Monday, August 3, 2009

Nuclear Fallout

The Irrawaddy News

Although Burma signed an energy agreement with its Southeast Asian neighbors last week—and despite a stern warning from US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—there are clear danger signs that the Burmese military government has embarked on a policy of close nuclear and military cooperation with North Korea.

The issue of military cooperation between the two rogue states has been documented for months by The Irrawaddy, including a cover story in the August issue titled “An Open Secret,” which examines the clandestine deals and negotiations between the two regimes.

It was echoed loudly in an article this weekend that quoted two Burmese defectors as claiming that the junta was preparing underground tunnels and trading uranium extracts—known as “yellowcake”—for North Korean military hardware and/ or technical expertise.

The article, based on research conducted by Professor Desmond Ball and journalist Phil Thornton, was published in the Sydney Morning Herald and the Bangkok Post on Saturday. Reporting on interviews with the defectors, the article claims that there are more than five North Koreans working at the Thabeik Kyin uranium processing plant in Burma, and that locally refined uranium from Burma was being traded to North Korea.

The junta has been browsing the nuclear bazaar since at least 2000, when science and technology minister U Thaung visited Moscow. A resulting agreement to build a low-grade research reactor, under the auspices of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), initially fell through when questions arose about how the Burmese would pay for Russian assistance.

In recent years, several Burmese officials (both civilian and military) have claimed to have direct knowledge, or even first-hand experience, of a secret nuclear weapons program.

According to the defectors in this recent report, Burma’s military government began building a reactor near Maymyo in 2002 with the aim of developing a nuclear device by 2020. The reactor and some related nuclear fuel processing plants were said to be hidden underground. The expertise for this project reportedly came from North Korea, with help from Iran and possibly Pakistan.

The report adds to common fears that Burma is “going nuclear.”

In an article titled “A New Start for Non-Proliferation” published in July, the director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Mohamed El-Baradei, said:

“A number of countries with nuclear energy programs have the capability, if they choose, to manufacture nuclear weapons within a matter of months if their security perceptions change, because they have mastered the critical technology—uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing. If more countries take this path, it could prove to be the Achilles’ heel of non-proliferation.”

In other words, even civilian nuclear technology cooperation between well-intentioned states, who are signatories to the non-proliferation treaties (which includes Burma), has the potential to be misused, if countries can access the technology.

“We worry about the transfer of nuclear technology and other dangerous weapons,” Hillary Clinton told the Asean representatives in Phuket last month in reference to North Korea and Burma.

Notwithstanding Burma’s alleged role in nuclear trafficking, the junta followed on the heels of Phuket by chairing the Asean Energy Ministers meeting in Mandalay.

According to the statement released after the meeting on July 29: “Ministers adopted the Asean Plan of Action for Energy Cooperation (APAEC) 2010-2015, which will serve as a guideline for the Asean energy cooperation to support the realization of the Asean Economic Community toward 2010 and beyond.”

The statement went on to outline a seven-point energy plan of action for 2010-15, which consists of “seven program areas,” namely: (i) Asean Power Grid; (ii) Trans-Asean Gas Pipeline; (iii) Coal and Clean Coal Technology; (iv) Renewable Energy; (v) Energy Efficiency and Conservation; (vi) Regional Energy Policy and Planning; and (viii) Civilian Nuclear Energy.”

It would appear Asean does not share the rest of the world’s fears that Burma is a danger to the region. Indeed, Burma’s neighbors—in particular Thailand, China and India—seem prepared to condone the junta’s military expansion while they can still plunder the resource-rich country at bargain-basement prices.

Wong Aung, a representative of an environmental organization, the Shwe Gas Movement, said that electricity consumption rates per capita in Burma are less than 5 percent that of Thailand. Nonetheless, the military junta still aims to export more energy resources to its neighbors.

“These include plans for over 20 large hydroelectric dams to power Thailand, China and Asean power grids, and trans-Burma oil and gas pipelines to China set to begin in September this year,” he said. “The revenue from the energy sector is the main source of income for the Burmese generals.”

Despite ample natural resources, ordinary Burmese do not benefit in any way, with some of the lowest health and education spending in the world.

“In a few years time, if you look down on Asia at night, there will be a dark spot where Burma is. The people of Burma sit in the dark while their natural resources are sold off to provide energy for their neighbors, and money for the generals who oppress them,” said Mark Farmaner, executive director of the Burma Campaign UK.

Like his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il, Burmese junta head Snr-Gen Than Shwe is probably not losing sleep over whether his citizens are going without basic commodities and electricity while he pursues his self-interests in the military hardware store.

However, the US and the EU may not be prepared to turn a blind eye to the regime’s recent moves.

"If it was just the Russian reactor, under full International Energy supervision, then the likelihood of them being able to do something with it in terms of a bomb would be zero," Professor Ball said. "It's the North Korean element which adds danger to it.”

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