The Next Nuclear Nightmare

Meet Burma, the world's next international menace.

As the U.S. and the international community enact additional sanctions against Iran, another rogue nation’s potential nuclear ambitions are raising increased global concern. For much of the past decade, intelligence officials have been warning that Burma (also referred to as Myanmar) may be actively seeking nuclear capabilities. While this is troubling, equally disturbing is the isolated nation’s entrenched military relationship with North Korea. This kinship, combined with substandard living conditions that the inefficient and secretive Burmese junta has created for its 55 million residents, makes Burma the next big international menace.

Just a few decades ago, according to Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Scot Marciel, Burma was “one of the richest and most open countries” in the world. Today, transparency is alien to Burma’s military government. The nation’s political health has vastly deteriorated, with secrecy preventing outsiders from understanding exactly what is occurring within the regime.  This is creating international angst, as the West cannot properly assess the existence of or the motives behind the alleged nuclear program.

With these questions left unanswered and with a volatile North Korea involved, some wonder if domestic and, perhaps, international safety is at stake. FOX News’ Ed Barnes has been one voice, among many, reporting that Burma may be working in secret to become the world’s next “rogue nuclear power.” While some caution that Burma’s closed nature makes it difficult to assess its nuclear ambitions, others seem certain that the Southeast Asian nation is ramping up its atomic capabilities. According to Barnes,

“Because of the nature of Burma’s paranoid and repressive ruling military junta, there is tremendous fear that, if it acquires a nuclear capability, it will set off an arms race that could change the political dynamics of Southeast Asia.”

Aside from a potential arms race, which would surely be a detriment to international security and would take substantial efforts from world leaders to halt, a nuclear Burma presents other issues of concern.  The Irrawaddy recently reported that some believe Burma’s government is looking to built long-range missiles.  If this is true, these missiles would be within reach of Thailand, among other nearby nations, clearly posing a direct threat to the region.  Additionally, the concern over secrecy and arms sales to terrorists must also be considered, as the reining secrecy in Burma provides no insight into how such a program would be managed.

While many Americans are hearing about these concerns for the first time, experts have been warning about Burmese nuclear ambitions for years. In July 2006, The Australian reported on the nation’s attempt to purchase nuclear technology from North Korea, calling the arrangement “…a frightening new threat to regional security.” According to reports, the U.S. issued warnings to Burma in an effort to show dissatisfaction with the military government’s efforts to engage North Korea. Burma has also sought out Russia to discuss nuclear options, though the Russians allegedly have been unresponsive to these requests; no work has commenced on projects that the two parties agreed to partake in.

While Burma may be seeking nuclear capabilities, some experts have theorized what may be driving the nation’s quest for atomic superiority.  According to analysts and news reports, an unfounded paranoia that the U.S. will attack may be at the center of Burma’s ambitions.  According to a recent Al-Jazeera news documentary, Burma’s military regime has built a countrywide network of underground tunnels.  The documentary reported that North Korea assisted in building these tunnels at an estimated cost of $3 billion and that they are believed to be shelters that would house military members in the event of an attack on the nation.

A Nov. 2007 piece in The Australian quotes Michael Green, a former Bush administration advisor on Asia and Derek Mitchell, the Director for Asia Strategy at The Center for Strategic and International Studies.  Green and Mitchell covered the many issues Burma faces, including human rights violations, poor health care, heroin production, and the spread of HIV/AIDS among the nation’s illegal immigrant population.  Among these issues covered was the “erratic” nature of Burma’s governing regime.  With such constraints on the nation’s internal progress and with a secretive and potentially desperate government at the helm, the thought of a nuclear capable Burma is concerning.

In July 2009, evidence emerged of North Korean involvement in Burma. The Guardian covered Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s warning that there was evidence of military cooperation between North Korea and Burma. At the time, Clinton said:

We know that there are…growing concerns about military co-operation between North Korea and Burma, which we take very seriously…It would be devastating for the region. It would pose a direct threat to Burma’s neighbors.

Six months later, in Jan. 2010, the Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) released a cautious, yet revealing, report stating that while there is no compelling evidence to backup the claim that Burma is working with North Korea to build nuclear weapons, more transparency is needed inside the country. While the document urges concern in making definitive judgments, North Korea’s unpredictable antics cause experts pause. Aside from the worries over North Korea’s potential assistance, the ISIS also warns that an inverse relationship may be occurring in which Burma may be assisting North Korea in the procurement of materials needed to increase nuclear capacity. Either way, the international community is becoming increasingly more wary of Burmese governance. According to the ISIS,

Because North Korea secretly sold a reactor to Syria, a sale which the world’s best intelligence agencies missed until late in the reactor’s construction, no one is willing to turn a blind eye to the possibility of North Korea selling nuclear equipment, materials, or facilities to Burma.

Following the January report, new evidence of nuclear aspirations has been steadily streaming out into the open. In April 2010, the U.K.’s The First Post wrote that “…there is mounting evidence that Burma’s military junta has its own nuclear weapons program.” The article reinforces worries that Burma may follow North Korea’s example and become the world’s next dreaded nuclear-capable rogue state.

Like Iran, Syria and other rogue nations, Burma has landed itself high on the Obama administration’s nuclear priorities list. In a U.S. State Department briefing on April 8, Phillip J. Crowley said that the United States, along with other concerned nations, is engaging Burma in search for a solution. “I think everybody has an interest in stability in the region, seeing Burma emerge from its isolation,” he said.

In June, the nonprofit Burmese media organization Democratic Voice of Burma offered further corroboration that Burma is pursuing nuclear weapons in a report titled, “Nuclear Related Activities in Burma.” In the May report, which was based on pictures and documentation taken by Maj Sai Thein Win, a former Burmese army official, it is written that, though Burma lacks the technological know-how, the nation appears to be intentionally working to refine and develop nuclear technology. The report concludes with high confidence that, “This technology is only for nuclear weapons and not for civilian use or nuclear power.”

With the clock ticking, the potential of a nuclear Burma is concerning both for the Southeast region and for the international community as a whole. North Korea’s involvement as an assistant or a benefactor in this scenario further complicates matters. With Crowley and other U.S. officials acknowledging an alleged nuclear program, while stating their desire for a more open and transparent regime, there is one fact all parties appear to agree on – a nuclear Burma will be an international threat that must be prevented and contained.