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Judging Myanmar’s Nuclear Ambitions and Likely Implications

Dr. Rajesh Kapoor is Associate Fellow at the Centre for Land Warfare Studies, New Delhi.
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  • July 22, 2010

    If reports in the media are true, then there exists some proof for Myanmar’s nuclear orientation. However, before jumping to any conclusion, it will be wise to look at the pros and cons of Myanmar’s nuclear options. Does Myanmar nurture a nuclear ambition? Can it afford to go nuclear? Answers to both questions can be answered in the affirmative. Scholars following Myanmar are of the opinion that Myanmar’s nuclear ambition is nothing new. As a sovereign country it has the right to a develop civil nuclear programme provided it meets the International Atomic Energy Agency’s (IAEA) safeguard requirements. Prior to its agreement with Russia signed in 2007 for the construction of a nuclear research centre, Myanmar had already established an Atomic Energy Committee by the late 1990s. The military junta introduced an Atomic Energy Law on 8 June 1998. The issue of military junta pursuing civil nuclear programme with the help of Russia got international attention in 2001 when Myanmar told IAEA of its intentions. After its assessment, an IAEA team concluded that Myanmar did not have the capability and safety standards to pursue a civil nuclear programme. There were some reports that Pakistani nuclear experts took refuge in Myanmar when they were being chased by the US in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

    In 2002, the Government of Myanmar announced its interest in building a nuclear research reactor. Myanmar contended that since all its neighbours except Laos have nuclear energy, why should it be prevented from acquiring it? However, due to paucity of funds there was hardly any progress till 2007 when the Generals found new sources of income through the sale of oil and the military junta announced its agreement with Russia. There is nothing secret about Myanmar’s desire to acquire civil nuclear capability. What worries the world community is Myanmar’s improving relationship with nuclear North Korea, which was lying dormant since 1983 when North Korean spies tried to assassinate the visiting South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan in Yangon.1 In order to diversify its military procurements and to reduce over-reliance on China, Myanmar has started diversifying its military suppliers. The rapprochement with North Korea at this juncture has heightened the suspicions of the world community.

    Myanmar is a signatory to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and the Southeast Asian Nuclear Weapons Free Zone (SEANWFZ) treaty.2 Myanmar has also allowed IAEA inspections in the past and unlike North Korea, it has never walked out of NPT. There is no denying that Myanmar has an ongoing nuclear research programme but whether it has the intention of developing nuclear weapons remains unclear. No neutral agency has verified the validity of the claims made by the Democratic Voice of Burma and the defecting Major Sai Thein Win, a former deputy commander of a top-secret military factory at a town called Myaing.

    On the contrary, the Government of Myanmar has denied all such media reports. Regional groupings like ASEAN which exercise considerable influence over Myanmar are silent. Even the governments of India and China, which will face the most serious consequences if Myanmar goes nuclear, are yet to react. In an interview Robert Kelley, a former Director at the IAEA, said that “Burma’s nuclear program appears both rudimentary and nascent, with scientists apparently experimenting with laser isotope separation and gas centrifuge technology for uranium enrichment…while very serious and grounds for international concern, Burma’s nuclear weapons program is still years from being capable of producing a weapon.”3

    China has been suspected of providing nuclear weapons know-how to Pakistan and North Korea. However China will refrain from doing so in Myanmar because China also fears instability in Myanmar primarily because of the likelihood of spillover effects, particularly along its South-western border. Given the volume of Chinese investments in Myanmar and Myanmar’s increasing reliance on Russia, China would never want Myanmar to go nuclear. A nuclear Myanmar is neither in China’s nor in ASEAN’s interest. ASEAN will oppose any such move tooth and nail. The degree of secrecy commonly maintained by the Burmese regime makes an assessment of these issues very difficult. Andrew Selth suggests that the available evidence about a Burmese nuclear weapons programme is not yet conclusive and noted that no government or international organisation has yet made any official statement specifically on this subject.4 Confirmation of a Burmese nuclear weapons programme would be a major international and regional issue. It would place the country directly in conflict with its partners in ASEAN, who have all signed a treaty barring acquisition of such weapons, and would likely expel Burma from the Association.

    The US and NATO have been observing Myanmar with keen interest and would not let their so called “right to intervene” (Right to Protect, R2P) remain unused. Myanmar acknowledges the fact that it is the weakest link in the US strategy of containing China. Therefore, a nuclear test now or anytime in future will definitely attract US attention, the one thing Myanmar’s Generals would never like to happen. For instance, when the US sent its ships with relief material in the wake of the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargis, the military junta did not permit US ships to anchor at its ports even though they did take the relief material.5

    Finally, the human rights and environment groups are very critical of the junta’s approach towards its people and natural resources. According to Transparency International, Myanmar is one of the most corrupt countries. Amnesty International also criticises Myanmar for the pathetic state of human rights in the country. UNHCR says that Myanmar has become one of the prominent sources of refugees. EarthRights International says that Myanmar’s nuclear programme is funded by the money earned from the sale of oil and gas. Its socioeconomic indicators are the worst in the world. All these organisations argue that instead of developing nuclear weapons, the Government of the Union of Myanmar should focus on problems like HIV AIDS, human trafficking, rape, drug abuse, child soldiers, forced labour, ethnic crisis and corruption.

    Whatever may be the truth, the fact remains that nuclear Myanmar is not in India’s interest. India cannot afford to have another nuclear power along its border. India should join with China and ASEAN to pressure Myanmar to give up its nuclear (weapons) ambitions.

    • 1. B Raman, “Myanmar Another Iraq or Another Iran?,” Paper No 3325, 2 August 2009,
    • 2. Entered into force on 28 March 1997 and it obliges its members not to develop, manufacture or otherwise acquire, possess or have control over nuclear weapons.
    • 3. Burma’s Nuclear Ambitions: Are natural gas sales funding Burma’s secret nuclear program?
    • 4. A Selth, ‘Burma and North Korea: smoke or fire?’, Policy Analysis no. 47, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 24 August 2009, viewed 27 September 2009,
    • 5. David I Steinberg observes that, “The US government has officially decried both the proposed constitution of 2008 and the referendum that will bring it into effect following the 2010 elections. One practical result of this attitude has been the Burmese refusal to allow US ships and helicopters to deliver relief supplies directly to the victims of Cyclone Nargis, causing great external consternation about the callousness of the SPDC. This refusal, and the initial reluctance (or neglect) by the Burmese government to provide assistance to the victims of the cyclone, led the French foreign minister to propose employment of the United Nations Responsibility to Protect (R2P) provision that would allow foreign assistance to a state even when it denied such action.” However the situation did not escalate to that level where intervention was required. David I Steinberg, David I Steinberg, Burma/Myanmar: What Everyone Needs to Know, New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.