Myanmar’s Reforms The Nuclear Dimension
Myanmar’s political reforms continue to receive international approval and support. However, the fact remains that the country’s nuclear activities remain a grey area where greater transparency is definitely required.
In the two years since legislative elections in Myanmar brought a civilian government to power, following almost four decades of repressive rule by a military junta, the country’s leaders have won praise for the changes under way. Though the situation remains complicated and challenging, Myanmar has an invaluable opportunity to resolve the issue of its obscure nuclear programme and to become a more active participant in international forums. Symbolising this, United States President Barack Obama [visited] Myanmar in November.
Internal changes, international recognition
Since taking office in March 2011, President Thein Sein has led reforms that sharply contrast with the rigid authoritarianism that characterised the junta’s rule. The government has released hundreds of political prisoners and has taken steps to liberalise the tightly controlled state economy. It has signed ceasefire agreements with almost all of the armed ethnic-minority rebel groups in the country, voicing its determination to achieve permanent peace with all such groups by 2015. Most famously, Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar’s most revered anti-regime activist, was elected to parliament in an April 2012 by-election, giving her a legitimate voice in politics for the first time in her decades-long struggle for democratic reform.
But even though Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) won all but one of the 44 seats it contested in the by-elections, Myanmar remains in the hands of the military. Its representatives maintain a guaranteed 25% of seats in both houses of parliament and its main proxy party, the Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), currently holds about 75% of the remaining seats.
Myanmar’s military leaders are likely to have embarked on these reforms not for the sake of democratisation itself, but rather as a means to ensure the continuity of military power while allowing for greater international engagement. After two decades of sanctions on investments in the country from the US and Europe, the regime wished to be reintegrated into the international community and thereby to gain access to Western investment and aid for its economy, one of the poorest in Asia. Its military leaders may also have grown weary of depending too much on China, which last year represented 35% of total foreign investments in the country.
In return for Thein Sein’s reforms, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) will allow Myanmar to take its turn as chairman of the regional bloc in 2014 a significant measure given that in 2006 ASEAN denied Myanmar the chairmanship in response to international condemnation of the country’s poor human-rights record. Prominent Western politicians have visited Myanmar one after another to encourage further change.
Myanmar’s nuclear programme is a key area in which the international community will be encouraging the government to be more open. In 2002, Myanmar reached a draft agreement with Russia on the provision of a ten-megawatt research reactor and associated laboratories. Though the project never materialised, as detailed in the 2009 IISS Strategic Dossier Preventing Nuclear Dangers in Southeast Asia and Australia , there have since been concerns that Myanmar has pursued nuclear-weapons-related technologies through other covert means. Some of the accusations that have been made are highly speculative, but others warrant further investigation. Several defectors from Myanmar claimed to have direct knowledge, or even first-hand experience, of a secret nuclear-weapons programme. A Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) report, released in 2010 and co-authored by former International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspector Robert Kelley, appeared to have exposed Myanmar’s nuclear-weapons aspirations. The report, which showed hundreds of photographs of suspicious equipment and facilities provided by a defector, concluded with ‘a high degree of confidence that Burma is pursuing nuclear technology … only for nuclear weapons and not civilian or nuclear power.’
The Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) also released a report in 2010 which outlined a series of purchases in 2006 and 2007 of high-precision, dual-use industrial equipment by Myanmar’s Department of Technical and Vocational Education (DTVE). ISIS concluded that the items were too advanced for the DTVE’s normal educational activities. Because the DTVE at one point shared a physical address with Myanmar’s Department of Atomic Energy (DAE), the ISIS report raised concerns over whether the DTVE acted as a procurement front for the DAE or if the equipment was intended for a nuclear end-use.
Though Kelley’s 2010 DVB report was challenged by ISIS, which offered alternative explanations for the photographed equipment and facilities, both the DVB and the ISIS alleged that Myanmar’s nuclear programme was linked to North Korea. A nuclear connection seemed plausible given North Korea’s record of proliferation and its military relationship with Myanmar. However, evidence of such a relationship is circumstantial, as defectors’ claims have never been verified and the existence of illicit nuclear facilities has never been confirmed.
