Just Nuke It: Is Cash-Rich Burma Pursuing Fission?

♠ Posted by Emmanuel in , at 7/13/2010 12:03:00 AM
And now for more strange goings-on in Southeast Asia. A few days ago, I questioned the wisdom of the military in Cambodia pursuing military sponsorship, dubbing it the return to the shilling fields. To paraphrase the timeless and nearly universally familiar slogan of Nike, just shoot it, eh? Well, I may now have another security-related concern that should raise eyebrows from more than a few Westerners. Once again following Nike, Burma is perhaps considering the possibility of, well, just nuke it.

It is no big secret that Burma is rich in natural resources--particularly natural gas. In their quest to secure energy supplies, many neighbouring countries have risked incurring the disapproval of Washington by warming to Myanmar's ruling junta for economic reasons. At the end of the day, Washington's globocop tendencies only go so far in a world where scarcity of any number of resources is only set to intensify.

Now, however, the activist grapevine is sounding a warning that Myanmar's junta is eagerly pursuing the ultimate trump card to fend off all comers in nuclear weaponry. Although not a prosperous nation by any stretch of the imagination, it appears that there is something major underway as Myanmar decides what to do with a sudden influx of cold hard cash. From TIME:
Burmese gas already powers half of Bangkok, and it will soon start flowing to China, making billions of dollars of profit. For many though, it's how the money is being spent that's worrying...Up until a few years ago, Burma's military government, cut off from trade with the West, led a "hand-to-mouth existence," says Sean Turnell, an economics professor at Macquarie University in Australia. Now, thanks in no small part to its resource-hungry neighbors, the pariah state has $6 billion in cash reserves, according to Turnell. As cash is flowing in, the military junta that has run the country since 1962 is spending lavishly. With about a third of the country in poverty, the junta could invest in health, education or job creation, but instead, new evidence suggests Burma is spending billions on outlandish military projects, including, perhaps, a secretive nuclear weapons program. Turnell says the junta is "absolutely paranoid about international interference in the country."

A documentary released last month by the Norway-based NGO Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) purports to detail the beginnings of a Burmese nuclear program. Though much of the documentary's evidence comes from a single defector living in hiding, the NGO contends that hundreds of color photographs lend support to the rumors swirling for the past few years that Burma has been pursuing the bomb. The Burmese Ministry of Foreign Affairs calls DVB's accusations "baseless," but Robert Kelley, a former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency and weapons scientist at Los Alamos National Lab, concluded from the DVB evidence that the technology in the photos "is only for nuclear weapons and not civilian use or nuclear power."
And there's no prize for guessing who their muse is said to be...
If this sounds similar to another Asian pariah state, it should; Burma is trying to follow the North Korean model, according to Khin Maung Win. Than Shwe reportedly admires Kim Jong Il for standing up to the international community, and ever since the countries formalized relations in 2007, the two states have deepened their military connections, say DVB sources.
Elsewhere, the article quotes the activists mentioning that many Burmese scientists are going to Russia for training--especially at institutions associated with training Soviet-era nuclear weapons experts. IMHO, Myanmar is a far more interesting case than North Korea. Whereas the latter is not particularly blessed with resources marketable to the rest of the world, the former has them in spades. If it plays its cards right, it will be able to tell many critics to buzz off in a way North Korea ultimately cannot.

UPDATE: Remember that like all other ASEAN members, Burma is a signatory to the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone. It will be interesting to see what the reaction of the others will be if Burma is indeed identified as being in the process of developing such weapons.