Last week, word filtered out of Myanmar that the country’s secretive generals were trying to fulfill the fantasy of hawkish generals everywhere. They were trying to build a nuclear bomb, Major Sai Thein Win, a defector from the Myanmar army claimed. To back his claim, he produced evidence in the form of photographs and scientific papers that convinced at least one man who understands nuclear technology quite well: Robert Kelly, former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
“Sai Thein Win is the most important nuclear defector since Mordecai Vanunu defected from Israel in 1986. His information is very specific and backed up by documents and many photos,” Kelley told the Hindustan Times.
According to a Burmese pro-democracy activist, Win is a brilliant engineer who was trained by the Russians for four years at the Moscow Institute of Engineering Physics and the Mendeleev Institute of Chemical Technology. He returned to work in the Myanmar army.
Hailing from Shan State North’s Kyaukme Township, Win was working as the deputy commander of a factory at a place called Myaing. The Myaing factory was built to support the nuclear regiment near Thabeikkyin, the site where, according to the whistleblower, the military junta is trying to build a nuclear weapon.
Asked about the comprehensiveness of Myanmar’s nuke programme, Kelly said: “We have an extremely detailed slice though the programme but there is much we cannot see. We need people from other parts of the programme to give us more slices.”
The former IAEA director, while acknowledging that a report based on just one source is not ideal, and that it is possible to fake photographs, has testified to the credibility of Sai Thein Win’s background. He also says that the photographs appear to be real because of their volume and quality.
“The type of equipment being built is most useful for a weapons programme. The things we see in the photos and drawings look very simple and poorly prepared. Yet the programme he (Win) describes is overly ambitious and the most technically challenging route which Myanmar probably cannot master,” says Kelley.
The other highlights of the expose are evidence of North Korean involvement in Myanmar’s missile programme as well as Russia’s training of Myanmar’s nuclear technicians.
North Korea and Myanmar broke diplomatic ties in 1983. The ties were restored in 2007, and since then, there have been reports of arms exports from North Korea to Myanmar.
“We have been shouting about the nuclear effort for at least 10 years now. The world had grossly underestimated the effort. No doubt the stage is rudimentary, but the junta will leave no stone unturned to protect and prolong its power, a fallout of which is the endeavour to acquire nuclear capability,” says Tint Swe, a member of parliament of the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma, the government-in-exile formed after the victory by the National League for Democracy in the 1990 parliamentary elections.
“It is very important to assess how genuine the expose is. As far as Myanmar’s nuclear intent is concerned, it is inevitable as long as all nuclear weapons are not eliminated. That way, the original sinner is the United States. But definitely, more nuclear weapons in the hands of more countries means more problems,” says Satish Chandra, former deputy National Security Advisor and diplomat.
India has reason to worry about the possibilities of another nuclear and missile armed neighbour on the borders with the country’s distant and troubled Northeast. Moreover, China enjoys better ties with Myanmar than India.
The US, too, is turning its eyes on the secretive country. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has expressed concern at possible nuclear transfers to Myanmar.
“Myanmar’s ambition is three-fold. Globally and regionally, to get negotiating advantage and to corner perceived benefits on the lines of North Korea. And internally, to boost the strength and image of the military junta. But acquisition of nuclear arms will totally upset the ASEAN applecart in the region,” says Rahul K Bhonsle, an expert on security issues.
About the next logical step on part of the international community, Keller says, “Myanmar needs to be forced to sign modern agreements with the IAEA. Its current agreements are out of date and most countries in the world have updated them to give IAEA serious authority to inspect and ask questions. Myanmar graciously ignores IAEA requests for updating these agreements, which although voluntary, are the world standard for countries with nothing to hide.”
The Myanmarese junta has been building bunkers and tunnels to withstand aerial attacks. In 2005-06, they even shifted the country’s capital to a new city, Naypyidaw, which was built in secret. The country’s ruling generals live there, well guarded, and in persistent fear of a US-led invasion though the US has till date shown no interest in invading the country.
A nuclear weapons programme and cosy military ties with North Korea might spur a rethink on that.