Thein Sein must come clean on the ambitions of
his military to break away from Myanmar's past.
Last Modified: 19 Aug 2013 14:21
Questions have been raised over the resources pumped into Myanmar's military,
which receives more than a fifth of the total state budget each year [Reuters]
Three years ago a defector from the Myanmar military fled the country with extensive
documentation of a nascent secret nuclear programme. The chain of custody and validation
of the material he possessed rivals the equivalent information currently attributed to Iran,
whose own ambitions have become the target of threats of war from the US and Israel.
But after initial alarm, the world has largely fallen silent on Myanmar's programme.
In November last year the government made a welcome promise that
it would signthe International Atomic Energy Agency's (IAEA) Additional
Protocol, thereby allowing the IAEA to carry out nuclear inspections inside the
country to resolve outstanding allegations of a past nuclear programme.
To date, however, no such protocol has been signed, and Myanmar remains
hidden behind an old agreement that allows them to state that they have no
significant nuclear materials, and avoid inspections or even answering
The upshot is that the world remains as in the dark about the work being undertaken in
highly secretive factories operated by the military as it did when photos and testimonies first
emerged. In addition to the evidence of the early stages of a nuclear programme aired in
a documentary co-produced by the Democratic Voice of Burma and Al Jazeera in June 2010,
it is widely known that some 5,000 young Myanmar engineers have been trained in Moscow
in missile, engineering and nuclear technologies. So when senior Myanmar officials deny
the existence of any nuclear programme and stonewall the IAEA, suspicions are aroused.
Myanmar's immediate neighbours have also fallen silent on the issue. The Association of
Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc has not followed through in investigating the
allegations, given the rush to take advantage of opening markets and lucrative oil and gas
contracts. Perhaps this selectivity has also guided Washington's reluctance to press Myanmar as hard as it has other global nuclear threats.
The US has pointed out that missile cooperation between Myanmar and North Korea is real
and must be stopped. Leaked photos and documents from a 2008 visit to North Korea by
Shwe Mann, then the Myanmar junta's third-in-command, and now a powerful speaker of
the Lower House with presidential ambitions, showed the delegation touring missile factories
and meeting with Jon Byong Ho, who was a key figure in North Korea's own proliferation
While nuclear cooperation between the two countries is a much lower concern - little
evidence exists to suggest that Pyongyang has supplied information or material to support
such a programme in Myanmar - the administration of President Thein Sein could clear up
whatever lingering doubt is there with openness and candour.
An opportunity presents itself in September. The IAEA will be holding its annual General
Conference (GC) where all state parties to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty will be present. The GC is covered by the world press and is an ideal venue for Myanmar to boldly follow through on the signing promise. It would
receive considerable world attention and be another step on the road to normalcy.
One word of caution is required. When a country signs a treaty or agreement, it does not
take effect until the legislature of that country ratifies it. In the Southeast Asia region we
have examples, such as the Philippines, which signed an Additional Protocol but did not
bring it into force for 12 years. Malaysia and Thailand signed in 2006 but have yet to ratify it,
presumably because it is a low priority for the governments.
Even when the treaty is ratified, the internal efforts needed to bring it into
force require many administrative and legal steps, including establishing
regulatory and investigative bodies and appropriate legislation so that they
can respond to IAEA requests for information in an orderly and complete way
The best way to move forward is for Myanmar to sign in September and then immediately
inform the IAEA that the Additional Protocol has been signed. Myanmar should then
immediately voluntarily respond to the IAEA as if the Protocol were in force. This would
allow pressing questions to be posed and inspections to take place almost immediately, and
begin to close the books on Myanmar's past nuclear ambitions.
Failure to do so should rouse suspicion, and renew scrutiny of what projects Naypyidaw is
pursuing in its secretive facilities. Already we know of possible uranium mining and
processing in the country's north, but its leaders refuse to acknowledge any such work.
If there is no prohibited activity, Myanmar should allow those inspections immediately.
Eight months has elapsed since the promise to sign was made. In that time, questions have
been asked of the need for the colossal resources pumped into Myanmar's military, which
still receives more than a fifth of the total state budget each year, dwarfing both healthcare
and education combined. Millions of dollars from this will have gone into a series of major
assaults on Kachin rebels in the country's north, who were last year targeted with air strikes.
Any suggestion by the government that it is scaling back the might of its monolithic army,
comprised of some 400,000 troops, can be roundly dismissed.
These are all concerns that conflict with President Thein Sein's claims of a break with
Myanmar's past. Washington's demands for transparency and military reform in its new ally
should take precedent in its policy toward the country, over that of access to markets.
It is also on Thein Sein to come clean on the ambitions of his military. One step toward
achieving this could be taken with the signing of the Protocol in September.
Robert Kelley is a retired Los Alamos National Laboratory analyst specialising in
nuclear weapons programmes worldwide. He was a Director at the IAEA from
1992 to 1993 and from 2001 to 2005, responsible for analysis of Iraq's nuclear
Francis Wade is a Thailand-based freelance journalist and analyst covering
Myanmar and Southeast Asia.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily
reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.