In June 2011, Myanmar’s vice president, Thiha Thura U Tin Aung Myint Oo, told a visiting US delegation led by Senator John McCain that his country had halted its nuclear research programme because ‘the international community may misunderstand Myanmar over the issue’. Defence Minister Lieutenant General Hla Min reaffirmed at the 2012 IISS Shangri-La Dialogue that Myanmar had formally abandoned its nuclear activities, which according to the general had been entirely civilian in scope, and had also scaled back its military ties with North Korea, promising to make whatever ties remained between the two countries ‘more transparent in the future’. US Special Envoy for North Korea Policy Glyn Daviesconfirmed in October that Myanmar’s leaders had ‘made a strategic decision to fundamentally alter their relationship with the DPRK and to ultimately end these [military] relationships with North Korea’. Myanmar appears to be honouring United Nations sanctions that prohibit military imports from North Korea. While diplomatic relations between the two countries have not officially been altered and trade continues in agricultural products, high-level visits by party and state representatives are on hold.
Even if military ties between the two countries were severed, the exact nature and extent of past bilateral relations remain unclear. Furthermore, the true status of Myanmar’s nuclear activities remains difficult to establish. Hla Min dismissed suggestions that the IAEA should be allowed to verify the absence of undeclared nuclear activity, saying simply that ‘there is nothing to investigate.’ The IAEA currently lacks the verification tools to draw conclusions about any undeclared nuclear activity. Myanmar has not yet signed the Additional Protocol, which would grant IAEA inspectors expanded rights of access to both nuclear-related information and sites, and adheres to an old version of the Small Quantities Protocol (SQP), which holds certain responsibilities for reporting nuclear-related activities in abeyance. Under these old rules, the IAEA does not perform routine inspections in Myanmar and is thus unable to make any evaluations or even to confirm that the country has no more than small quantities of nuclear material.
Until verification has taken place, the possibility that Myanmar had a hidden nuclear programme cannot be dismissed. In the meantime, transparency regarding Myanmar’s past relationship with North Korea would be an important step towards improving its relationships with those countries especially the US that have expressed scepticism and concern over military cooperation between Naypyidaw and Pyongyang.
Myanmar’s reluctance to agree to the more intrusive IAEA inspection measures may be the result of years of isolation and suspicion of the outside world. Its caution may also reflect unfamiliarity with the agency and its activities. In an effort to alleviate Myanmar’s apprehension, the IAEA has established a mode of direct communication with Myanmar, which has no permanent representative in Vienna. It is also offering technical support for new and continuing radiological projects for medical and agricultural purposes.
Resolution of concerns about nuclear activities is important given the potential for significant expansion of Myanmar’s international relations. Foreign investors are clamouring to capitalise on the country’s significant untapped resources, including oil, gas, minerals and gems.
Even before democratic reforms began, some US politicians were arguing for deeper relations with Myanmar to prevent it from becoming, in effect, a province of China. TheUS Department of Defense’s Strategic Guidance released in January 2012 suggested that China’s emergence as a regional power in Asia could affect economic and security interests in the region. Washington’s engagement with Myanmar is thus likely to be driven to some degree by desires to curb China’s influence and to promote its own economic and security strategies.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced after a visit to Myanmar in January that the US would begin the process of exchanging ambassadors with the country for the first time in 12 years. Clinton has since announced the conditional easing of US economic sanctions and the normalisation of commercial relationships. Though bilateral military ties were severed by the US after Myanmar’s army killed more than 3,000 citizens during pro-democracy protests in 1988, an October visit to Myanmar by a military and civilian delegation from the US suggested that these ties could be restored. The Pentagon is considering a request from Thailand to allow a small military contingent from Myanmar to attend the annual multilateral Cobra Goldexercise in February 2013.
The road ahead
As recent clashes between Buddhist Arakanese and Muslim Rohingya in the western part of the country attest, much more burdens the country than its history of military rule. There are many ethnic and religious issues to overcome in order to establish a viable representative government in the longer term. Despite the release of hundreds of political prisoners, hundreds more are thought to remain incarcerated, and though the government has pledged to end domestic media censorship, restrictive press laws that allow the authorities to prosecute journalists and publications deemed to threaten national security remain in place.
The true test of reform will come in three years’ time, when Myanmar is scheduled to hold national elections. If held freely and fairly, the election could allow opposition parties to control parliament, seriously curbing the military’s influence and possibly establishing a government with Aung San Suu Kyi as president. Some analysts posit that military hardliners, fearing ignominy in the 2015 elections, could respond repressively, bringing renewed violence across the country. The likelihood of this, however, may diminish as Myanmar expands its international connections. In this context, the international community may wish to encourage not only more democratic progress, but also transparency that could alleviate lingering worries about Myanmar’s nuclear activities. (ISN)