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Myanmar close to nuclear bomb

Two Myanmar defectors have claimed their military government is trying to acquire a nuclear bomb in the next five years, the Sydney Morning Herald has reported. The defectors claim Myanmar is building a secret reactor and a plutonium-extraction centre with North Korean help. Pramit Pal Chaudhuri and Rahul Singh report. Graphics: The Nuke Trail

world Updated: Aug 02, 2009 02:13 IST

Two Myanmar defectors have claimed their military government is trying to acquire a nuclear bomb in the next five years, the Sydney Morning Herald has reported.

The defectors, who escaped to Thailand two years ago, claim Myanmar is building a secret reactor and a plutonium-extraction centre with North Korean help.

<b1>The motives for Myanmar, a poor and isolated dictatorship, to go nuclear remain unclear. It has no hostile relations with neighbours. Some believe its junta, paranoid about the outside world, see nuclear weapons as a guarantee against a US attack. It may also want a bargaining chip to tackle Western pressure over democratic rights.

What seems certain is that the junta’s ambitions will add a further burden to the stability of South and Southeast Asia. An Indian defence ministry source, speaking anonymously, said a Myanmar N-test could change “the balance of power in Asia... a matter of concern not just for India but the entire international community”.

Most experts feel Myanmar is unlikely to have reached the reactor-building stage. But the defectors’ claims fit into a pattern of Myanmarese attempts to get nuclear-related expertise over the past eight years.

What is of special concern to India is that Myanmar’s nuclear trail begins with two associates of Pakistani atomic renegade AQ Khan.

Myanmar popped up on the N-radar after 9/11. The US demanded the arrest of two Pakistani nuclear scientists who’d met Osama bin Laden. “Islamabad said it couldn’t find evidence but placed the scientists under house arrest,” said B Raman, a retired Research and Analysis wing officer.

"Two other associates ran off to Myanmar to escape the Americans. Both were part of Pakistan’s military nuclear programme.”

“I don't think they defected. They were encouraged to go by Pakistan,” said G Parthasarathy, an Indian diplomat who served in both Islamabad and Yangon.

The scientists — Suleiman Assad and Mohd Mukhtar — are believed to have arrived in Yangon in November 2001 and were reportedly secreted away by the junta in Sagaing, a Mandalay suburb. “Nothing has been heard about them since,” said Raman.

A few years later, the Myanmar dissidents said they heard the junta had launched a nuclear-related ‘Ayelar Project’, headed by two Pakistanis.

European intelligence, subsequently, kept uncovering orders of high-tech components coming out of Myanmar’s academic institutions with physics departments.

Two months ago, videos and photographs of a mysterious ‘Operation Tortoise Shell’ made their way into Thailand. Under this, North Korea was helping Myanmar make some 800 tunnels over three years (2003-06). The Myanmar defectors claim such tunnels are now being dug in a mountain near Naung Laing and this is where the secret reactor is being built.

By 2006, US intelligence was alarmed at the data they were accumulating. A US National Security Council member told an Australian journalist there was “low-level WMD” cooperation between North Korea and Yangon — and indicated it was nuclear.

This crossed India’s path again in 2007, said Raman. A transport aircraft that flew from North Korea to Myanmar filed a flight path across India to Pakistan. “The US wanted to force the plane down over Indian airspace so they could question the pilot. India banned the aircraft from flying instead.”

It is well-known there was steady airborne trade between Pakistan and North Korea in missile and nuclear parts. This was a sign it may have been, at times, a triangular trade.

Myanmar signed a deal with Russia to build a nuclear research centre with a reactor in 2007. US pressure is said to have put the deal on hold.

Intelligence also found the Myanmar military had begun dealing with the Namchongang Trading Company, known as a conduit for North Korean missile and nuclear parts. One of the defectors was an executive with a Myanmar firm that handled nuclear contracts with Russia and North Korea.

Chan Tun, former Myanmar ambassador to North Korea who became a dissident, said: “To put it plainly: Burma wants to get the technology to develop a nuclear bomb.”

Though the defectors were under interrogation for the last two years, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was the first senior US official to publicly express concern at the nature of the North Korean-Myanmar military cooperation last month.

Most experts said the defectors’ claims that Myanmar had reached the reactor-building level seem far-fetched. Parthasarathy noted defectors have a tendency to say what they believe their hosts want them to say. “But I can’t rule out anything.”