BANGKOK (Reuters) - Military-ruled Myanmar is seeking to develop a clandestine nuclear program with the intent to produce an atomic bomb, according to an investigation by an exiled anti-government group.
A five-year investigation by the Norway-based Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) concluded that Myanmar, formerly Burma, was a long way from producing a nuclear weapon but had gone to great lengths to acquire the technology and expertise to do so.
If true, it would mark the first Southeast Asian country with nuclear ambitions and alter the strategic landscape of a fast-growing region whose big countries — from Indonesia to the Philippines and Thailand — are closely allied with Washington.
A report by DVB, made public this week, cited a U.S. nuclear scientist assessing evidence provided by Sai Thein Win, a Burmese defense engineer trained in Russia in missile technology. He said he had defected after working in factories built to develop weapons of mass destruction.
“Burma is trying to build pieces of a nuclear program, specifically a nuclear reactor to make plutonium and a uranium enrichment program,” said co-author Robert Kelley, a former director of the International Atomic Energy Agency.
Kelley told Reuters that Myanmar’s machinery and equipment appeared to be of a poor quality and that it was a long way from developing a ready-to-use atomic weapon. “They have 1,000 things left to do and are doing them one at a time,” he said.
Nevertheless the report prompted a U.S. Senator, Jim Webb, to cancel a trip to Myanmar on Thursday, which he said would be “unwise and inappropriate” in light of the claim.
Accounts of suspected nuclear plans surfaced last year, but Myanmar has never confirmed or denied any nuclear ambitions.
“This new information is the glue that fixes the pieces together,” Kelley told Reuters. “Sai provided hundreds of color photos, dozens of technical drawings and a document which helps us see the program’s organizational structure.”
Previous claims by defectors suggest Myanmar had enlisted the help of nuclear-armed North Korea, with which it reportedly agreed a memorandum of understanding on military cooperation during a visit by a top junta general to Pyongyang last year.
Admiral Robert Willard, head of the U.S. Pacific command, said he was unaware of nuclear cooperation between the two states, but was “certainly concerned about the relationship between North Korea and Burma given our lack of visibility in both regimes.”
Sai Thein Win came to neighboring Thailand and provided photographs and documents of two factories where he used European machining tools to make prototypes for missile and nuclear facilities, the DVB said in its 30-page report.
According to the report, the European machinery was sold to the Myanmar government through two companies in Singapore. The equipment did not include all necessary components and precision parts for missiles and nuclear applications.
Aung Naing Oo, a Harvard-educated Burmese academic, said the military might try to emulate the tactics of North Korea and try to arm itself to gain leverage with the international community.
“It serves a purpose. The military knows that nuclear weapons are a short-cut to getting on the international radar and earning respect geopolitically,” he said.
Additional reporting by Sylvia Westall in Vienna