Over the past year, South-East Asia’s diplomatic community has tried to sort fact from fiction in a stream of unconfirmed reports from Burma, the region's most isolated and secretive country. Burma’s fledgling nuclear program with Russian assistance and its mysterious connections with North Korea raise concerns in the region about its purpose.
According to Burmese exiles in Thailand, the Russians and North Koreans assist the Burmese in developing nuclear capability. But wary of similar reports by Iraqi exiles a few years ago, which turned out to be false, the international community remains sceptical. In a research paper for Griffith University, for example, Australian scholar Andrew Selth dismisses the reports.
Nevertheless, certain facts are not in doubt. Burma first initiated a nuclear research program as early as 1956, when its then-democratic government set up the Union of Burma Atomic Energy Center, UBAEC, in then-capital Rangoon. Unrelated to the country's defence industries, it came to a halt when the military seized power in 1962. New power-holders, led by General Ne Win did not trust UBAEC head Hla Nyunt.
In February 2001, Burma's present junta, the State Peace and Development Council decided to revitalise the country's nuclear program, and Russia's Atomic Energy Ministry announced plans to build a 10-megawatt nuclear research reactor in central Burma. In July 2001, Burma established a Department of Atomic Energy, believed to be the brainchild of the Minister of Science and Technology, U Thaung, a graduate of Burma's Defense Services Academy and former ambassador to the United States. US-trained nuclear scientist Thein Po Saw was identified as a leading advocate for nuclear technology in Burma.
At a press conference in Rangoon on January 21, 2002, Vice-Chief of Military Intelligence Major-General Kyaw Win issued a statement: “Myanmar's consideration of building a nuclear research reactor is based on the peaceful purposes getting modern technologies needed for the country, availability of radioisotopes being used peacefully, training technicians and performing [a] feasibility study for generation of electricity from nuclear power."
While Burma suffers from chronic power shortages, the need for a research reactor, used mainly for medical purposes, is unclear. Radioisotopes allow imaging of the brain, bones, organs, lungs and blood flow, advanced technology for Burma's basic health services.
However, observers pointed out the Russian-made nuclear-research reactor that the Burmese authorities sought to acquire is similar to the 5-megawatt research reactor that the then Soviet Union installed at Yongbyon in North Korea in 1965, from which North Korea later extracted plutonium for a nuclear device. Burma’s military leaders couldn’t help but notice how North Korea stood up to the US, a harsh critic of the Burmese regime, mainly due to its nuclear program.
Reports have been murky since. In April 2007, days after the restoration of diplomatic ties between Burma and North Korea - broken since North Koreans detonated a bomb in Rangoon in 1983 - a North Korean freighter, the Kang Nam I, docked at Thilawa port. Burmese officials claimed that the ship sought shelter from a storm. But two Burmese reporters working for a Japanese news agency were briefly detained when they went to the port to investigate, indicating possible other, more secret reasons for the visit.
According to the July 2007 issue of the Irrawaddy, a Thailand-based publication by Burmese exiles: "by a strange coincidence, the 2,900-ton North Korean cargo vessel MV Bong Hoafan ... sought shelter from a storm and anchored at a Burmese port last November. The Burmese government reported that an on-board inspection had 'found no suspicious material or military equipment.' But journalists and embassies in Rangoon remained skeptical."
At about the same time, the South Korean news agency Yonhap reported "a North Korean ship under US surveillance was believed to have unloaded self-propelled artillery at a Myanmar port".
The deal with Russia was stalled for several years, but in May 2007, Russia's atomic energy agency, Rosatom, announced construction of the nuclear-research reactor. According to Rosatom, the reactor would use low-enriched uranium, not plutonium. Up to 350 Burmese nationals, most military personnel, already trained in Russia under the initial 2001 agreement, and since then several hundred more trained at Russian institutions.
Signatories of the agreement reached in Moscow on May 15, 2007 were U Thaung and Rosatom head Sergey Kiriyenko. According to Rosatom's press release: "The sides have agreed to cooperate on the establishment of a center for nuclear studies in the territory of Myanmar (the general contractor will be Atomstroyexport). The center will comprise a 10-megawatt light water reactor working on 20 per cent-enriched uranium-235, an activation analysis laboratory, a medical isotope production laboratory, silicon doping system, nuclear waste treatment and burial facilities. The center will be controlled by IAEA."