Business, Finance & Economics

Fears of a nuclear Burma


BANGKOK — In the eyes of U.S. leaders, North Korea and Burma have long assumed roles of Asia’s villains.

Both are run by military regimes as paranoid as they are oppressive. The thought of either possessing a nuclear weapon potent enough to scorch a rival country is terrifying indeed.

Now, with the two reclusive nations strengthening military ties, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is among the openly disturbed. A patchwork of evidence suggests that Burma, with the help of North Korean scientists and Russian advisers, wants to cobble together a nuclear weapons program — even as Burma’s state-run power agencies struggle to keep the lights on for its citizens.

Among leaders from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations — a group that includes Burma — Clinton this week said the U.S. takes the potential of a nuclear Burma very seriously. “It would be destabilizing for the region,” Clinton said. “It would pose a direct threat to Burma's neighbors. And it is something, as a treaty ally of Thailand, that we are taking very seriously.”

WHAT’S THE EVIDENCE? There is no smoking gun. But analysts and U.S. officials have cited a confluence of events that suggest nuclear ambitions in Burma, also called Myanmar.

North Korean engineers, who specialize in building tunnels and underground bunkers, have led a massive construction project in Naypyidaw, the regime’s remote capital. This network of 800-odd tunnels, exposed by Burma expert Bertil Lintner, is quite like the subterranean facilities in which North Korea’s defense department has built up a fledgling nuke program away from satellites’ prying cameras. Just this month, the North Korean military defiantly launched a fresh round of test missiles into the sea.

Waves of Burmese military officers have also studied nuclear science in Russia, which has already sold MIG-29 fighter jets to the regime.

But perhaps most worrisome is the Burma-bound North Korean freighter bearing an unknown shipment of military supplies that nearly reached its destination. It reversed course — for weather reasons, according to North Korea — after U.S. Navy vessels trailed it for miles. The ship’s contents remain unclear but, according to the Associated Press, one South Korean analyst cited satellite images that suggested it was equipment for a nuclear program.

WHO CAN SWAY BURMA? Certainly the leadership in China, Burma’s top trading partner, but Beijing prefers not to interfere. Non-interference is also the stated policy of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations or ASEAN, the U.S.-friendly 10-country alliance that is currently meeting with Clinton.

Burma has repeatedly embarrassed ASEAN, which has been criticized for partnering with the junta even through accusations of military-sanctioned gang rape, shelling of ethnic minority villages and vapid charges against Aung San Suu Kyi, an imprisoned pro-democracy figure beloved by the West.

“Why does (ASEAN) bow down as low as Burma? And accept standards set by Burma on human rights?” said Sinapan Sammydoraj of the Task Force on ASEAN Migrant Workers. He and others have lambasted the association this week for allowing Burma to join an ASEAN human rights agreement perceived as toothless.

“That is shameful,” he said. “I don’t know what claw the U.S. has regarding human rights (in Burma).”

Clinton has used the meeting, a roundtable on matters ranging from the economy to swine flu, to censure the junta. She has pressured neighboring Thailand, a veteran U.S. ally, to draw a harder line on Burma while reiterating that the U.S. would warm to the junta if it improved its treatment of Burmese citizens. At the same time, North Korean officials are pleading with Thai ministers to ensure that the meeting doesn’t devolve into a North Korea-Burma bashing session.

WHAT’S THE OBAMA POLICY ON BURMA? So far, there isn’t one. It hasn’t been updated since the Bush administration, which cast Burma as an “Axis of Evil” B-teamer and sought minimal engagement.

Even Burmese pro-democracy exiles are eagerly awaiting an Obama adminstration that engages the junta and goes beyond “condemnation from the podium,” said Aung Zaw, who runs The Irrawaddy, a magazine for Burma’s exiled diaspora.

“That’s why these talks are just talks,” he said. “They heighten attention for a period of time and then Burma is locked down again. The military knows it can get away with it.”

Read more on Burma:

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Opinion: Will Obama stand up to North Korea?