Burma, according to the junta that has run the place for almost half a century, isn’t wealthy enough to acquire nuclear weapons. At least that’s what government officials told US Sen. John McCain during his tour there to assess the country’s changing politics.
The subtext of McCain’s visit was important. Burma would like to convince the world that it’s changing from a military-run junta to a government dominated by civilians. About 2,000 political prisoners remain behind bars and last year’s elections were widely regarded as a sham.
Of rising concern are Burma’s military ties with North Korea. Washington has suspected Naypyidaw has for years been running a covert nuclear programme with support from a nuclear-capable Pyongyang, although there’s no verifiable evidence that such a programme exists.
Still, concerns persist, with nuclear proliferation among ‘ambitious’ states like Iran, Pakistan, North Korea and Burma topping the international diplomatic agenda.
McCain insisted Burma’s new government had to abide by its international obligations and uphold UN Security Council resolutions in regards to non-proliferation, as well as cease any military cooperation with North Korea as required by international law.
In response to McCain’s urging for an end to military ties with North Korea, official state media quoted Vice President Tin Aung Myint Oo as telling the US politician: ‘Myanmar (Burma) is in no position to take account of nuclear weapons and does not have enough economic strength to do so.’
The response is questionable. Information sharing among dubious governments has an obvious impact on efforts to bring costs down, (Best estimates reckon Pakistan’s nuclear programme cost it at the very least $5.5 billion over a 20 year period, 1978-1998). Throw into the equation the Burmese military’s ability to raise capital through mining and resource exploitation like timber, and in particular international gem sales, and the cry poor defence from the Vice President rings a little hollow.
In March, Burmese gem dealers enjoyed record sales, selling $2.8 billion worth of precious stones during a 12-day emporium. A similar figure was matched over three emporiums held in the capital over 2010, despite Western sanctions imposed on the country.
Some sources have suggested the costs of a nuclear programme could be higher than the Pakistan numbers imply, particularly if costs associated with delivery systems like ballistic missiles are included. Still, Naypyidaw has the ability, contacts and the resources to kick start any atomic ambitions.
A tongue-tied Tin Aung Myint Oo virtually admitted so when he also insisted Burma was abiding by UN resolutions and has halted a peaceful nuclear research programme supported by Russia because the world might ‘misunderstand’ Naypyidaw’s intentions.