Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Burma must come clean

(Bangkok Post) -The evidence is now overwhelming of an alliance between Burma and North Korea. The vital question for Thailand is whether whatever ventures the two rogue states have started up pose a threat to our neighbourhood.

In one sense, the answer is a clear "yes", since secrecy breeds suspicion. But as this newspaper showed in three major reports last Sunday, the Burma-North Korea alliance vastly increases the stakes of international diplomacy in our backyard and in the rest of Southeast Asia.

Any project involving nuclear weapons paints a new bull's-eye over the region, not to mention that Burma would be in gross and unforgivable violation of the Asean agreements it has signed.

First, the known facts.

Burma, with experts from North Korea, has undertaken huge earthworks in areas where foreigners and most Burmese are not allowed. Truck-sized tunnels have been burrowed into the ground and hills in the general region of the heavily secured new capital, Naypyidaw, in remote central Burma.

Commercial satellite photos show more than 600 tunnel complexes. Other photographs, taken on the ground and smuggled out of the country, show that some of the tunnels are fortified with blast-proof doors.

During construction of these tunnels, which was begun by 2003, Burma renewed official relations with North Korea, cut off in 1983 after state-sponsored terrorists from Pyongyang attempted to assassinate South Korean president Chun Doo-hwan in Rangoon with three deadly bombs.

Relations resumed in April, 2007. At the time, the chief concern of Burma's neighbours and the United Nations was that the twin rogue states would collude against human rights, chiefly with Burma purchasing weapons from North Korea.

The Burmese military continues to abuse citizens at the whim or acquiescence of the ruling junta. But the tunnel projects and increasingly warm relations between Burma and North Korea raise major questions that get to the very basis of Southeast Asian diplomacy, cooperation and peace.

Burma and its dictatorship have clearly violated major tenets of Asean. Indeed, as details of the tunnel projects emerged to the public, Burmese officials were attending the Asean Regional Forum in the southern Thai resort island of Phuket. The purpose of the ARF is specifically to encourage openness among all members in order to build trust.

Even the most peaceful and innocent nuclear project requires Burma - by Asean and by United Nations law - to fully reveal the work. It must be remembered that the junta has stated that it wants a small nuclear reactor, such as the one in Bangkok. Russia announced it would help to achieve that aim; then the subject was dropped from public discussion. But even that proposal must be fully public, and conducted through the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency.

There also has been speculation that the tunnels are part of a plan to mine uranium, and again Burma would be breaking international law not to discuss that.

On general principles of regional agreement, Burma must quickly disclose what it is up to with the tunnel complexes. The generals can prove that reports of nuclear cooperation with North Korea are wrong.

But by their silence they also can encourage even more distrust and suspicion about the intentions of their violent regime.

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