For years the West has treated Burma as primarily a humanitarian crisis. Now the issue is complicated by evidence that the ruling junta is interested in nuclear energy, and perhaps even in nuclear weapons. Still, the idea of an atomic arsenal in Rangoon is both distant and far-fetched. The more immediate challenge for Washington is dealing with one of the most repressive regimes ruling over one of the poorest peoples. The United States should promote more democratic governance and increased international engagement, which ultimately would reduce any incentive for Burma, also known as Myanmar, to consider atomic options.
Burma has suffered under military rule for five decades. The junta foolishly held an election in 1990, which was won overwhelmingly by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. The regime voided the poll and arrested numerous democracy activists. The so-called State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) has brutally suppressed human rights ever since. Suu Kyi, a Nobel Prize Laureate, has spent decades under house arrest. The SPDC now is preparing to hold elections organized to ensure permanent military control.
Promised autonomy by the British, ethnic groups like the Karen, Karenni, Chin, Shan, Kachin, and Wa long have battled the central government. Fighting in the nation's east has killed and injured tens of thousands, forced hundreds of thousand to flee over the border into Thailand, and displaced millions more within Burma.
In recent years the regime has reached cease-fire agreements with several groups, but basic political issues remain unresolved and tensions have been rising. The government is pressing groups to disarm and disband, without offering any political protections. Karen National Union General Secretary Zipporah Sein warns that there is the "greatest possibility of renewed conflict." The Burmese army and ethnic forces are preparing for renewed hostilities.
In 2008 Cyclone Nargis ravaged Burma, killing an estimated 140,000 people and leaving more than three million homeless. The country remains desperately poor, with a per capita GDP estimated to run no more than $1,200. Yet this tragically misgoverned and impoverished nation has been accused of developing nuclear weapons.
Last year the Sydney Morning Herald reported: "Rumors have swirled around refugee circles outside Burma about secret military installations, tunnels dug into the mountains to hide nuclear facilities, the establishment of a ‘nuclear battalion' in the army and work done by foreign scientists."
Defectors cite plans to construct nuclear bombs. Last year Secretary of State Hillary Clinton voiced concern over possible nuclear cooperation between North Korea and Burma.
Discerning the SPDC's capabilities and intentions is not easy. After all, the fanciful claims of Ahmed Chalabi's famed defector, "Curveball," helped justify the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Author Catherine Collins acknowledges that "the evidence of malfeasance so far is slight" but worries that similar whispers of Israeli nuclear activity in the 1950s turned out to be accurate.
In fact, Burmese interest in nuclear power runs back decades. That does not, however, mean the regime has an interest in developing nuclear weapons.
Burma is a most unlikely nuclear weapons state. It has only about half of North Korea's per capita GDP. Lack of funds is thought to have held up planned Russian construction of a nuclear research reactor-which would operate under international safeguards.
The regime must spend heavily on the army to suppress domestic protest and ethnic resistance, purposes for which atomic weapons would be useless. And the regime faces no serious outside threats.
What of paranoia and prestige? Author Bertil Lintner contends: "There is no doubt that the Burmese generals would like to have a bomb so that they could challenge the Americans and the rest of the world." Perhaps, though just being thought to have the possibility of making one might have some deterrent value. And Andrew Selth of the Griffith Asia Institute points to "a siege mentality among Burma's leaders. Even now, they fear intervention by the United States and its allies-possibly even an invasion-to restore democracy to Burma." However, he believes that at most "a few Burmese generals envy North Korea's apparent ability to use its nuclear weapons capabilities to fend off its enemies and win concessions form the international community."
In fact, the best evidence is against a nuclear weapons program. The Irrawaddy News Magazine cites understandable suspicions, but opines: "It is admittedly premature to conclude that Burma intends to undertake the complicated and perilous process of reprocessing uranium to get weapons-grade plutonium."
A recent report from the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) concluded that Burma: