BY XIAOXIONG YI • June 22, 2010
Myanmar, formerly Burma, is a poor country with an economy in terrible shape and a population in poverty. Its junta, in collaboration with North Korea's Kim Jong-il regime, is trying to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles that, if successful, will dramatically alter Asia's strategic dynamic.
The American Red Cross
In the footsteps of North Korea, the Myanmar regime is pushing ahead with ambitions to become a nuclear power. The ruling generals in Naypyidaw, Myanmar's new capital, are working on a secret program to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, according to confidential documents smuggled out of Myanmar by high-ranking military defectors.
"They really want a bomb, that is their main objective," said former Myanmar army major Sai Thein Win, who also served as the deputy commander of the Myanmar army's nuclear battalion.
North Korea is assisting Myanmar generals with their nuclear weapon programs. According to Brian McCartan of Asia Times, "Two nuclear reactors are believed to be under construction in Myanmar. One, at Naung Laing in central Mandalay Division, is being constructed with North Korean help. Several hundred Myanmar military personnel have undergone nuclear training in North Korea in recent years." Desmond Ball, a defense analyst at Australia National University, thinks the reactor could be online in 2012 and a deliverable weapon could be developed before 2020.
"In many ways, Myanmar is a parallel to North Korea," Aung Zaw, exiled Myanmar journalist and editor of the Thailand-based Irrawaddy, told Al Jazeera, "They live in fear of an invasion by the West and they want the ultimate insurance against regime change."
To make things worse, while Myanmar might be shunned by the West, the country's giant neighbor, China, is working closely with Myanmar generals. Since 1988, Myanmar has become China's closest ally in Southeast Asia and a major recipient of Chinese military hardware.
Beijing sees Myanmar as its "tribute state" to project China's military power into the region and safeguard its new trade routes through Southeast and South Asia. What is perhaps even more important for rulers in Beijing, however, is the "region's bounty -- Southeast Asia's biggest proven gas reserve in Myanmar's Shwe Field. Since 2008, massive works have begun on a pipeline to carry these riches to China," according to the Economist.
Unfortunately, most governments in the region are taking a laissez-faire attitude toward Myanmar generals' nuclear ambitions. Leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation, the two most important regional organizations, are doing nothing to stop the military regime's nuclear program, in accordance with their principle of "non-interference." Japan's Myanmar policy, say Benedict Rogers, author of "A Land without Evil," and Yuki Akimoto, director of Burma-Info in Tokyo, is based on a "misguided view that appeasement will bear fruit. Tokyo is extending political and financial support to Burma's military regime to protect its own short-term economic interests."
Washington's policy toward the Myanmar military regime is, at best, ambiguous. "The Obama administration," writes Bertil Lintner of Far Eastern Economic Review, "has adopted a more conciliatory approach, sending emissaries to Myanmar to 'engage' the generals. But Washington also believes that concern over Myanmar's WMD programs -- and increasingly close ties with North Korea -- should be equally important considerations in any new U.S. policy towards Myanmar."
The Myanmar junta's nuclear ambitions have been known for years, but no one had done anything. It is time for the world to act and send a strong message of "no tolerance" to the paranoid ruling generals in Naypyidaw. An "engagement" strategy with Myanmar junta risks allowing another rogue state to go nuclear, a risk that the world cannot afford to take.
Naypyidaw junta's nuclear scheme might amount to little more than a monumental waste of state resources, but its probable failure should not be a reason for world leaders to regard such a development as negligible. Not only is the total outlay of Myanmar's weapon programs astronomical, running into billions of dollars, but also the world is starting to witness a "bunker mentality" nuclear arms race that represents a clear and present danger, with the rise of terrorist groups that are willing to pay any price for a device.
Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.