Features | Security | Southeast Asia

The Other Ticking Nuclear Clock

Reports that Burma’s military junta has received assistance with constructing nuclear facilities from North Korea and Pakistan are causing a headache for Indian strategists, reports Rajeev Sharma.

While Iran’s acts of defiance in the face of international condemnation of its secretive nuclear programme continue to make headlines, and while the United States focuses on getting North Korea to return to the six-party denuclearisation talks, another nuclear clock is ticking quietly away in Southeast Asia.

Burma, ruled with an iron fist by a military junta that seized power in a coup in 1962, confirmed plans to build a nuclear research reactor, with Russian assistance, for ‘peaceful purposes’ back in early 2002. Since then, select students and army officers have undergone nuclear orientation and training in Moscow, while nuclear physics departments have been established at the universities of Rangoon and Mandalay, with enrolment controlled by the junta.

But it is the persistent reports of a secret programme being undertaken with North Korean assistance, based in part on information from defectors, that are troubling Indian policymakers already distracted by border tensions with China and Pakistan.

Indeed, Colonel R Hariharan, a retired military intelligence analyst who specializes in South Asia, says if such rumours are true they would introduce a new strategic nuclear paradigm to the region and in the process make life extremely complicated for India’s military planners.

‘It might lead to a situation not dissimilar to India’s western front, where it’s facing an unstable, nuclear Pakistan,’ he says. ‘Even though it seems unlikely Myanmar [Burma] would invest in such a nuclear game, India will still be forced to keep a careful watch over developments.’

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Burma’s nuclear interest has been fuelled by significant uranium deposits discovered in areas including Magwe, Taungdwingyi and Kyaukphygon, as well as some largely untouched in southern Tanintharyi Division-formerly Tenasserim Division-although Russia is said to be involved in the limited mining operation there.

The government is also reportedly actively exploring other potential uranium production sites in, among other locations, Tagong and Moe Meik, while a team of Russian and Burmese engineers from early 2007 were reportedly drilling for uranium in Hawng-Pa village.

Such activity, combined with rumours of covert North Korean involvement and a Burmese regime that seems willing to do anything to stay in power, has generated enough concern among Indian policymakers for it to create a dossier of what it believes has been going on, a copy of which was shown to this correspondent by a senior government official who asked to remain anonymous.

The dossier first lays out the background of Burma’s alleged interest in nuclear technology, beginning in December 2000, when it indicated it was interested in establishing a nuclear research centre with Russian assistance that was to have included building a 10 megawatt light-water research reactor.

However, in September 2005, with Burma apparently unable to afford the full cost of the reactor, it was decided that the Russian Ministry for Atomic Energy would play a supervisory role and provide the necessary fuel and expertise for the facility, while Burmese authorities would handle its construction. An agreement to this effect was finally signed by the two countries in May 2007.

The facility, known as the ‘Myaing Reactor or Nyaungone Project,’ was to be constructed near Anesakhan on a flat expanse of land surrounded on all sides by steep hills, and placed under IAEA safeguards. It was not supposed to be capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.

However, the agreement could not be implemented as Burma did not comply with IAEA guidelines requiring it to properly advise the nuclear body of its plans. Since then, and despite repeated prodding from Russia, Burma has not approached the IAEA, scuppering the prospects of progress between the two on the facility. Indeed, according to the dossier, it was Russia’s insistence on transparency that prompted Burma to look elsewhere for assistance in setting up a reactor-namely from North Korea.

Burma is said in the dossier to be building a 10 megawatt light water research reactor inside a mountain complex at Naung Laing in the north of the country, while North Korea has also built a huge underground bunker at Taungdwingyi next to a known uranium ore site.

Meanwhile, during visits by delegations of scientists led by a man known as Dr. Zaifullah, a deputy of notorious Pakistani scientist A Q Khan, in August and December 2005, Pakistan is believed to have offered nuclear technology cooperation, including the training of Burmese scientists. Under the agreement, Burmese officials from the Ministry of Science and Technology and Armed Forces are said to have attended a 12-month course on the ‘Adverse Effects of Nuclear and Biological Weapons.’

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C S Kuppuswamy, who has been closely tracking Burma’s exploits in the nuclear sector, says that prior to former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf’s visit to Burma in 2001, three Pakistani naval vessels-a submarine, a tanker and a destroyer-that made port calls to Burma and Pakistan are known to have supplied conventional weapons to Burma.

If true, analysts say such co-operation would only add to a sense of encirclement among Indian officials already acutely aware of an unstable and nuclear-armed Pakistan and a tense border dispute in Arunachal Pradesh with China.

And they believe Burma’s geo-strategic significance-and China’s covert military and strategic assistance-should be seen in the context of the Indian Ocean Region (IOR) as a whole.

According to Sanjaya Baru, a former media advisor to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, force projection capacity in the IOR is essential for India. ‘We’re visible in East Africa due to our successful anti-piracy missions,’ he says. ‘But we have to show our presence in the Indian Ocean Region by rethinking the way we deploy our forces.’

The IOR stretches from Africa across to Australia and is the third largest water body in the world, with includes 33 littoral states. Eighty percent of China’s and 65 percent of India’s oil is shipped through this region.

‘The IOR is important because most of our energy and trade supplies flow through the area, so it needs to be protected,’ says Nitin Pai, a fellow at the Takshashila Institution, a non-profit trust in Chennai, Tamil Nadu. ‘We need to be ready to redeploy our forces to protect our strategic interests, especially as China is continuing to play its strategic games.’

Commodore (retired) Uday C. Bhaskar goes further, complaining that India has actually been going backward in this regard. ‘India allowed the influence it generated following the 2004 tsunami to be diluted because of its continued absence in Southeast Asia and the region,’ says Bhaskar, who currently heads the National Maritime Foundation, a New Delhi-based think tank.

In the near-term, the first task for Indian diplomats trying to regain their footing will be to face up to the challenge of how to handle the first multi-party elections in Burma in more than four decades of junta rule, which are scheduled for this year as part of the country’s seven-step roadmap to democracy.

But even if all goes smoothly, with the junta determined to hang on to power and apparently receiving covert support from Pakistan and North Korea (and moral support from China), there seems nothing that India–or any other country–can do as it hurtles down the nuclear road.