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Burma's nuclear ambitions should be a wake-up call to int'l community, including ASEAN. Gerald Giam.

Is Burma going to be Southeast Asia’s Iran or North Korea?

One of the estimated 800 tunnels currently being built in Burma. (Read more about it here.)

Gerald Giam

Asean’s policy of non-interference in member states’ internal affairs has been taken to the extreme to mean closing a blind eye to just about everything Burma does.

Dr Desmond Ball, a professor of strategic and defence studies at Australian National University (ANU), recently published an investigative report that claimed that Burma is secretly building a nuclear reactor and plutonium facilities with the help of North Korea, and aims to possess a nuclear bomb by 2014.

The report, published in the Bangkok Post and reported by AFP, the Sydney Morning Herald and the Times of India, was a result of a two-year investigation based on radio intercepts and interviews with two defectors close to the clandestine operation. Among the revelations in the report were that there is a programme to train up to 1,000 personnel to form a “nuclear battalion”. The country reportedly now has 10 uranium mines, two uranium refineries and two nuclear reactor sites. These reactors could be capable of being operational after 2014 and producing one bomb a year, every year.

In a possibly related incident in June this year, a North Korean ship, the Kang Nam, was shadowed by US warships on its way from North Korea to Burma. The ship was suspected of carrying weaponry, missile parts or nuclear material. As it would have had to pass through Singapore en route to Burma, Singapore would have been expected to act against the ship when it entered Singapore waters.

This led the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to issue a rather revealing statement that “Singapore takes seriously the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, their means of delivery and related materials” and that “(if) the allegation is true, Singapore will act appropriately”.

It is unlikely that MFA would have issued a statement of this nature had it not been given credible information — probably from the US — that the ship contained weapons of mass destruction.

In July, Japanese police arrested a North Korean and two Japanese for allegedly trying to illegally export to Burma a magnetic measuring device that could be used to develop missiles.

These revelations, if true, should be a startling development for all countries in Asia, and in Southeast Asia in particular.

Implications of a nuclear Myanmar

What does a nuclear-capable Burma mean to its neighbours in Asean, the regional grouping of Southeast Asian nations which includes Singapore?

For sure, this would change the dynamics of its relationships with both Asean and major powers dramatically. The military junta that is ruling the country will suddenly become a real security threat to its neighbours. Even if they never use their nuclear arsenal, they would have acquired the ultimate bargaining tool to extract concessions from all the major powers in the world.

To predict what could happen, we need to look no further than North Korea, the country that is allegedly assisting Burma in this endeavour. North Korea first started pursuing nuclear technology as early as the 1950s. Their efforts were stepped up when the US, Japan and South Korea established a military alliance in 1965, and when they realised that their chief ally, the Soviet Union, might not live up to their defence treaty obligations. This culminated in their first nuclear test in 2006 and subsequent one in May this year.

The nuclear tests sent the major powers scrambling to engage North Korea through the Six Party Talks, which included the US and China, the country’s main international ally. From these talks, the North was successful in extracting concessions such as obtaining fuel aid.

Could this be Burma’s plan as well?

Unlike North Korea, none of Burma’s neighbours has a defence alliance with its main enemy, the US. In fact, all its Asean neighbours have signed the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation with each other and Burma. This makes it much less an urgency to defend itself from neighbouring aggressors.

Nevertheless, the junta’s paranoia is easy to underestimate. When a US battleship approached Burma to provide aid to the hundreds of thousands of victims of Cyclone Nargis last year, the junta reportedly thought the US was planning to invade them, and refused the aid that could have alleviated much suffering for its people.

Asean’s reaction

Asean’s reaction to this report has been silence, as expected. The grouping has demonstrated its impotence throughout its dealings with the recalcitrant Burma over the past 10 years. Asean’s policy of non-interference in member states’ internal affairs has been taken to the extreme to mean closing a blind eye to just about everything Burma does.

However, until now, Burma has not been seen as a security threat in the region. Would a nuclear armed Myanmar awaken Asean to the ticking time bomb in their neighbourhood? It certainly ought to.

Asean nations have a heavy responsibility to their own people to do all they can to prevent Burma from enriching their uranium into weapons grade material, and developing the means to deliver a nuclear weapon.

While this appears to be a long way off, Asean should not wait until Burma conducts its first nuclear test before acting. By then, it will be impossible to turn back the clock, as the US, Japan and South Korea are soon discovering with North Korea.

The time to step up the pressure on the junta is now, before they reach the point of no return.

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Read also:

Burma nuclear suspicions rise in light of N KoreaHuffington Post.

Burma’s missile dreamThe Irrawaddy.

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More pictures of Burma's tunnels by The Democratic Voice of Burma: