other countries where there is an indication that goods are destined for Burma.
Governments should warn their companies about possible attempts by Burma to acquire high precision machinery or other sensitive dual use items. The countries that supplied the high-precision equipment in 2006 and 2007 should find a legal justification to press for access to the equipment in order to verify that it is being used for its declared purpose.
The United States is planning to hold more discussions with Burma. In these discussions, the United States should press for access to certain suspicious sites as a way to build confidence.
Source: “Burma: A Nuclear Wannabe; Suspicious Links to North Korea; High-Tech Procurements and Enigmatic Facilities” by David Albright, Paul Brannan, Robert Kelley and Andrea Scheel Stricker, ISIS, 28 January 2010, aAvailable at: http://isis-online.org/countries/category/myanmar/
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Burma or Myanmar? In 1989, the military junta officially changed the English translations of many colonial-era names, including the name of the country, to "Myanmar". The democratic elected opposition did and does not recognize the name Myanmar.
While some of the name changes are closer to their actual Burmese pronunciations, many domestic and foreign opposition groups and other countries continue to oppose their use in English because they recognize neither the legitimacy of the ruling military government nor its authority to rename the country or towns in English. Various non-Burman ethnic groups choose to not recognize the name because the term Myanmar has historically been used as a label for the majority ethnic group rather than for the country.
Source: Burma Center Netherlands